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10 October 2017updated 09 Sep 2021 5:19pm

Down the Universal Credit rabbit hole – what happened when East Lothian changed benefits systems

Those who gained under Universal Credit got 34p more a week. Those who lost out, lost ten times as much.

By Martin Whitfield

“Universal Credit is a monthly payment to help with your living costs.” And so the government website describes the new benefit. Universal Credit brings together six means-tested benefits and moves a claimant into an Alice in Wonderland world where logic and humanity are replaced by confusion, muddle and pain. Universal Credit (UC) continues to be “rolled out” notwithstanding cross-party calls to halt it (including from some Tories). Welfare and charity organisations have also urged a pause. But why are these calls being made?

Here in East Lothian, population 103,000, we fell down the rabbit hole way back in May 2015. As a Universal Credit trial area, working age people who reported to the job centre were put onto the new benefit. This was extended in March 2016 to cover all working age people who were claiming benefits. These existing claimants were moved from their old benefit to Universal Credit.

The Department for Work and Pensions promised that the trial areas would allow them to “test a wide range of capabilities underpinning the end to end service in a live environment”. This raised the expectation that if tests showed problems, these could be identified and rectified. But the government has refused to listen to the experiences of claimants.

In East Lothian, the experience has been horrific. The application must be made online, a challenge to those with limited access to the internet or limited experience with computers. In this dehumanising process you reach page five before its asks your name, although you have already had to confirm how many children live with you and created a username and password.

This creates your online journal, and it is through this you communicate with your case manager. Indeed, before I can help a claimant, they must put my name in the journal to allow me to talk with the DWP – or not, depending on who I talk to at the DWP.

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Once you’ve got through this process, there is then a seven day waiting period before you can claim. No money, no help. Then you must wait for your first payment, which the DWP says will take “up to six weeks” although a significant number of claimants will wait upwards of eight weeks or longer before receiving any money. One local example waited four months. What do you do for money? In East Lothian, a lot of people I heard from were forced to use savings, or turn to friends and family, food bank and emergency loans.

Once you are being paid, your troubles are not over. The payment of Universal Credit is conditional on a number of factors known as the “claimant commitment”. For a lot of people, this will include attending a Jobcentre for interview and proving through the journal you are seeking employment. This is not unreasonable on its own. However, if you are faced with a challenge, such as not being able to access your journal or being unable to attend interview because of illness, a doctor’s appointment, or a funeral, then experience shows these excuses may result in you being sanctioned. You then need to request a mandatory reconsideration. But how do you actually prove you were at a funeral? What determines the length of a sanction is hugely complex, but they can last up to 1,094 days. Where are these people turning for help?

The Citizens Advice Bureau in East Lothian, along with the council’s welfare and housing teams, have worked incredibly hard to help people navigate their way through the Universal Credit rabbit hole.

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A recent report took a two-week snapshot of Universal Credit in January 2017. This objective evidence looked at the financial effect and compared this with the legacy benefits the client would have been entitled to. These are real people and not notional case studies. The study found that 31 per cent saw an increase in their money, 8 per cent stayed the same and 52 per cent saw a decrease. Of those who saw an increase, the median amount gained was 34p a week, while for those that saw a reduction the median amount was £44.72 a week. Among the disabled, the 19 per cent who saw an increase in money averaged 29p, while the 64 per cent who saw a reduction averaged £61.51 per week.

One constituent describes the Universal Credit process as having “no compassion or time frames, the system is not transparent, with no human element. All is conducted through your online journal, with not one key contact. The communication is shocking and the entire system feels fractured and in disarray.”

This system is not just failing individuals and claimants, but it is also a system failing in objective terms. 

“Either it brings tears to their eyes, or else -” “Or else what?” said Alice, for the Knight had made a sudden pause. “Or else it doesn’t, you know.”

The question for government is: does it bring tears to your eyes? It should.

Martin Whitfield is the Labour MP for East Lothian.