Credit isn’t due

As the political battle over the planned roll-out of Universal Credit heats up, the stories of delayed payments, harsh sanctions and the indifference of the system come to the fore

Hero image

“Universal Credit is a cruel system that demoralises people and controls every aspect of their lives. People are given no options and no compassion.”

That is the view of Charlotte Hughes, an activist who has spent every Thursday for four years protesting outside Ashton-under-Lyne job centre, offering advice and food parcels to people living on the breadline.

“People’s lives are not their own when they’re on Universal Credit,” she says. “They have to search for work for 35 hours a week plus, for example, doing 30 hours voluntary work at a charity shop.

“Even once they’re in work they still have to go to regular interviews and do job searches or they will be sanctioned. They are complying with a system they can never satisfy.”

The Tameside town became the first pilot area for the controversial benefit change in 2013. As the Department for Work and Pensions accelerates its national roll-out, council bosses have added their voices to those pointing out Universal Credit’s many shortcomings.

Tameside Council executive leader Kieran Quinn wrote online: “The response of the government was, and has been, to plough on regardless. Plough on, and deflect the blame for any failure onto local government, housing providers and even the claimants themselves.

“The government cut payments to the bone and imposed conditions on who could receive what.”

“On the one hand, the government kept shifting the goalposts… cutting payments to the bone and imposing ever more conditions on who could receive what. On the other hand, they consistently refused to listen to feedback and learning that councils like Tameside gave them about what was happening on the ground.”

Universal Credit aims to combine six existing benefits – jobseekers’ allowance, housing benefit, child tax credits, income support, working tax credit and employment and support allowance – in a way that is intended to mirror a monthly pay cheque, a principle broadly supported across the political parties. This payment covers all household bills, including rent.

In practice, however, the policy has been criticised by all sides. Applications must be made online and a six-week minimum wait for the first payment has hit claimants hard. Many of those affected already have debts, few savings and other complex problems. Of the total number of households that will eventually move onto it nationally, 8 per cent have currently done so. The government hopes to migrate all new and existing claimants to Universal Credit by 2022.

As the roll-out has accelerated however, campaigners, public sector leaders, charities and MPs – including some Conservatives – have sounded alarm bells. Charges were scrapped for a 55p per minute claimant helpline following a public outcry and fears of a Tory rebellion, but prime minister Theresa May insists Universal Credit is
“a system that is working”.

On 18 October, Labour secured a symbolic victory when its motion to pause the roll-out so problems could be fixed was approved, with 299 votes to 0. All but one Conservative MP abstained.

In the lead-up to the debate, Labour MP Laura Pidcock asked Theresa May whether Universal Credit’s problems were a result of “gross incompetence or calculated cruelty”.

During the debate, work and pensions secretary David Gauke told the House of Commons: “Universal Credit is picking up from a deeply flawed system and striving to solve problems that were previously thought unsolvable. Universal credit is working and the roll-out will continue – to the planned timetable.”

For many claimants, however, the system is not working. Rent arrears and foodbank use have spiked and tough conditionality requirements have pushed sanction rates higher than they were for other benefits.

For the first time, working claimants are also subject to sanctions. More than 60,600 workers lost their payments in July 2017 alone, according to figures gathered by Glasgow University. The system is unforgiving, with people losing money for weeks for being late for an appointment or when letters fail to arrive. In some cases, three-year sanctions are handed out.

The conditions continue even once a claimant moves into work. Someone receiving the housing benefit element or even a low rate of tax credits must still commit time each week to job seeking, with the aim of finding better paid work.

“He’d already lost his job and family and we believe Universal Credit pushed him over the edge.”

While Gauke describe this as “[supporting and encouraging] them to do everything they can to move into or towards work, or to improve their earnings”, Hughes, the Ashton protester, likens it to punishment.

She says: “Often, people tell us it feels like they are being punished. We’ve heard so many stories but a few stand out. We met a man a few years ago who was in this situation. He had worked 56 hours that week on a zero-hours contract and had been sanctioned after missing one hour of his job search. The guy was devastated. I later heard he’d committed suicide. He’d already lost his job and family and we believe Universal Credit pushed him over the edge. I think about that man every day.”

Many warn Universal Credit will compound the housing crisis. In Newcastle, where 75 per cent of claimants have yet to transfer, Universal Credit recipients living in council housing have already accumulated £1.2 million of rent arrears, while Tameside social landlord New Charter Housing has seen a 63 per cent rise in arrears since 2013.

