Universal Credit is a relatively new welfare benefit designed to replace a number of existing benefits with one single payment, with the idea of making access to social security payments less complicated.
Citizens Advice generally supports the principles behind Universal Credit. Simplifying access to benefits for those who need them is important.
But there are evidently serious design and delivery problems which risk leaving many people without the support they need, pushing them into debt and leaving them unable to make ends meet.
There is a long wait for payments, six weeks at least from initial claim until payment. And it is paid in arrears. This can leave some people without money for bills, or even for food.
Many people are finding the system very complicated. It is a digital claiming system, claimants must apply online and many people needing to make a claim for the unemployment or sickness elements of Universal Credit may well have already been out of work or ill for some time and thus have little or no money. They might have no IT access, no home broadband or computer. They may also have no PC skills, might have poor literacy or numeracy skills. Not everyone owns a smartphone. Some claimants might not have the necessary documents, a passport for example.
Citizens Advice Bureaux are uniquely placed to see how changes in welfare benefits like Universal Credit affect people. East Lothian was one of the first Scottish Local Authorities to implement full service Universal Credit. At the beginning of this year Citizens Advice bureaux in Musselburgh and Haddington conducted a survey to compare Universal Credit benefit entitlements with legacy benefits.
Their research showed that the most adversely affected were lone parents and claimants with disabilities. Nearly a fifth of claimants had to wait two months for their first payment and rent arrears for East Lothian council properties increased by almost 30% since the introduction of Universal Credit. Other bureaux in Scotland reported a huge increase in Crisis Grant applications and people seeking advice about access to food banks.
“For too many people, a system that is intended to support them through difficult times, is making their situation much worse. Families are falling into debt and rent arrears and having to turn to foodbanks just to survive.”
- Citizens Advice Scotland Chair, Rory Mair
We continue to pressure policy-makers and have called for a pause in the accelerated roll-out of Universal Credit, so that these problems can be fixed before more families find themselves in some kind of crisis.
Although Universal Credit remains reserved to the UK Government, the Scottish Government has some administrative powers to change payment arrangements and have implemented the Scottish Flexibilities – new claimants can ask for the ‘housing’ element of their Universal Credit to be paid direct to their landlord (for tenants in the private rented sector as well as those in social housing) and the rest paid fortnightly instead of monthly.
Citizens Advice Edinburgh can offer advice, information and a free benefits check in relation to all types of benefit. We can also assist with benefits appeals.