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People moved onto Universal Credit are fighting to survive

Universal Credit is bad for health and wellbeing, say leading academics from Fuse in a new study commissioned by Gateshead Council.

They found that people claiming Universal Credit are being forced into debt, rent arrears and extreme hardship, with serious consequences for their health and wellbeing.

The study led by Dr Mandy Cheetham, Fuse Researcher in Residence from Teesside University, shows that the aims of Universal Credit, to simplify the benefits system and move people into work, are simply not being met.

The report is published today by Gateshead Council, in partnership with Fuse, the Centre for Translational Research in Public Health. It shows that people moving onto Universal Credit, especially those with disabilities, health problems or complicated lives, experience an average delay of seven-and-a-half weeks before receiving their first payment.  As well as this, once the payment is received, deductions for advance payments and rent arrears are leaving people without enough money to eat or pay bills.

Complicated, dysfunctional and punitive system, prone to administrative errors

The researchers spoke to 33 people in Gateshead and Newcastle receiving Universal Credit and 37 staff in Gateshead supporting people with their claims. The research, conducted between April and October 2018, revealed a complicated, dysfunctional and punitive system, prone to administrative errors.

The online Universal Credit system was seen as impersonal and difficult to navigate and lacked flexibility to deal with individual needs. Although many of the claimants met the definition of ‘vulnerable’ identified by the Department of Work and Pensions due to physical or mental health issues, the additional support that should be available was not routinely offered. Without the advice and support workers, many more claimants would have suffered extreme hardship.

"Some people had been so low they said they had considered suicide"

Dr Mandy Cheetham, Fuse Researcher in Residence

Dr Cheetham said that this was an extremely distressing study to work on: “Claimants were under severe stress as a result of the claims process and some people had been so low they said they had considered suicide. The process of claiming and then trying to survive in the system, with the constant threat of sanctions was making people increasingly anxious and depressed, and worsening existing health problems.”

“We found no evidence that moving onto Universal Credit was helping people into employment,” says co-author Dr Suzanne Moffatt, Fuse senior investigator from Newcastle University. “The design of Universal Credit simply does not work for the people we interviewed.”

Advice and support staff who see many people on Universal Credit reported how the system is failing vulnerable people. It was common for staff to bring in food parcels to support clients when they had nothing to survive on. Staff described widespread fear among their clients, worsening health and increasing pressures on the voluntary and community sectors, local government and the health and social care system. Staff were fearful for the future as Universal Credit is rolled out more widely.

Alison Dunn, Chief Executive of Gateshead Citizens Advice says: “This research backs up what we see every day in our advice centres. More and more people are coming through our doors because they need help to claim. The online system is problematic and there are frequent errors that make it nigh impossible to process claims efficiently. The wait for payment is far too long, and delays are even longer when we have to sort out an error.”

Neil Bouch, Executive Director with Gateshead Housing Company explained that as a direct result of the roll out of Universal Credit an additional ten advice and support employees have been recruited to help support tenants through the claims process and beyond.

He said: “Despite this level of investment, the average level of rent arrears for people on Universal Credit has soared so our focus remains on getting people through the early weeks of the claim to a point where they can manage and sustain their tenancy.”

A pilot project involving Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) staff in the North East is working with residents experiencing problem debt and local partnerships between the council, voluntary organisations and DWP are aiming to raise awareness of the needs of people with learning disabilities, mental and physical health conditions, many of whom struggle to manage the Universal Credit online process and avoid sanctions. 

"There needs to be immediate action in the form of a review, radical overhaul and quite possibly a halt"

Alice Wiseman, Director of Public Health at Gateshead Council

“Universal Credit is a significant concern for public health,” says Alice Wiseman, Director of Public Health at Gateshead Council. “The research makes deeply depressing reading, but I am proud that Gateshead Council has collaborated with Teesside and Newcastle Universities to highlight the shocking impact that Universal Credit is having on the lives of claimants. There needs to be immediate action in the form of a review, radical overhaul and quite possibly a halt.”

This in-depth qualitative study, believed to be among the first to focus on the experiences of vulnerable people and advice and support staff in a Universal Credit full service area, was commissioned by Gateshead Council, with support from Fuse and Newcastle University’s Institute of Health and Society.

The report: “It’s hitting people that can least afford it the hardest” the impact of the roll out of Universal Credit in two North East England localities: a qualitative study. Mandy Cheetham, Suzanne Moffatt, Michelle Addison

See the exclusive coverage in The Guardian

Last modified: Thu, 15 Nov 2018 20:53:06 GMT