Since June, the controversial new ‘universal credit’ benefit has been implemented across Bristol. How well is the system working?
Illustration: Sarah Redrup
Returning from maternity leave this summer, 30-year-old Sophie arranged with her employer, the NHS, that she would go back part- rather than full-time. The decision, she says, triggered a “nightmare” from which she is still to emerge.
As an admin worker on a low income, Sophie had been used to claiming child and working tax credits, as well as child benefit and a personal independence payment (PIP) relating to a disability. These always went “smoothly”, she says.
But the change in her work circumstances meant the south Bristol resident became one of thousands of people in the city who have been switched – or soon will be – onto claiming the government’s controversial new universal credit.
Universal credit combines most of the commonest benefits – including jobseeker’s allowance and housing benefit – into a single monthly payment.
The system was meant to be in place across the UK by 2017 but is running six years behind schedule. It has been beset by IT failures and by delayed or fluctuating payments and criticised for making many people, including those who have severe disabilities or are self-employed, poorer.
The Trussell Trust food bank network has reported a 52% rise in demand in areas where universal credit is already in place. Fears have also been raised that the system, which pays out to one individual in a household, can place entire family budgets in the hands of abusive partners.
In Bristol, so-called ‘full service’ universal credit is currently being put in place, meaning all new claimants or people whose circumstances change must use the new system. It came into force in the south and centre of the city during early June, moving across the north as well as neighbouring areas such as Kingswood by late 2018. As of early August, around 1,200 new claims had been made within the city itself, according to Bristol council.
Talking to the Cable over the summer, the Department of Work and Pensions’ (DWP) local partnership manager Mike Warner was keen to talk up tweaks – many coming in the wake of pressure by the media and charities – that have enhanced claimants’ experiences.
These included a reduction in how long people wait for their first payment, from six weeks to five, and improving the system of advance payments – interest-free loans claimants can use to bridge the gap.
But Warner also acknowledged it was “difficult to simplify” the benefits system – a challenge universal credit’s architects have often been accused of underestimating. For Sophie, getting to grips with the new regime has been anything but straightforward.
Sophie’s situation is unusual in that her partner, whose name is registered to her address, is awaiting a decision on his immigration status and so can’t claim benefits. Sophie says that despite her partner’s non-eligibility being obvious, the job centre insisted he take a ‘habitual residence test’ to assess his status. In the meantime, the family were blocked from receiving an advance payment, which would have left them with no money until her first pay cheque came through a month later.
Sophie says that, after contacting her MP, this situation was resolved fairly quickly. But it was not the end of her trouble.
When her first payment was due in July, no statement appeared on the electronic ‘journal’ used to manage universal credit claims. Just as she feared, the money didn’t come through either.
“I put a message on the journal for my case manager to get back to me. She didn’t, so I phoned and they said she would ring me,” Sophie explains, adding that this lack of response is not unusual. “She did call, after an hour, and said there was some problem with my wages, blaming it on the NHS for submitting them twice. I earn £750 a month and she said they’d been told I earned £1,500.”
This glitch – eventually pinned down to a DWP operative failing to delete a cell in a spreadsheet – took a month to resolve. While Sophie says she has managed so far to avoid running up debts, she had to request an emergency voucher from the council so as to buy food, and ask her grandparents to cover her council tax.
Adding to her worries, she says she is now having to fight the DWP’s reversal of its decision to give her a childcare allowance, which it initially offered because of the possibility her partner could be detained by immigration authorities. At the time of our interview in September, Sophie was awaiting a ‘mandatory reconsideration’ decision as to whether the payment could be reinstated.
‘Not the easiest system’
In areas of the country where universal credit has been in place longer, problems like Sophie’s have not been uncommon. In May 2018, BuzzFeed News reported on the case of a woman who was driven to the brink of eviction, in part because of admin errors by universal credit staff. Meanwhile whistleblowers interviewed by the Guardian said the IT system on which universal credit is built was “fundamentally broken”.
Michelle Ioannou, a financial inclusion officer at Bristol’s Talking Money advice service, says she’s encountered problems with the journal while supporting people claiming the initial, limited ‘live service’ form of universal credit. Live service began in Bristol in 2015 for some single people with simpler claims.
But Ioannou says even when the journal is working as it should, universal credit’s digital-only design makes life tough for people who lack a computer or IT skills.
Sarah, 24, claimed live service universal credit during 2016 and 2017 while living in Bristol and studying part-time. She racked up large credit card debts after her payments were delayed and describes it as “not the easiest system” to navigate.
“I think I still found it easier than [less tech-savvy] people might,” adds Sarah, who says she feels lucky the family she was renting a room from were understanding about late payments. “You need your code, which is quite long, and I found that quite difficult, especially when switching between computers.”
Sarah explains that, when she had meetings in the job centre, she felt staff treated her favourably because she was well-spoken and enrolled at Bristol University. But she also says there were times when advisors helping manage her claim did not seem well-informed.