The government is set to cut the six week initial waiting time for Universal Credit, Sky News reports. If this retreat on welfare is true, it’s welcome. The expectation that people forced to rely on this country’s meagre safety net would somehow have the cash to tide themselves over for six weeks was always fantasy.
As increasingly panicked reports from the areas where the new “streamlined” benefit is being rolled out attest, six weeks is a long time when you have no money in your pocket, and rent and bills to pay. Claimants can get an advance payment, but this can easily turn into yet another debt to pay. Evictions are mounting, and stories from frontline workers are harrowing – such as the one from a foodbank manager, who met a young boy picking through the bins while his mother waited for her first Universal Credit payment.
All the same, there is not much to celebrate. Commuting the waiting time from six weeks to five, as the report suggests will happen, still means a very long wait for access to food or heating, or the resources to pay your rent and other bills. It suggests that Universal Credit will still be structured around a monthly payment, and allocated based on monthly income – even though Resolution Foundation research found the majority of claimants had previously been paid weekly or fortnightly, and many in-work recipients have different hours from month to month. Nor does there seem to be any movement on the fact that Universal Credit is paid to only one member of the household – a structure ripe for abuse. And then there’s the whole question of whether the benefit designed to “make work pay” is actually penalising workers, since any increases in payment under the new system are minimal.
Most worryingly, though, a climbdown on the waiting period does nothing to address the cause of much Universal Credit misery – the glitches. As an anonymous Universal Credit manager wrote for the New Statesman, benefits case managers are overwhelmed, with 300 cases on the go at once. A rigid, automised priority list means that many claims with fall through the cracks. With Jobcentres closing, claimants are set to be even more reliant on communicating with these overworked staff through online messaging or crowded phonelines.
Glitches, unlike the six week waiting period, are individual by definition. At the New Statesman, we’ve heard from someone who was under 18 when they claimed, and spent 19 days going back and forth before receiving a second payment. Then there was the woman who was sanctioned for missing a Jobcentre appointment because her son was in hospital, but found her appeal blocked by the administrators Universal Credit. Or the cancer patient who had her payments stopped while trying to explain a complicated living arrangement during her fifth round of chemo, all without getting to speak to someone face to face. Or the working mum who found her unpredictable hours wrongly caused administrators to take £400 from her payment. Until recently, claimants had to pay to call an expensive number to sort such issues out.
Whether or not you think Universal Credit is a good thing – and most policymakers approve of it in theory – there is no doubt it is the most dramatic overhaul of the benefits system in recent years. Rethinking structural flaws like the six week waiting period is sensible. Glitches are to be expected. Yet unless there are compassionate, responsive people ready to respond when they occur, Universal Credit will still wreak havoc. The government should pause the roll out and start recruiting the welfare staff it needs instead.