Secret social worker: Universal Credit

Lila Halliday on Universal Credit: the birth of compassion in the DWP?

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There’s a lot of bad press about Universal Credit. No one who has a hand in supporting vulnerable people thinks it’s a good idea.

There are major problems with the housing element of the benefit, causing local district councils across the country to lobby for it to be scrapped and for Local Housing Allowances to be reinstated. The problem being faced is that rental payments are paid directly to the customer as part of their overall claim and they become responsible for paying their rent. Just like everyone else, the DWP would say. However, many benefit claimants are vulnerable and struggle to budget for these payments. Also, when sanctioned, they continue to receive the housing element but nothing else, so inevitably this gets spent on food and energy payments. The knock-on effect is private landlords refusing to let properties to benefit claimants and some registered social landlords bringing in affordability assessments, resulting in benefit claimants not being eligible for social housing. Not to mention the five-week waiting period from making an initial claim to getting any money at all. The DWP says these changes are to replicate the way people earn their income at work, promote independence and support people out of a cycle of benefit dependency.

From my first-hand experience of working with local job centres and supporting people to make benefit claims, I have seen an unlikely positive side effect to Universal Credit. It seems like the challenges and inherent unfairness of Universal Credit have inadvertently bred a culture of compassion and kindness among job centre staff towards their customers.

In the past when I’ve been to the job centre, supporting someone to make a claim, the staff I have come across have acted like the jobseekers’ payments were coming out of their own wages and at times they have been visibly hostile. I personally have claimed benefits and been met with a similar level of disdain, until I explained that I was taking a year out of my degree due to illness – then it was all smiles and eye contact. But it seems now that the staff know that things aren’t easy for people on benefits and those I have met recently appear to genuinely care. They try their best to work around the current system, executing everything in their power to prevent sanctions.

One work coach said to me recently: “You don’t help people by stopping their money.” That seems like common sense but not too long ago staff at the job centre had a totally different attitude and a much punitive approach.

Some of this compassion and understanding have been born of a drive from the government to make every effort to get people into employment, resulting in additional training for staff and more resources being made available to support people into employment. But I think the impact of austerity, the challenges of Universal Credit and the visible human suffering this has caused has softened your average job centre employee.

They see this every day, they see people at their worst and they naturally want to help. And to anyone who continues to be of the mindset that benefit claimants get an easy ride and coast on handouts, I challenge you to live on £57.90 per week. I know I couldn’t!

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