Greater Manchester’s mayor, Andy Burnham, has warned that rough sleeping could double if the roll-out continues.

There are even concerns that the new system risks causing havoc with the allocation of free school meals, which are given to more than a million children from low-income families who receive working tax credit.

Meanwhile, 87 job centres will close between now and April, making it difficult for many claimants to attend the interviews required under their conditions.

In Sheffield, there are concerns about the planned closure of Eastern Avenue job centre, which serves some of the most deprived neighbourhoods in the city.

“We fear that the closure of this job centre will inevitably result in destitute claimants, unable to afford public transport, living in these areas having to walk excessive distances in order to satisfy and comply with Universal Credit claim requirements and commitments,” wrote Sheffield Citizens Advice Bureau in evidence submitted to the ongoing Work and Pensions Select Committee inquiry into the Universal Credit roll-out. The organisation has started embedding advice workers in food banks to reach vulnerable people.

The briefing continues: “The impact of delays in [receiving Universal Credit] living costs means nothing to eat and reliance on help from food banks. It also impacts on the ability to pay for fuel for cooking and heating, with a particularly detrimental impact on the poorest who use pre-payment meters, meaning for some an inability to heat up the tinned food received from the food bank.

“The delays in the processing of housing costs is leading to threats of possession action, possession orders and, in the worse cases reported to us, eviction proceedings.”

Frances Potter, lead on research and campaigns at Sheffield CAB, says the current system doesn’t work how it should. When a claimant moves areas they can run into problems.

Her colleagues recently supported a domestic violence survivor who was sanctioned and forced to live on £5 a month in Universal Credit after moving from London and missing an appointment in the capital.

“It was really difficult to resolve,” she says. “When we tried to use the fancy new online journal system that full service Universal Credit claimants use it just didn’t work. In theory claimants should be able to record what’s happening with their case and communicate with DWP staff using this online account but the messages never received responses. Staff in Sheffield haven’t even had training on this system yet, so took a while to find a helpful person who went behind the scenes to resolve the issue. It took weeks and weeks.

“It seems to me this may have the potential to work, if they developed a much better system and put in the staff and resources to maintain it.”

Leeds West MP and former shadow work and pensions secretary Rachel Reeves has also worked with claimants who have faced problems after moving home. One couple found themselves in a bureaucratic nightmare after moving from Rugby to Leeds because their new job centre could not access their personal details.

“That meant their claim was delayed, creating unnecessary stress and financial problems for them,” she says. “Universal credit was supposed to simplify the benefits system but the government’s chaotic handling of this flawed project has caused real distress to thousands of people. I have been contacted by constituents who are being driven into debt by the botched handling of Universal Credit, even though it has not yet been fully rolled out in Leeds.

“Some people have found that it has taken up to 10 weeks to process their claim for Universal Credit, leaving them in substantial rent arrears.”

Greater Manchester Law Centre is so concerned about the chaotic roll-out that it has refused to offer Universal Credit services. A local job centre approached staff at the Moss Side centre, opened last year, before its local introduction to request that they provide computers and supervisors to help people access the scheme. But bosses have said no.

A spokesman says: “This is not the role of the voluntary sector. We will not be complicit in a scheme which results in further adversity and punishment for vulnerable people.

“If Universal Credit is so convoluted and ineffective that voluntary sector organisations are relied upon, then it should not be implemented at all. We therefore refuse to offer Universal Credit services and we demand that its roll-out is stopped”.

Debbie Abrahams, MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth and Labour’s shadow secretary of state for work and pensions, led the opposition motion on the Universal Credit roll-out and also last week secured a further emergency debate on the topic.

 “The social security system should work to prevent people from getting into debt, not to exacerbate it.”

With Conservative rebels unusually lining up to defend the welfare state and claimants, and a poll last week showing the majority of Conservative voters thought the six-week wait for payment was too long, the government looks increasingly isolated on Universal Credit.

Abrahams calls on the government to start listening to opponents and look at tackling its flaws.

She says: “The social security system should work to prevent people from getting into debt, not to exacerbate it.

“The numerous problems with universal credit are not just administrative – the delays and cuts made by this government to the programme are all contributing to claimant debt. We will work with them  to tackle these issues.

“Housing associations are saying that over 80 per cent of rent arrears are down to Universal Credit and the mayor of Greater Manchester is predicting rough sleeping will double in his region as a result of Universal Credit roll out.

