NICVA Universal Credit Roundtable Dicussion
Attending the discussion was those working in the voluntary, community and advice sectors who are providing support and advice to claimants of universal credit here in Northern Ireland. The aim of this roundtable discussion was to share experiences of universal credit roll out and discuss what the future challenges of this system may be. Kevin Higgins (Advice NI), Ciara Fitzpatrick (Law Centre NI) and Kate McCauley (Housing Rights) helpfully provided overviews on the roll out and the impacts.
Universal credit completed its roll-out in Northern Ireland in December 2018 (for new claimants and for those naturally migrating) with the purpose of rolling six benefits into one. However, the roll out has caused many issues for claimants including barriers to online claims, 5-week minimum payment, inappropriate case closures, loss of income, housing/childcare verification and other issues discussed below.
The UN Rapporteur on extreme poverty stated that ‘aspects of the design and rollout of the programme have suggested that the Department for Work and Pensions is more concerned with making economic savings and sending messages about lifestyles than responding to the multiple needs of those living with a disability, job loss, housing insecurity, illness, and the demands of parenting’. There are still many claimants who are yet to undergo managed migration to universal credit, however, people are already experiencing financial hardship, debt and increased poverty as a result of this system.
What are some of the key issues/challenges?
Online nature of the universal credit application
The online/digital platform can be a barrier to access for some claimants, especially those who are not I.T literate. Some claimants have said that the online journal is complex to fill out and this can be extremely challenging for those not familiar with using a computer/online platform or those who require additional support. The online nature of the application also assumes that all claimants have access to a computer or smartphone as well as an internet connection this means the process could be financially prohibitive. It was suggested that there should be multiple access channels including via phone, letter and face to face for universal credit claimants. Whilst the Department for Communities have advised that claims can be made via telephone, the telephone service is not adequately sign-posted resulting in an extremely low number of claims being made this way. Because decisions are not being posted out to claimants as per the previous welfare system, some claimants are missing communications, this can result in a longer wit for payment, case closures and associated knock-on impacts.
There have also been issues with the online system itself in terms of glitches and system crashes which creates additional challenges for claimants, this includes the online verification process which has had only 25% success rate. There is very limited advice or support for claimants to navigate this online/digital process.
Premature movement onto universal credit
It was highlighted that some people in receipt of legacy benefits are prematurely migrating to universal credit before they are required to do so due to unclear messaging coming from the department. Some people have been receiving letters seemingly urging them that they need to move from the legacy benefit to universal credit even though they do not appear to have a had a change of circumstance. As a result, some claimants are prematurely migrating onto universal credit, with some experiencing decrease in entitlement of up to 70% without the transitional protection that comes with managed migration. There are questions to be answered around why people who have not had a change in circumstances are being told to migrate to universal credit.
Continuous cuts and hardship for the most vulnerable
It has been reported that most UC claimants in NI will see a decrease in entitlement. Those who have been impacted by the loss of income are facing cut after cut, including from non-universal credit payments such as Personal Independence Payment (PIP) and Employment Support Allowance (ESA). A significant number of claimants due to undergo managed migration in NI are in receipt of ESA, meaning that they are in poor health or have some kind of disability, there is concern about these claimants failing to successfully navigate the process of making a new universal credit claim.
Many people feel that they are in a situation where they are facing a reduction in income at a time when they are already very vulnerable, especially those who have complex needs and have very little financial support to deal with these cuts. This is causing further hardship for people, resulting in an increase in the reliance of foodbanks and housing vulnerability and homelessness.
Cuts to Severe Disability Premium
Some claimants moving onto universal credit are losing out on their Severe Disability Premiums (SDP) after migrating to universal credit. There has been compensation proposed for this loss set at a flat rate of £80pcm, however, some claimants have highlighted that their SDP has decreased by hundreds of pounds.
Claimants are risking sanctions if they do not ensure that their claimant commitment is individualised to reflect their personal circumstances. However, for some claimants, having to explain personal, and sometimes complex, circumstances to a job coach, whom they may have just met, can be difficult and stressful and there may be a reluctance to disclose certain information meaning it will not fully reflect the claimant’s circumstances. This may result in sanctions at a later date if the claimant commitment does not fully reflect the personal situation. The claimant as an individual person is being lost in the process.
Unacceptable waiting time for first universal credit payment
People making a claim for universal credit are having to wait long amounts of time to receive their first payment with five weeks being the minimum amount of time, with waiting times up to ten weeks. This is an unacceptable amount of time for people to be without an income and will push people further into debt and hardship. This is especially difficult for those who are migrating onto universal credit around the Christmas period, and in turn may have to turn to unscrupulous money lenders or payday loans.
