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.