8 March 2018
Universal Credit roll out in Waltham Forest

Universal Credit will soon be rolled out in the Waltham Forest area, given some of the misleading coverage; it will be helpful to explain what it is and what it is not.

Universal Credit, (UC), is a single benefit that brings together 6 existing benefits into one claim which will be the same for all of them. The six benefits are Child Tax Credit, Housing Benefit, Income Support, income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA), income-related Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) and Working Tax Credits.

Universal Credit (UC) is a great improvement on the complex existing systems. First and foremost, UC is easier to claim than the confusing myriad of benefits that existed previously. Yes, you can claim UC online, but if that is too difficult, a claimant can get an appointment at a local Jobcentre and ask jobcentre staff to help them making a claim. It is also, despite some of the scare stories, possible to file on the telephone free of charge, or as a paper claim too.

Most importantly, if the claimant manages to find a few hours work, unlike the present tax credit system, they don’t have to keep making a new claim, or keep notifying the HMRC of changes. This is because their benefit is adjusted automatically if their hours change. It is worth remembering that in Tax Credits, if they haven’t notified the authorities their hours have changed, they can face enormous demands for repayment at the end of the year. This shouldn’t happen in UC. At present when someone gets a part time job they have to leave JSA and claim separately for Tax Credits and can no longer access the assistance of the DWP advisors. Instead in the new system, once on UC, Work Coaches can support people not just to find work but also progress in work. That human interface is a vital part of the system and one that is not available to those still on the old benefits.

Alongside Universal Credit, it is important for the Local Authority (LA) to work with the DWP to help get those who have personal problems, such as debt or drugs into remedial programmes to resolve those problems. This programme is called Universal Support and in the areas where LA’s have been working with the DWP, it is helping benefit claimants receive the housing, education, debt and addiction support that they often need.

There have been, for short term party political reasons, some accusations concerning claimant commitments, benefit cuts and sanctions. However, notwithstanding some genuine issues, more often than not, these accusations do not match up with the facts. For example, Jeremy Corbyn claimed that 650 people were evicted from a Housing Association in Gloucester as a result of UC. Yet the reality was that eight were, and seven of those were as the result of such significant debts prior to UC, that they were due to be evicted already. In another case, Frank Field claimed that a mother-of-two was facing Christmas without any payments as a result of being moved onto UC, yet when examined, it turned out that she had been paid (an Advance Payment of £668).

Such concerted and unfounded attacks came to the attention of the independent UK Statistics Authority at the end of 2017. In a letter to Debbie Abrahams MP, the labour Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, this February, Sir David Norgrove the Chair criticised them for their use of data that could not be substantiated. He concluded his letter by writing of the Labour party’s use of statistics, “It is clearly important that statements by a political party should be fully supported by the statistics and sources on which they rely. We do not believe this was the case here.” 

It is worth, at this point, noting that 60% of new Universal Credit claimants arrive with outstanding rent arrears and debt problems already, as a result often of the complexity of other existing benefit systems. Universal Support is targeting help to those people helping them arrange a fairer repayment scheme that doesn’t push them towards loan sharks and bankruptcy, part of the reason that debt and arrears fall much faster once they are on UC. It is also worth noting that advances are available on the same day and claimants can get up to 100% of their first month’s award as an advance, only being required to pay it back as an interest-free loan over a year.

The Department for Work and Pensions forecast Universal Credit will help up to 300,000 people in to work, and the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimate that Universal Credit will reduce the UK’s absolute poverty rate by almost 1%. Joseph Rowntree also believes that when operating fully, it will have a greater capacity than any other benefit to reduce poverty.” Universal Credit is already helping more people get in to work, more than 9 out of 10 claimants receive the right amount of money on time, a vast improvement on the old tax credits system.

The careful roll out in stages allows modifications to be made where they are Of course, in any system that deals with so many people on a daily basis, some most needed and adjustments made. As the system will be dealing with so many, some claimants will find their case doesn’t quite fit the process. It is for this reason that the roll out of UC is arranged to give time for the department to make the adjustments to include scope for such cases. The new IT system is designed to do this and is working very well.

Recently the Government invested £1.5 billion to make three changes: they increased the generosity of advance payments; put the first payment into claimants bank a week earlier; and allowed those transferring from legacy benefits to keep receiving housing benefit for a further two weeks, effectively giving them double housing benefit for a fortnight. All these were adjustments recommended by staff on the front line.

But, let’s also not forget what UC replaces. A confusing system of 6 different welfare benefits, each would have to be applied for individually, causing extensive stress for claimants. For anyone who was on JSA and got a job, the deduction in benefits as a result would often mean they were better off claiming welfare than in a job earning an income. Work is the best route out of poverty and someone in work has a great chance of being mentally and physically healthy, building up savings, owning their own home and creating a better life for their children. Universal Credit helps achieve that. Its detractors want to return to the complex system of multiple benefits end of year tax credit bills and welfare dependency.

It is time to welcome the arrival of UC.