The Government must fix key elements of the Universal Credit application process or millions will fall into hardship in 2019, a new report from Christians Against Poverty (CAP) has warned.
It cites the experience of low-income debt clients migrating to the new six-in-one benefit that has caused them threats of eviction, escalating mental health issues and extreme vulnerability.
The debt charity is supportive of the simpler new benefit but warns changes must be made urgently, if it is to serve those needing a safety net.
Chief Executive Matt Barlow said: “It’s obviously a very difficult time for Government but while Brexit plays out, some of the UK’s most vulnerable families are sinking in bureaucracy and we owe it to them to give them a voice and press for change.
“As we sit down to our Christmas dinners and presents, we must remember there will be many unable to pay for the basics of life.”
Interviews with debt clients on CAP’s books included one with a woman who described how six weeks with no income left her “dirt poor”.
Another was found scavenging in bins for food because, after numerous attempts to log in to the UC system, she was locked out. When she finally applied it was incomplete – which she was not aware of – so she continued without income for, it seemed to her, an unending amount of time until she was referred and CAP stepped in.
In the second half of 2018, the charity has seen a 32% rise new clients saying that Universal Credit was the primary reason for their debt problems. The numbers of those on the benefit are small but the uplift reflects what frontline staff say they are seeing.
CAP is keen to work with the DWP to tackle three main areas of concern: the online application, the wait for the first payment and the lack of understanding of how many people are truly vulnerable.
Online applications for people without a computer means they have to travel to use one at a library, which is generally free for one hour a day only. The system does not allow someone to save their application part way through, yet it requires details of past addresses and identification that might not be available away from home.
This can lead to a real feeling of hopelessness and for someone very vulnerable be the difference between being helped by the welfare system and not.
Waiting for payment also has potentially enormous consequences for someone without any savings. It means when the much-needed money does arrive it’s needed for all the debts that have arisen while waiting for UC to come and there is little left for the coming month’s expenses.
One told the charity: “It all ended up in a real stress. We had a fairly good
relationship before [with private landlord] and it became horrible.”
Another said: “I had to get one of them loan things and then I just didn’t pay my rent because I couldn’t afford to. That’s why I’m in debt now. I had to get a credit card and then I just couldn’t afford to pay it back.”
CAP specialises in helping people on a low income, often with multiple difficulties, and understands what it means to be ‘vulnerable’.
Mr Barlow said: “This is our specialist area and we are keen to work with the new Secretary of State and let her in on what we have found over decades of working with people who have multi-complex needs as well as a low income.
“There are positive changes that can be made that will make Universal Credit work and, with seven million more people set to migrate, this needs to be a Government priority.”