There is a new headline bashing Universal Credit every day. If you are like me, you might read the headline, decide it is too depressing to click on, then find the latest story about what those drones at Gatwick were REALLY about.
I’ve never cared for politics. To me, it is pundits arguing over how clever someone’s heckle at Prime Minister’s Questions was, or people making unfunny memes from Newsnight clips. It’s my uncles debating whether Theresa May will last the year. I know it’s important, but I also find it dull and uninteresting.
And I lump in Universal Credit with everything else.
That is, until the new system rolls out to my family and my dad asks me to help him navigate the website. Universal Credit replaces tax credits and means-tested benefits and ties them altogether. Most people eventually on Universal Credit will be working people. When the roll-out is complete, eight million people will be on it.
As a student, I am well versed in over-wrought paperwork, so the hours it takes me to fill out the online forms does not faze me. Weeks after my parents have visited the Jobcentre for their ID verifications (the online system of checking ID does not work), I am in bed when I hear my dad’s phone ping.
It is 3:40am on a Sunday morning. “You need to read a message in your Universal Credit journal. Sign in to your online account today,” the message says.
I check the website later that morning. There is no update.
A few days later, I realise that Universal Credit has calculated that my family deserve £0 this month, so I call up. (My repeated written requests for help via the “online journal” have been ignored.)
A voice service tells me repeatedly that everything is “quick and easy to do through your online account” and that my online account “can be accessed 24 hours a day.” Eventually the voice service gives up and puts me through to a human. The human, thankfully, is kind and understanding.
“There is a discrepancy,” she tells me. “Mhmm… very strange.” She puts me on hold and later explains that our Housing Association had listed our flat (through another new government website called the “The Landlord’s Portal”) as having one bedroom instead of two. The assumption is that we are acting fraudulently. If she and I both email them, she says, hopefully this will all be sorted out very quickly.
When I talk to friends and family about Universal Credit, an oft-repeated phrase is that “it’s a good idea, but it has been poorly implemented”. Little thought is put into this statement. It’s designed to make you sound more informed than you actually are. People talk about the implementation of Universal Credit as if they’re talking about Gareth Southgate’s decision to let the England players hang out with their families during the World Cup.
Universal Credit affects too many lives. It’s not just a new means of welfare. As Iain Porter, policy officer for the Children’s Society, tells me, the ideals of Universal Credit have been “thrashed by budget cuts.” Universal Credit is, itself, a massive welfare cut.
Universal Credit is linked to your phone. Every time the system has something that it wants you to update on the system, it will text you. You cannot ignore it. For some reason it does not do this when you have a new statement.
It’s a system that makes you feel less than. As my mum tells me over a cup of tea (in Tamil, but I’ll translate): “It’s not as if we’re criminals.”
And then there are the people without ready access to the internet. Universal Credit is a system that lives online. It’s a system that tells people without access to the internet to visit their local library. It’s a system that requires some of this country’s most vulnerable people to find multiple forms of ID.
Porter tells me that the online-only system has had the the biggest impact on the most vulnerable people in this country. He says that for young adults who have just left the care system and have no family to fall back on, “the cost of the bus to the library, or to go to the Jobcentre at a moment’s notice” all adds up.
Tracy Fraser, the assistant housing manager at Paisley Housing Association, says plenty of issues have cropped up when helping her tenants. She says “a lot of people haven’t yet developed internet skills and therefore are reluctant users of the website. They worry about ‘clicking on the wrong thing’.” Fraser goes on to note that joint claims (like my family’s) can take up to three hours to complete (even when experienced staff help).
While local councils and Housing Associations set up teams to help people who will struggle with the online forms, Citizens Advice were handed £39m to be the official helpline for Universal Credit. Approximately one in ten people on Universal Credit currently have asked Citizens Advice for help. That is around 175,000 people.
Lindsey Kearton, senior policy officer for Citizens Advice, tells me that she believes that the transition to Universal Credit for a person should be more automatic. At the moment the emphasis is all on the individual. Currently only new claimants and those who have a change of circumstances are being transferred to Universal Credit. Nevertheless, any delays and that’s your fault. Kearton fears many people are losing out on months worth of payments, and even worse, not applying for UC in the first place due to their unfamiliarity with the internet.
Kearton also tells me something that shocks me. Universal Credit is not online only. There are other ways to apply. This is not the impression I got from the voice service or the websites or the posters. She tells me that the government should be pushing these services more.
She also tells me that the website that councils and Housing Associations use, the Landlord’s Portal, (the reason my family’s payments have been delayed) has not been fully rolled out yet.
This distresses and annoys me. So much stress caused to my family by a faulty website.
The issues of Universal Credit have been widely described. The system pays to one member only in a household and so makes it harder for someone to leave an abusive relationship. The initial delay of five weeks before the first payment (in order to mirror the world of work, but ignoring the fact that people on benefits don’t usually have much money saved up) has led to the rise of food banks.
The mental wellbeing of children is unsurprisingly adversely affected by their family’s money problems. Iain Porter from the Children’s Society says no matter how hard a family tries to shield their child from their financial struggles, the child is usually more aware than they let on. Porter says that “when you ask children what’s important to them, there’s a lot of emphasis on fitting in.” Children in poverty engage in self-regulation. They won’t ask their families for presents for Christmas, or won’t ask for new shoes even if their ones have worn out. Porter recalls one particular case where a boy “raided his piggy bank to help his mother pay the heating bills”.
The stories are maddening. And the roll-out has only just begun. Universal Credit has reached just over a million people so far: there are still seven million people left to be transferred to the system. Most families with children – whose situations tend to be both more complex and precarious – are still on the old benefits system.
It doesn’t feel that way scrolling through the dozen or so Facebook groups that have cropped up for people asking each other for help over their claims. There is a new post every few hours, and the comments come in thick and fast. It is overwhelming. Many of those posting are young, single parents, asking how they will feed their children. Or the carers for disabled people who do not understand why they are suddenly so much worse off.
This is why poor implementation is not an excuse. Too much stress is being added to too many lives. This stress cannot be undone.
This isn’t Boris Johnson backstabbing the Prime Minister. Nor is it the drama of a no-confidence vote or the technicalities of a no-deal Brexit. Universal Credit isn’t abstract. Its implementation is not the only issue.
The government is using Universal Credit as a vehicle to cut the income of working families, and force vulnerable people not versed in the internet to try to fill out forms online for hours at a time. It is an outsourcing of responsibility. It makes someone who didn’t care very much about politics angry at a government which, you start to realise, is not merely incompetent, but downright malicious. The policy is poorly implemented because those in power do not care enough about those who it affects.
Next time you notice a food bank collection point in a supermarket, remember that it isn’t there because of government incompetence, but government design. Forget the latest soundbites from Jacob Rees-Mogg and Sajid Javid. Universal Credit is more important. It is a system causing unnecessary misery to ordinary people right now. Be angry. For Universal Credit goes beyond politics – it is personal.