Inappropriate case closures
There have been reports of universal credit claimants having their case inappropriately closed by job centres without being informed. Claimants who have had their case closed will then have to begin the process for the beginning again, this can result in people falling out of the system with no support. There have been questions around why this is happening? Is it to reflect case closed statistics for universal credit?
Confusion around what constitutes a change in circumstance
There is a lack of clarity amongst people around what constitutes a change in circumstances, there needs to be better information for those in receipt of benefits. Some people do not know if they have had a change in circumstance and whether the are required to naturally migrate to universal credit at this time.
Lack of accountability in the system
Again, and again the onus is on the claimant to successfully navigate the universal credit application process and accountability for getting the system right lies with those who are most vulnerable, rather than the people in charge of implementing the system.
Issue with the functioning of the split payment mechanism
Although the mechanism for split payment exists in Northern Ireland, it has highlighted that this is not yet functioning properly in NI. This is particularly harmful to those who may be in an abusive or coercive relationship and are unable to access their personal finance and will act as a barrier to those trying to leave a relationship.
The two-child cap is another element of universal credit which is particularly damaging to women and their children. This means that families are unable to obtain child tax credit if they have more than two children. This also impacts women who may not have control over their reproductive destiny or those who are victims of rape. This element will have a detrimental impact on children in larger and less well-off families, with the potential to push thousands more children into poverty. The child poverty rate in NI currently stands at 24%.
Housing vulnerable claimants
Some of the safety net protections that existed in the legacy benefit around housing benefit have not been included in the universal credit system, including death protection, income shock protection, overlap protection and assistance with full contracts. This means there is increased housing insecurity for vulnerable claimants with no protection against any income change or decrease.
Some claimants are failing to apply for housing benefit under the new system as they do not realise that they require it. With the legacy payments, housing benefit went directly to the landlord so claimants who would have previously never have dealt with housing benefit. Claimants are then finding that they are being contacted by landlords about non-payment of rent and housing arrears. The process to get the claim amended can take several weeks and cause a build-up in housing arrears, with the absence of any safety net protection. This can cause additional stress to vulnerable claimants with some claimants at the risk of losing their homes.
Another issue discussed in relation to housing benefit is around to whom it is being paid to. In NI the housing benefit element of universal credit is meant to go directly to the landlord, rather than the claimant, as is the case in GB. However, in NI there have been reports that this process is not working as it should with instances where the first payment has gone to landlords with subsequent payments being paid to the claimant. This adds an administrative burden to claimants and the possibility that the claimants may unknowingly spend their housing benefit on other things.
There is also the added administrative burden with claimants having to fill in a separate application in relation to housing rates, it would be more appropriate if this was included in the universal credit claim for housing benefit.
It has been highlighted that claimants are finding a reduced access to housing as they find their income decreasing under universal credit. There is also difficulty for landlords and letting agents to support tenants who are in receipt of universal credit due to the explicit consent provision. This means that some landlords, especially private landlords, are reluctant to let houses to those in receipt of universal credit. In an environment of increasing housing shortage, this will only lead to more housing vulnerability and a rise in homelessness.
There are also specific housing issues for prisoners who are unable to make a universal credit claim from prison. This means that prisoners who are serving short sentences are finding themselves in housing arrears and some are coming out of prison to find themselves homeless. This is huge barrier to rehabilitation and is costing the system elsewhere.
Narrative around universal credit from the public and from government departments
It was highlighted that there seems to be a perception from the public who are not in receipt of benefits that benefits are lucrative and ‘some people get everything’. This narrative must be challenged, and the public must be properly informed about universal credit and the negative impact it has for many of the most vulnerable claimants.
It was also claimed that the narrative coming from the government about those who are in receipt of benefits also contributes to this perception at community level. Those charged with designing and implementing the universal credit experiences do not have the same experience of those in receipt of universal credit, this means that listening to feedback on what works and what doesn’t is critical.
Impact on children and child poverty
There has been a significant absence of children’s voices in the debate around universal credit despite children being significantly impacted. According to CPAG, child poverty affects more than one in four children in the UK today and it is highlighted that among some of the reasons that families end up in poverty can be due to a decrease in earnings through benefit changes. Child poverty has long-lasting effects related to lower academic achievement, more complicate health history over a lifetime. The two-child limit element of universal credit could also lead to an increase in child poverty as it breaks the link between children’s needs and the support they receive, it also discriminates against those children with multiple siblings.
Childcare is up there with housing as one of the costs that take the biggest toll on families’ budgets. Childcare costs can put an additional financial and administrative burden on families as the childcare costs must be paid upfront and claimants are also required to keep monthly receipts for childcare. This upfront payment for childcare can leave many claimants in debt or having to turn to unscrupulous money lenders to pay these costs.
Heavy reliance on voluntary and community and advice sectors.
