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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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Can a “Momentum moment” revive the fortunes of Germany’s SPD?

Support for the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) has sunk into third place, behind the far right Alternative for Germany.

Germany has crossed a line: for the first time in the history of the federal republic, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has sunk into third place, polling just 15.5 per cent – half a point behind the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). The poll was published on the day the SPD membership received their postal ballots on whether to enter another grand coalition with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, and inflamed debate further.

For the grassroots coalition opposed to the so-called GroKo (Große Koalition) the poll is proof that the SPD needs a fundamental change of political direction. Within the two grand coalitions of recent years, the SPD has completely lost its political profile. The beneficiary each time has been the far right. Yet another GroKo seems likely to usher in the end of the SPD as a Volkspartei (people’s party). Taking its place would be the AfD, a deeply disturbing prospect.

For the SPD leadership, the results are proof that the party must enter a grand coalition. Failure to do so would likely mean new elections (though this is disputed, as a minority government is also a possibility) and an SPD wipeout. The SPD’s biggest problem, they argue, is not a bad political programme, but a failure to sell the SPD’s achievements to the public.

But is it? The richest 45 Germans now own as much as the bottom 50 per cent. According to French economist Thomas Piketty, German income inequality has now sunk to levels last seen in 1913. Perhaps most shockingly, the nominally left-wing SPD has been in government for 16 of the last 20 years. Whatever it has been doing in office, it hasn’t been nearly enough. And there’s nothing in the present coalition agreement that will change that. Indeed, throughout Europe, mainstream left parties such as the SPD have stuck to their economically centrist programmes and are facing electoral meltdown as a result.

The growing popular anger at the status quo is being channeled almost exclusively into the AfD, which presents itself as the alternative to the political mainstream. Rather than blame the massive redistribution of wealth from the bottom to the top, however, the AfD points the finger at the weakest in society: immigrants and refugees.

So how can the SPD turn things around by the next federal election in 2021? 

The party leadership has promised a complete programme of political renewal, as it does after every disappointing result. But even if this promise were kept this time, how credible is political renewal within a government that stands for more of the same? The SPD would be given the finance ministry, but would be wedded to an austerity policy of no new public debt, and no increased tax rises on the rich. 

SPD members are repeatedly exhorted to separate questions of programmatic renewal from the debate about who leads the party. But these questions are fundamentally linked. The SPD’s problem is not its failure to make left-wing promises, but the failure of its leaders to actually keep them, once in office.

The clear counter-example for genuine political renewal and credibility is, of course, Labour under Jeremy Corbyn. In spite of all dire warnings that a left-wing programme was a sure-fire vote-loser, Labour’s massively expanded membership – and later electorate – responded with an unprecedented and unforeseen enthusiasm. 

A radical democratic change on the lines of Labour would save the SPD party from oblivion, and save Germany from an ascendent AfD. But it would come at the cost of the careers of the SPD leadership. Sadly, but perhaps inevitably, they are fighting it tooth and nail.

Having promised an “especially fair” debate, the conflict over the GroKo has suddenly surged to become Germany’s Momentum moment - and the SPD leadership is doing everything it can to quash the debate. Party communications and so-called “dialogue events” pump out a pro-GroKo line. The ballots sent out this week came accompanied by an authoritative three-page letter on why members should vote for the grand coalition.

Whether such desperate measures have worked or not will be revealed when the voting result is announced on 4 March 2018. Online, sentiment is overwhelmingly against the GroKo. But many SPD members (average age is 60) are not online, and are thought to be more conservative.

Whatever the outcome, the debate isn’t going away. If members can decide on a grand coalition, why not on the leadership itself? A direct election for the leadership would democratically reconnect the SPD with its grassroots.

Unless the growth in inequality is turned around, a fundamental reboot of the SPD is ultimately inevitable. Another grand coalition, however, will postpone this process even further. And what will be left of the SPD by then?

Steve Hudson is a Momentum activist and a member of both Labour and the SPD. He lives in Germany, where he chairs the NoGroKo eV campaign group.