The Tories’ new Universal Credit benefit scheme is plunging people into debt, homelessness and food poverty.
Universal Credit has been progressively replacing six existing benefits since 2013—and making claimants’ lives a nightmare.
New claimants face a six-week wait before they receive anything, forcing them to borrow money or fall behind on rent.
A host of restrictive conditions mean that they can never be sure when the meagre payments they rely on will be snatched away again.
And the complex changeover process has been full of glitches and errors that the Department for Work and Pensions has made tenants pay for.
Norma from Peckham in south London applied for a working tax credit benefit in December last year, to top up her income from two jobs and housing benefit.
Instead she was moved onto Universal Credit. It took a while, but she got by on the new combined payment—until July, when officials called her in with bad news.
“They had made a miscalculation,” she told Socialist Worker. “They cut the payment to just £600 a month.”
Errors like this are common. But they have consequences.
“I need the money for the rent and the bills,” said Norma. “Now I have nothing left for food. And they told me I will have to pay them back £2,700. It’s not right.”
The amount people receive can sound like a lot, something the Tories use to demonise supposed scroungers.
But claimants are being gouged by low-paying employers and high-charging landlords. Once these exploiters have taken their cut, Tory reforms make sure only a pittance is left.
Claimants are now paid monthly, not weekly. This is supposedly to get them used to a monthly wage, though many low-paid jobs are paid by the week.
This creates an extra pressure as Ray, an unemployed claimant in Peckham, told Socialist Worker.
“You try and do a big shop that will last the whole month, and put some money aside for the end,” he said. “But it never works! It’s hard, so hard.”
Pete from nearby Lambeth was put on Universal Credit after escaping from homelessness.
He told Socialist Worker, “After the rent and the bills I get about £7 a day.
“And once you’re on that tight a margin, other things that might sound small can take a huge amount of your income.
“You have to apply for Universal Credit online, and go online to get messages from them.
“But I don’t have the internet at home, and Lambeth council has been closing the libraries, so I have to pay to use a cybercafe.”
There is also a telephone helpline. It costs 55p a minute.
Pete went on, “With jobseekers’ allowance you used to get a half-price bus pass. Now you only get it for six months, then have to reapply and prove that you’re still worthy of it.
“I had to spend weeks paying full price on the bus. That’s an extra £2.25 a day.”
Pete faced a “Catch-22” of bureaucratic requirements to claim Universal Credit in the first place. Now he works, when he can get a shift on his zero hours contract.
When he does, most of the wage is taken back off him as his Universal Credit is adjusted to take it into account.
When he doesn’t, he is hounded with the threat of sanctions—cutting off his benefits.
Universal Credit extends the hated regime of sanctions from people who are out of work—on unemployment or sickness benefit—to low-paid workers too.
Pete said, “The Tories say they’re against the ‘nanny state’ but for us on Universal Credit they’ve created the ultimate nanny state—with no carrot and a big stick.”
MPs’ vote in parliament could block rollout of hated benefit
MPs were set to vote on pausing the rollout of Universal Credit on Wednesday.
There was speculation that as many as 25 Tory MPs could rebel against the government.
The rollout has been bogged down in delays with its completion date pushed back repeatedly from 2017 to 2021.
Costs have rocketed.
But current work and pensions secretary David Gauke—the fourth since Universal Credit was launched—planned to accelerate its rollout.
Under his plans 150 more jobcentres were to move over to Universal Credit in the next few months, though Wednesday’s vote could slow it down.
Much of the opposition comes from councils and housing associations that have had to subsidise rent arrears to avoid mass evictions.
Some 92 percent of East Dunbartonshire council’s tenants on Universal Credit are in rent arrears.
Croydon council, the first to pilot Universal Credit, has said it expects to lose up to £3 million next year in unpaid rents.
But there’s more at stake for claimants than how their landlords get the rent paid.
Universal Credit extends a cruel regime of making the poor jump through hoops for benefits too low to live on.
That whole system needs to be thrown out.