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I was under 18 when I claimed Universal Credit – delays almost left me homeless

As the controversial new benefit is rolled out across the UK, one young claimant tells their story.

As a new system, Universal Credit was not set to be without flaws. This is presumably why the government decided to have early roll-out areas, to pilot the scheme and test whether it works or not.

I was one of the "lucky" people to be a Universal Credit claimant in an early roll-out location.

In other words, I got to experience a lot of the early flaws of the system first-hand.

At the time I claimed, I was under the age of 18. I was a vulnerable young person who was estranged from my parents. This meant that in terms of my claim, I would not need to wait seven days before it began to be processed and I could expect money into my account.

Unfortunately, my first major failure from the system began here. Once I stepped into the Jobcentre, the income support rules appeared to be nonexistent. So did any staff training on how to deal with someone under 18 trying to claim Universal Credit. It was, it seemed, a learn-on-the-job thing.

I had a small amount of money left over from a summer job, and thankfully I was able to take it in my stride. I sympathised with Jobcentre staff more than anything, as I was a different case to the norm.

Then the second major flaw occurred. It was the time that my second payment was supposed to come in, but didn't. I found myself calling back every day and involved in long exchanges within my journal (as the Universal Credit claimant account is called) for the next 19 days. Yet I could not find out why I wasn't receiving the payment. 

Each person who answered the phone, and each journal entry I read, seemed to give me a different answer. One day, they needed more evidence. Another, they needed permission to contact a third party (which I had said on several occasions would be fine). On several occasions, my requests were merely read and seemingly ignored.

As a vulnerable young person, I undeniably found this situation stressful. On top of residual anger and pressure to do well from college, I become increasingly more confused, and I worried about being unable to afford things. I wasn’t in a good frame of mind at the time, and I needed to recuperate from the situation which led me to claim Universal Credit in the first place.

The worst thing of all was that every day, for almost three weeks, I had to take up to an hour trying to find out what was going on, just to be fobbed off or asked for evidence that had never been requested before. (All this, may I add, was after being accepted for Universal Credit, and a decision being made that I was eligible for it).

The Jobcentre staff had no idea why the benefit had been stopped, so the only way to try to get an answer was by ringing the Universal Credit helpline. This was clogged up with other new claimants, who also faced problems and needed to complain. Luckily, I was on a capped phone contract, as paying for more than ten hours of calls would have been unsustainable, especially as my small amount of holiday job pay was already running very low.

I was lucky enough to have a brilliant support network of friends. They stepped in to cover my food and rent costs, and were happy enough to lend me money for credit and other expenses if necessary. If I had not had such good friends, I would be homeless now, struggling to make ends meet and only barely an adult.

After running through documents proving that I was in further education, and all the other information that was requested, I had still received no response from the Universal Credit team. Eventually, I approached a youth charity and asked them to speak on my behalf.

The conversation took 40 minutes. The service centre worker on the phone "confirmed my estrangement" (which had already been done a month ago, which was how I got my first payment). Finally, the money was released into my account. I have never got to the bottom of why it was stopped. All I know is that I had 19 days of undue stress and I needed to be entirely reliant on young people, and their parents respectively, for financial support.

The Department for Work and Pensions has been contacted for comment.

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Why Jeremy Corbyn’s evolution on Brexit matters for the Scottish Labour party

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, an ideological ally of Corbyn, backs staying in the customs union. 

Evolution. A long, slow, almost imperceptible process driven by brutal competition in a desperate attempt to adapt to survive. An accurate description then by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, of Labour’s shifting, chimera of a Brexit policy. After an away day that didn’t decamp very far at all, there seems to have been a mutation in Labour’s policy on customs union. Even McDonnell, a long-term Eurosceptic, indicated that Labour may support Tory amendments when the report stages of the customs and trade bills are finally timetabled by the government (currently delayed) to remain in either “The” or “A” customs union.

This is a victory of sorts for Europhiles in the Shadow Cabinet like Emily Thornberry and Keir Starmer. But it is particularly a victory for Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard. A strong ally of Jeremy Corbyn who comes from the same Bennite tradition, Leonard broke cover last month to call for exactly such a change to policy on customs union.

Scotland has a swathe of marginal Labour-SNP seats. Its voters opted voted by a majority in every constituency to Remain. While the Scottish National Party has a tendency to trumpet this as evidence of exceptionalism – Scotland as a kind-of Rivendell to England’s xenophobic Mordor – it’s clear that a more Eurocentric, liberal hegemony dominates Scottish politics. Scotland’s population is also declining and it has greater need of inward labour through migration than England. It is for these reasons that the SNP has mounted a fierce assault on Labour’s ephemeral EU position.

At first glance, the need for Labour to shift its Brexit position is not as obvious as Remainers might have it. As the Liberal Democrat experience in last year’s general election demonstrates, if you want to choose opposing Brexit as your hill to die on… then die you well may. This was to some extent replicated in the recent Scottish Labour Leadership race. Anas Sarwar, the centrist challenger, lost after making Brexit an explicit dividing line between himself and the eventual winner, Leonard. The hope that a juggernaut of Remainer fury might coalesce as nationalist resentment did in 2015 turned out to be a dud. This is likely because for many Remainers, Europe is not as high on their list of concerns as other matters like the NHS crisis. They may, however, care about it however when the question is forced upon them.

And it very well might be forced. One day later this year, the shape of a deal on phase two of the negotiations will emerge and Parliament will have to vote, once and for all, to accept or reject a deal. This is both a test and an incredible political opportunity. Leonard, a Scottish Labour old-timer, believes a deal will be rejected and lead to a general election.

If Labour is to win such an election resulting from a parliamentary rejection of the Brexit deal, it will need many of those marginal seats in Scotland. The SNP is preparing by trying to box Labour in. Last month its Westminster representatives laid a trap. They invited Corbyn to take part in anti-Brexit talks of opposition parties he had no choice but to reject. In Holyrood, Nicola Sturgeon has been ripping into the same flank that Sarwar opened against Richard Leonard in the leadership contest, branding Labour’s Brexit position “feeble”. At the same time the Scottish government revealed a devastating impact assessment to accompany the negative forecasts leaked from the UK government. If Labour is leading a case against a “bad deal”,  it cannot afford to be seen to be SNP-lite.

The issue will likely come to a head at the Scottish Labour Conference early next month, since local constituency parties have already sent a number of pro-EU and single market motions to be debated there. They could be seen as a possible challenge to the leadership’s opposition to the single market or a second referendum. That is, If these motions make it to debate, unlike at national Labour Conference in 2017, where there seemed to be an organised attempt to prevent division.

When Leonard became leader, he stressed co-operation with the Westminster leadership. Still, unlike the dark “Branch Office” days of the recent past, Scottish Labour seems to be wielding some influence in the wider party again. And Scottish Labour figures will find allies down south. In January, Thornberry used a Fabian Society speech in Edinburgh, that Enlightenment city, to call for a dose of Scottish internationalism in foreign policy. With a twinkle in her eye, she fielded question after question about Brexit. “Ah…Brexit,” she joked. “I knew we’d get there eventually”. Such was Thornberry’s enthusiasm that she made the revealing aside that: “If I was not in the Leadership, then I’d probably be campaigning to remain in the European Union.”