Universal Dis-credit

If a manual was ever written on how not to roll out a new benefit it would tell the sorry tale of Universal Credit.

Complaints to the government are so high that they don’t count them ‘owing to the volume!’

If you take out the politics of callous cuts, ludicrous sanctions targeted at those least able to take the burden the principle was sound enough. So rather than a complex range of benefits administered by various departments and agencies of government there would be a single straight forward benefit.

That was the easy bit. Actually making it happen required planning, resourcing and most importantly a culture which informed every single decision; it’s about people, not nonsensical rules.

Universal Credit has hit the press for all the wrong reasons and pressure is growing for a fundamental review before it is allowed to roll out across the country.

Oldham was one of the original pilots. The council did not welcome cuts or pain, in fact it was a fierce critic of welfare reform and the impact it was having on the town. Having invested in a new Welfare Advice service to help resident’s access benefits they were entitled to but not claiming, the council felt it could work in partnership to get it right.

Even the council feel frustrated that while relationships with DWP staff on the ground are reported to be good, many problems with the IT system, delays and errors have failed to be addressed.

My constituency office has been helping many individuals with increasing frequency and it is clear that not only is the system itself broken, but more than that it is littered with rules which add nothing to the process but which send many decent people into unnecessary debt and depression.

When you do have questions or get into difficulty and need to pick up the phone you’ll be charged up to 55p a minute for the privilege of trying to get to a person who can help navigate an online system. This can take over 2 very expensive hours to complete an application for a couple, if it doesn’t crash midway through. The longest wait reported by government is over 13 minutes – that’s not the total time taken to deal with the query but simply to get to speak to a person. It takes an average of seven minutes to deal with the query.

I remember when we were expecting our first son Jack. You have the natural stresses of becoming a new parents coupled with the anxiety of keeping a roof over your head.

We relied on Family Tax Credits and Child Tax Credits to give us just about enough to live on. After rent and bills it wasn’t enough to live properly but it was better than solely relying on wages we were bringing in. What we didn’t realise was that rather than the spirit of the system it was the faults in the system which added stress and strain with over payments and underpayments common, even though we had limited changes.

I was so concerned with the impact on my own constituents that I called together a meeting of charities, public bodies and of course those directly affected by the Universal Credit system to hear first-hand the impact of the system.

During most of the discussion it was clear that even those who wanted it to work seemed to think it had gone too far to save.

Oldham Foodbank report truly heart-breaking cases including that of new parents who on reporting the birth of their third child were hit with a change of circumstance delay which immediately stopped benefits for six weeks while the family only had limited wages coming in and had rent and other bills stacking up.

Today under Universal Credit are now waiting 12 weeks for their first payment with debt and bills stacking up with heavy default payments and demanding landlords adding serious stress and strain.

Last month alone the foodbank gave 3 day food packages to 364 adults and 177 children, the vast majority of which were a result of benefit delays. Most of those were avoidable, they were entitled to the benefits they were claiming; many had been doing so without problems before, but had been sent to queue at the food bank because of unnecessary delays and the failure of government to promote the advance payment scheme.

Nationally the roll out of Universal Credit is only 7% complete but there are such serious problems MPs from across the country are demanding that its expansion is halted. I’m going further to say that not only should the national roll out be stopped but areas like Oldham which was part of the earlier adopter programme see no more people transferred as part of the ‘Full Service’ roll out until government address the failings of this broken system.

If the government goes ahead with this clearly broken system it will send thousands of my constituents into debt and desperation as 19,500 families are shifted onto Universal Credit.

Citizens Advice are leading the charge and it’s a campaign I fully support. If nothing is done to pause and learn then over 7 million families, a quarter of the working population will be forced onto a system which is designed to fail.

My plea to government is to halt the roll out of Universal Credit until an independent body made up of charities and public agencies agree it is fit for purpose.

Far better an admission of failure now with the mature and responsible decision to learn from that failing than to hit over 7 million families.


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