Cold Christmas coming for those on Universal Credit
Universal Credit came to Northern Ireland in September. Most applicants won’t yet have received any payment.
That is no surprise, it is the way the new social security system is designed – a fact that is a significant part of the volume of criticism that Universal Credit faces.
As the roll out continues across the UK, this volume only increases, so much so that the government’s own backbenchers are starting to shift uneasily in their seats, and it looks like there will be a softening of the policy announced in the Budget in November.
Specifically, that softening will relate to timescale. As things stand, applicants can expect to wait six weeks between making a claim and receiving their first payment. In practice in can be much longer.
For NI applicants – so far the Limavady area is the only place where Universal Credit applies – the timetable will look like this: the earliest a claim could have been made would be on September 27; there is then a week’s waiting period for most applicants, subject to some exceptions; on October 4 the monthly assessment period would begin, which takes us up until today; first payments could be expected to begin next week.
In July Scope spoke with Kevin Higgins, Head of Policy at Advice NI, in advance of Universal Credit coming to Northern Ireland. This week we caught up with him again and he raised several concerns about the local impact.
“Most people in Limavady applying for Universal Credit on September 27 would be expecting to get their first payment next week. But that is a best-case scenario.
“The learnings from Great Britain show that a lot of people wait longer – eight, 10 or even 12 weeks. Apparently one in 10 claimants have to wait longer than 10 weeks.”
This concern about the gap in time between application and first payment has an exacerbating factor on the horizon: Christmas.
“The next phases of Universal Credit in Northern Ireland begin in Ballymoney on November 15, and then in Magherafelt and Coleraine on December 13. If you apply the same timetable to any applicants there – and to any new mid November applicants in the Limavady area – you can see that there will be a lot of people really struggling over Christmas.
“Some people are calling for something along the lines of a Christmas truce around Universal Credit. Advice NI would like to see a pause in the roll out to take account of the Christmas period, but here we might be feeling the effects of not having an Assembly or a minister.”
Those calling for such a Christmas Truce around Universal Credit include Frank Field MP, who is Chair of the Commons Committee for Work and Pensions, so one of the chief scrutineers of Universal Credit – and one of its fiercest critics.
But achieving such a hiatus in Northern Ireland might prove tough because of our political deadlock.
Mr Higgins continued: “If we had a minister they could take the view that, now we have Universal Credit, the Treasury might be off our backs compared with the long argument over Welfare Reform.
“Given the strong rumours that there might be an announcement around changes to Welfare Reform in the Budget on November 22, they might feel therefore feel they are in a position to postpone the roll out in those areas until the new year. However, without a minister that is more difficult.”
This could leave a lot of families out in the cold during the festive period.
This isn’t the only worry for Advice NI. Universal Credit is a digital process and there are several potential problems with this. One is accessibility – not everyone has easy access to a computer and the internet.
The second is capability; there will surely be people who want to make a claim who are either not computer literate or who are simply unable to use the required systems.
Furthermore, there are concerns about the systems in place themselves.
“Universal Credit uses online applications and if you are able to verify your identification online your application will be processed more quickly.
“This done through another system called Verify, which is the responsibility of the Cabinet Office. Advice NI wrote to them asking for more information – and it turns out that only about 37% of people are able to verify their ID online. The system is not fit for purpose.”
In a move towards digitization, a success rate in anything of 37% is shocking, and when it’s something as fundamental as ID verification it does not paint a happy picture. The bigger effect, however, is in purely practical terms – this means that most people applying for Universal Credit are subject to further delays in an already lengthy process as they have to use alternative means, such as booking a face-to-face appointment, to get their claim moving.
The Cabinet Office said: “We are aware GOV.UK doesn’t work for everyone yet but we’re working to constantly expand and improve the service. Different users have different experiences but once they’ve been verified, they’ll be able to sign in to services you need to access securely in under a minute.”
Universal Credit is creaking. It faces criticisms of such a wide variety that it is difficult to keep track – some of the latest ones include that it leaves low-paid self-employed workers worse off than being jobless, and how roll out is leaving housing trusts in arrears.
Before it came to NI in late September Advice NI, along with NICVA and several other organisations, wrote an open letter calling for the complete suspension of the roll out. The Department of Work and Pensions has just launched a legal challenge to block the publication of a series of internal government reports into the policy.
In normal circumstances, this signature reform of social security would be the main talking point of the day, but the beleaguered Prime Minister has the Brexit negotiations and a scandal about endemic sexual impropriety in parliament to deal with.
In those circumstances, the fact that it is taking up so much space within public discourse is telling. And herein lies hope for some solutions. Public pressure can overhaul or improve failing services.
The government has heard warnings that Universal Credit is underfunded and unable to meet its stated purpose. Tory backbenchers have even joined the calls to slow down the roll out. Comparisons are even being drawn with the poll tax.
All of these criticisms are severe, and this is without going into the legacy of sanctions, and some of the horror stories about declarations of fitness to work that have occurred more and more, as the roll out has continued.
This sounds like a picture of doom but hopefully it is not. Policy can always be changed and be improved. The hope now is that the pressure being brought to bear will result in significant change. The government in Westminster is already struggling with enough bad news.
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