“With all the opposition and warnings about the dangers of continuing the national roll-out of Universal Credit David Gauke, secretary of state for work and pensions, can’t seriously still believe that the system is fit for purpose.

“This leaves me to conclude that, in spite of the evidence, this Tory government don’t want to lose face and so are prepared to press on with Universal Credit roll-out regardless of the harm it is causing.”

Three claimants reveal their stories


For the seven weeks before starting work as a newly qualified nurse, Catherine had no money to live on – and her landlord began eviction proceedings. She blames Universal Credit.

A single mum with a six-year-old daughter, Catherine, 30, finished her nursing degree in May this year. Her new hospital job would start two months later so she decided to apply for housing benefit. “I really didn’t want to get into rent arrears,” she says. “So the the job centre suggested I apply for Universal Credit.”

The online application was arduous and she found it difficult to make appointments at the busy job centre. By the time her first payment arrived on 11 July, she was more than £1,000 in arrears and her landlord had served notice to evict.

“That’s something that has made me mad. The law says landlords can evict a tenant after eight weeks of arrears but the DWP says you have to build up eight weeks of arrears before they’ll pay Universal Credit directly to a landlord. It’s crazy.

“I became quite desperate during that time – I couldn’t feed myself and was only eating a meal when I went to my mum’s to collect my daughter. There was no fresh produce in the house. When I was at home on my own I’d completely switch the gas and electricity off. I couldn’t sleep properly for worry. People would be asking why I was so tearful – it was fatigue and hunger.”

After seeking advice from Citizens Advice and contacting her MP, Debbie Abrahams, Catherine made arrangements to clear the debt and now works up to 60 hours a week to make extra payments. She is no longer in receipt of Universal Credit and has also lost the money she previously received via working tax credits and child tax credits – more than £450 a month.

The process of reclaiming an element of childcare costs – involving frequent visits to the job centre with receipts to be stamped – proved more hassle than it was worth, she says.

“This means I’m having to rely entirely on extended family to help me with my daughter. I’m extremely lucky to have people able to help me. They’re also the only reason I didn’t end up having to visit foodbanks while I was waiting for Universal Credit to kick in.”


“I was working in an engineering workshop but through no fault of my own that job ended around a year ago. I applied for Universal Credit at Ashton job centre.

“I’m single, 22, without kids, and live at home with my parents at the moment but I can’t do that forever. I’m 22 now and need my independence and my own life but that’s been taken away. I’m paid £250 a month, so it’s been quite difficult to manage – but I’m very fortunate that I’ve not been asked to pay rent at home because if I did I’d have nothing.

“They said I’d wait six weeks for my first payment but you can get a £125 credit advance, which crippled me in the long run and I’m still suffering from it now. You get the choice of paying it back over three, six or 12 months but I don’t like owing money to the government so wanted to repay it as quickly as possible. So they took almost £40 off me a month, which left me with very little to get by on.

“I’ve recently found work in a supermarket so don’t have to rely on Universal Credit quite so much but I am on low hours so unfortunately do need the benefits system to prop me up.

“The experience has caused me a lot of anxiety, which I suffer from anyway. The stress actually hampers your ability to look for work and stay in it.

“I’m really keen to find somewhere new to live but there’s no housing benefit for people my age. I can’t even see myself being able to afford a hostel. They’ve made it impossible for me to move out of my house and I can’t find any more hours of work anywhere to even pay the rent, never mind all the other bills. I can’t tell you how horrible it is.”


“I was doing a temporary job in a warehouse but had to sign onto Universal Credit a few months ago when work no longer needed me. It’s a nightmare, it really is. I’m 20, but I have a seven month old baby at home and trying to fit doing job searches around looking after him has not been easy. My girlfriend and I are on a joint claim.

“I wasn’t paid anything for over seven weeks and the part of the payment that was meant to come through for my son didn’t appear until nine weeks in. They made us get proof he had visited a dentist – despite having no teeth – and been registered with a doctor before they would pay it.

“We’ve ended up leaving our accommodation and moving in with my girlfriend’s mum to save money, which isn’t ideal but we’re only paying £80 a month rent. We did get an advance payment of £150 but it all got us into a cycle of owing people. When the first payment did arrive, we had to pay a lot of it out to other people. It’s been very stressful, not knowing how to pay for things we need, and I am starting to lose touch with friends as I’m never able to go out.”

If you liked this article, we think you’ll enjoy these:

Interact: Responses to Credit isn’t due

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.