What is the future for Universal Credit?

future for UC

Ian Davidson predicts minimal changes in this guest blog

With the political & media classes reigniting debate on UC (as here in the Guardian) – perhaps as “light relief” from Brexit – here is my own brief analysis of this latest round of discussion:

Whilst any public discussion about “stopping” UC is welcome, it would appear that most commentators are only asking for the “managed migration” process, i.e. the second phase of the “roll-out” due to commence in July 2019 to be halted. As explained in the Guardian article above, this is the phase where existing claimants of old style benefits would start to be “migrated” on to UC (i.e. you will be “invited” to claim UC, and will have no choice if you wish to continue on income-related benefits). They also appear to be asking for the original “goodies” in UC, e.g. the “work allowances” and uprating which were taken out in the 2015 budget, to be re-instated before this second stage roll-out begins. Unless I am misinterpreting, I don’t hear any mainstream call for the whole concept of UC to be scrapped or for the current first phase roll-out (all “new” claimants for income-related type benefits to claim UC by Dec 2018) to be stopped, scrapped, halted or whatever. However, if there are changes to UC such as the re-instatement of work allowances, then the claimants who are already on UC will presumably benefit.

The present government can, with relative ease, respond to some of these new demands whilst not giving way on the principle of UC. The July 2019 start for second-stage roll-out is flexible (as has the first roll-out been), and no-one is going to complain if the second stage roll out start is further delayed and implemented even more gradually. Likewise no-one is going to complain if the work allowances etc. are re-instated and some form of uprating in line with inflation introduced. No-one is going to complain if the migration of existing tax credits claimants (perhaps the most politically sensitive group) is left alone for a while, even until after the next UK General Election. No-one is going to complain if local authorities and the Scottish Government are given some more monies for mitigation, alongside further “tweaking” of claims administration, a “lighter” touch to sanctions etc.

Any positive changes to UC are good news. However, it is too early to celebrate, as the government will probably make just sufficient changes to survive politically whilst retaining the core principles of UC. The need for claimant advice, appeals, legal challenges, foodbanks and political campaigns will continue as UC is “rolled-out” with slightly slower speed and slightly improved presentation.

 

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Out of the frying pan, into Universal Credit – a stall report

18-10-01

Frankie was a worried man. A week ago on Sunday he had started work at a restaurant as a kitchen porter. At least, that was the job that had been advertised, but when he got there he found he was expected to do everything, including cooking the breakfast and ordering the stock. He doesn’t know how to cook, let alone sort out the orders. He was given no training, but by Wednesday he was left to manage on his own. He was checking deliveries at the entrance at the same time as keeping an eye on the cooker and panicking about serving undercooked sausages. He told his friends that he was feeling suicidal with it all. Sensibly, he had left the job before any disaster struck, but now he was terrified about being blamed for not working, and so not being given benefit. He was so nervous, that I went into the jobcentre with him. He needn’t have worried about his treatment there. The woman couldn’t have been nicer, but (there’s always a ‘but’) she can only work within the system, and that has left him with two possible sources of further worry. Before he got the job at the restaurant he was on JSA. When he got the job he signed off, and now, signing on again, he has to be on Universal Credit, with all the problems that implies. And although the woman at the jobcentre helped him to make his new application, and stressed the importance of writing down all the details of what happened, it is not her who makes the decision about sanctions. Frankie must now wait for the verdict of the anonymous Decision Maker.

Pam was hoping to get Universal Credit to help with housing costs now that her husband’s hours have been dropped down to 21 a week. She was shocked when we warned her that, as he would be earning less than the equivalent of 35 hours a week on the minimum wage, he would be made to spend the rest of his time looking for more or better paid work. We suggested they get a benefit check done at Shelter, who would also be able to advise on possible options.

Jill had just signed onto Universal Credit having become unemployed for the first time in years. We told her that since her National Insurance payments will be up to date she should be on New Style (i.e. contribution based) JSA instead, and recommended she sort this out as soon as possible. The DWP seems to be very bad at spotting this one.

Andrew had just lost the chance of a job in the Midlands because the DWP had refused to help with the interview travel costs, even though these would be refunded afterwards. He had only recently signed up to Universal Credit and was shocked to have received no benefits on what should have been his first payment day. His final salary from work had been paid to him after he had applied for UC, and had been counted as income for the first month’s calculation. He was thus deemed not to need any benefit that month, and won’t get anything at all for a further month. (See how it ‘works’ here.).

Mark and Ruth were both applying to be recognised as unfit to work – so we impressed on them the importance of getting help with the medical form from someone (such as a welfare rights officer) who knows how the points system works. And we asked them to contact us later if they need someone to accompany them to their work capability assessment.

John had worked in security. He informed us – as he had previously had to inform the jobcentre – that security staff must wear visible name badges and shouldn’t lean over you when you are having a private conversation. Could be useful to know!

£15 a week to get to a computer

leftfest

The people who came up with the requirement that all Universal Credit claims must be managed on line can’t live in the real world – and certainly not in rural Scotland. Yesterday, one of the people who visited our stall at Leftfest told us of a friend who was expected to make 30 minute bus journeys to get to a computer, at the cost of £15 a week. That’s more than 20% of the miserly weekly benefit payment!

And although you should be able to get help in this situation, he clearly had not been made aware of that.  The minds that conjure up detailed rules about sanctions from the comfort of well-paid jobs, don’t seem to have expressly addressed what must be a common and predictable problem; however this is something that the jobcentre’s Flexible Support Fund could help with. It is clearly unreasonable to expect you to spend this amount of money out of your benefits, so if the jobcentre won’t provide help with travel costs, or allow you to use an alternative method of communication and jobsearch, then you need to put in a formal complaint. An MP’s letter could make all the difference at this point…

(Thanks to CPAG for discussions on this issue.)

The picture was taken at Leftfest