Throughout this process of moving onto universal credit, there has been a heavy reliance on the voluntary, community and advice sectors to support claimants and especially those who are most vulnerable with complex needs. The onus is always on the claimant to ensure they provide correct information and can appropriately navigate the system even when continuously coming up against problems in the system designed by the government. There is an issue of capacity for the voluntary, community and advice sector in dealing with the impacts and unintended consequences of the roll out of universal credit- the government can not continue to expect this sector to deal with the fall out of this flawed policy especially at a time when there are continuous cuts within the sector.
The department are actively encouraging vulnerable claimants to use foodbanks and other voluntary organisations and are failing in their statutory duty to eliminate poverty. Some groups felt that the department was activity ‘promoting poverty as a way of life’ by recommending people to use food banks and charities during the time between making their claim for universal credit and when their money comes in.
Discussion: What might the future issues and challenges be?
Tight deadline for managed migration
The government proposals for managed migration give claimants a three-month window to move from legacy benefits to universal credit. If claimants fail to meet this tight deadline, there is no protection for them. This is a very tight timeframe, and again the onus is on the claimant rather than the department to undertake managed migration onto universal credit. This could potentially lead to some of the most vulnerable people falling out of the system.
End of mitigation package in 2020 and absence of devolved government
The roll out of universal credit is happening in the absence of a devolved government here to represent the specific needs and interests of Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland’s mitigation package runs out in 2020 with with vulnerable people facing a ‘cliff edge scenario’. This will give rise to significant financial hardship There is also a feeling that with so much attention on Brexit, the issues associated with universal credit are not being given a priority focus.
Need for better statistics to evidence the impact of universal credit
The government have seemingly ignored their ‘do no harm’ policy in the roll out of universal credit. This discussion has highlighted that universal credit is having a negative impact on claimants and families including forcing people into food banks. There needs to be greater impact assessment and monitoring of the roll out of universal credit to find out how many claimants have experienced a decrease in income, by how much and how this has impacted their lives.
There is an absence of statistics around simply finding out how many people are currently on universal credit in NI and impacts cannot be fully assessed when it is not clear how many people are being impacted. The Government should therefore publish their analysis into the impact of universal credit on claimants’ incomes and debt levels in Great Britain. The Child Poverty Action Group has carried out research to reveal that 43m families would lose money with the full rollout, with 70% of those losing out would be families with someone in work.
More information about universal credit and its impacts
There could also be greater effort to educate people as well as elected representatives on the roll out of universal credit and the impact it is having on the ground. Having this kind of information will empower people to challenge the system with decision makers.
Bigger problems down the line?
It was claimed that there is a ‘false economy’ in any apparent savings made by universal credit in the welfare system. The negative impact that welfare reform has had on the lives of people has resulted in knock on impacts in other sectors of society such as additional pressures and cost on the health sector as result of increased poverty. There are big questions to be asked around why the government is continuing to push ahead with universal credit in this current form when there is a lot of evidence to suggest that it is deeply flawed. There are still many problems with the system which is demonstrated by the continued delays to rollout. The flaws with the system are punishing those who are most vulnerable in the system whilst the department does not bear the brunt of the consequences.
How can we continue to challenge the most unfair aspects of universal credit?
- Ensure that people are informed about universal credit in order to build a wider community-based response.
- Urge government to look at models in other countries, such as the housing first approach that Finland adopts to tackle homelessness, and which is the only country in Europe where homelessness has decreased.
- Voluntary and community sector can do more to highlight the experience of those who are negatively impacted as a result of universal credit and ensure that decision makers in government are connected to these issues.
- Urge the government and department to reduce the bureaucracy associated with helping those making claims for universal credit
- Encourage a more joined up approach to welfare across government departments. It isn’t just an issue for the department of communities but also health, education, economy and justice.
- Lobby for better mechanisms for accountability at departmental level
- Continue to put the pressure on decision makers and tell peoples’ stories and experiences of universal credit.
- Urge the councils to play a bigger role, especially with the absence of devolved government here, in highlighting the impacts of universal credit in Northern Ireland.
- Urge the department to provide more training for those staff who are working on universal credit to ensure that they are equipped with the skills to deal with people with disabilities and complex needs.
- Highlight the model of the Children’s cooperation bill of a way of better coordinating the needs of those in receipt of universal credit with services such as advices organisations, GPs, social workers etc.
NICVA supports the recommendations made by Advice NI on Making universal credit better and from the Welfare Reform Group in relation to protecting claimants through the migration process (attached). We also support the paper produced by Advice NI, Housing Rights and Law Centre NI which provides an overview of the current mitigations in place until 2020 as well as highlighting the needs to undertake discussions about what happens next. This paper also highlights the need for this conversation to involve a wide range of voices from across the sector and with political and government representatives.