A New Year sees important changes to Universal Credit proposed

Feeding Camden January 2019 No 2

Jean Kilshaw, on behalf of Feeding Camden

As reported in the first issue of Feeding Camden 2019 there was much speculation at the start of 2019 that changes to Universal Credit (UC) were imminent.  We did not have long to wait for confirmation as Work and Pensions Secretary, Amber Rudd, unveiled her proposals for important developments on 11 January 2019. 

The changes proposed include:-

  1.  Claimants can get advances against future payments 
  2. Some payments may be directed to private landlords as under the previous housing benefit regime
  3. Efforts will be made to ensure that payments are made to a family’s main carer, usually a woman
  4. There will be no extension of a two-child limit on UC for children born before April 2017 when the cap was introduced.  This addresses an unfairness that would have hit 15,000 families
  5. There will be a delay of the managed migration of claimants to UC until the Work and Pensions Department has concluded a pilot scheme for 10,000 people.

https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/jan/11/benefits-freeze-likely-to-end-in-2020-says-amber-rudd

Whilst the changes are welcome there is no doubt that the challenges of implementation are daunting.

Rebuilding public confidence in Universal Credit is the challenge

Not surprisingly given the years of heated debate over UC there was considerable media coverage of the proposals which have been long-sought by many sections of society including MPs, charities and other organisations at the forefront of fighting poverty in the UK. That there were differences of opinion as to the reaction of the media is exemplified by Leading Articles in The Times and The Guardian.

The Timesin a Leading Article published on 12 January 2019 in response to the proposed changes gave Ms Rudd credit and concluded that:- 

 “Ms Rudd has made a good and pragmatic start and must be prepared to make further changes as new problems emerge.”  At the same time it identified the challenge facing her namely that

“Public confidence depends on the system being perceived to be fair to all citizens.”

https://www.thetimes.co.uk/edition/comment/the-times-view-on-amber-rudd-her-changes-to-universal-credit-are-sensible-lkxcx00vd

The Guardian in a Leading Article of 11 January took a different position.

Adjustments are no solution to the serious problem of welfare reform

The Guardian Leading Article highlighted the fact that Ms Rudd is the fifth work and pensions secretary since 2016 and whilst acknowledging that “She has already gone further than her predecessors in admitting to difficulties” concluded that “the changes she has so far announced, though welcome, are utterly inadequate.”

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/jan/11/the-guardian-view-on-universal-credit-flawed-calculations

Five-week UC payment delay is trapping people in debt

One of the big challenges of UC is the five-week wait before new benefits are paid.  Ms Rudd is under pressure to shorten this period. 

The Sun newspaper which has taken UC to its heart with the launch of a “Make Universal Credit Work” campaign on 17 December 2018 reported on 16 January 2019 that the charity Christians Against Poverty says that the five-week wait for help is trapping people in debt which they can never repay.  The amounts taken off claimants to pay back their debts every month are simply too high causing severe hardship and suffering.  According to the Sun article Citizens Advice has found that people on UC are 27% more likely to have debt problems than those on the old benefits system.

https://www.thesun.co.uk/money/7949946/sun-launches-make-universal-credit-work-campaign/

https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/8193466/universal-credit-delay-traps-brits-in-debt-and-forces-them-to-food-banks-to-pay-it-all-back-charity-warns/

Continuing reports of hardship

The government continues to claim UC has worked for the vast majority of claimants a view that seems difficult to reconcile with continuing reports of hardship across the country.  

The Guardian on 19 January 2019 published moving letters from individuals with personal first-hand testimony.  A salutary account of UC experience in the North of England has appeared in The Liverpool Echo on 16 January 2019.  One councillor in Sefton, Merseyside, quoted does not mince his words describing the system as “broken.” The paper reports that since the rollout of UC in Merseyside in October 2017 it has been inundated with tales of misery from claimants especially in the Sexton area.

https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/jan/10/the-misery-despair-and-pain-of-universal-credit

https://www.liverpoolecho.co.uk/news/liverpool-news/the-system-broken-how-universal-15686396

Major cuts to pension credit from May 2019 a blow

More unpalatable news came on 14 January 2019 with the government announcement of a change to pension credit that could see couples on UC lose as much as £7,000 a year.  From May 15 2019 if one half of a couple is under 65 they will not be able to receive full pension credit.

According to the Independent on 16 January 2019 Age UK who has been campaigning against the pension change said that the Department of Work and Pensions had “quietly” announced the pension credit reform hoping that it would be overshadowed by the meaningful vote on the Bruit deal.  Age UK said “make no mistake this is very bad news for everyone affected.  It’s a substantial stealth cut…”

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/jan/17/amber-rudd-denial-benefits-crisis-universal-credit

https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/8200322/pensioner-couples-set-to-be-7000-a-year-worse-off-under-sneaky-cut-to-benefits/

https://inews.co.uk/news/uk/universal-credit-dwp-accused-of-burying-news-pensioners-benefits-younger-partners-mixed-age-couples/

As for the idea that the delay in roll out of UC is a positive move a correspondent to the Guardian has responded to Ms Rudd’s proposals claiming that the delayed roll out of UC will in fact “cost some claimants dearly.”

https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/jan/15/claimants-will-pay-for-universal-credit-delay

The government’s stance that UC problems are limited also sits uneasily with the news that

MPs want a Hunger Minister role to be introduced

A group of MPs want the government to introduce a Minister for Hunger to respond to a growth of food insecurity in the UK especially among children.  The Environmental Audit Committee’s new report “Hunger, malnutrition and food insecurity in the UK”  highlighted UNICEF 2017 figures showing 19% of children under 15 in the UK live with adults who struggle to buy food.

The new ministerial job would involve exploring the scale, causes and impact of hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition and implementing strategies to improve the situation.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-46810707

As part of its work with the End Hunger Campaign coalition The Trussell Trust submitted evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee.

Emma Revie, chief executive of the Trussell Trust, welcomes the idea of a Hunger Minister, commenting that “It’s time for the government to take concrete steps towards a UK where everyone has enough money for food.  Although food bank volunteers are providing vital support to those in crisis, no charity can replace people having enough money for the basics.”

Ms Revie concludes: “To end hunger, we need to understand the true scale of the challenge, and work across government to ensure everyone is anchored from being swept into poverty.”

Food banks provide a lifeline 

The recent BBC coverage of UC highlighted the experience of Jo Milner who lives in York with her husband and nine-year-old son.  She volunteers at a food bank and community hub and her husband has two full time jobs but still struggle to feed their family.  After paying their mortgage there’s no money left for food and they rely on food banks and support from Jo’s mother to survive.  This is not an unusual case.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-46810707

Hungry children eating from bins in Morecambe

The impact of food insecurity is particularly hard on children some of whom are going to school hungry.

The head teacher of a school in Morecambe, Siobhan Collingwood, has said that 

1 in 10 of its pupils comes from a family using food banks.  She also said she has noticed more problems since the introduction of Universal Credit.

She told the BBC it was “heartbreaking” and that parents had been “arriving at school literally bursting into tears telling me that they have no means of feeding their children.”

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-lancashire-46827360

A New Year sees important changes to Universal Credit proposed