On 4 September Dean Lovell-Payne took an overdose. He did so while he was on the phone to the Universal Credit (UC) benefit helpline. Dean told Socialist Worker, “I told them what I was doing. I said, ‘If you’re not going to look after my family, I’m not going to put them through any more.’
“I was ill, in pain, tired and just ran out of options. I’ve got life insurance. I got to the point where I felt my kids would be better off with that than with me having to keep fighting.”
Dean was trying to access benefits that he is entitled to. A bad fall in top of long-term health problems meant he had to stop working at the ambulance service in June. He is now “pretty much bedbound” at his home in Bournemouth.
Yet Dean was forced to wait 11 weeks before receiving any money from UC.
“I physically couldn’t get to the job centre to sort anything out,” he explained. “I needed a home visit. But after about ten weeks they said, we can’t do anything without a home visit, and we can’t do a home visit as we don’t have the staff.”
On 5 September his daughters were due back at school—but Dean and his partner didn’t have the money to send them. “We asked for a letter confirming the delay so we could ask social services to place them in temporary care,” he said. “But UC refused.”
It was the last straw. But his overdose seemed to make the problems in paying him disappear. “They managed to get a payment into the bank that same night,” he said. “They didn’t want the publicity.”
Dean is one of tens of thousands of people plunged into despair by the Tory war on benefits and their hated UC regime. Just last week MPs heard that nearly half of women who go through Work Capability Assessments have tried to kill themselves.
Delays in UC payments leave people without money for food or heating. Some claimants face eviction because they can’t pay their rent. When UC is finally paid, many people have racked up debts that they can’t afford to repay. And they get less money than they did before.
“UC has been an ordeal,” said Dean. “Anyone who’s not working or in lower paid jobs is worse off.”
The Tories say UC helps claimants. “In my opinion, it helps the Tories by lining their pockets,” retorted Fiona, a claimant from Ayrshire in south west Scotland.
Fiona is a nursery teacher and until recently was in college studying for a higher national degree. She needs this for her job and not having it puts her future employment at risk.
But Fiona had to give up college—because of UC. “I was £400 a month worse off,” she told Socialist Worker. “I couldn’t pay my rent. I could hardly pay my bills. I just thought, ‘I can’t do this’.”
A friend told Fiona that her nursery was looking for a supply worker until December—so she left college and took the job.
“They say they want you to get an education and better yourself,” said Fiona. “But you can’t. I’m not the only one that has left college. People can’t feed their families.
“I’m 42 this year. It’s taken me this long to be able to go to college. It feels like Theresa May’s slapped me in the face and said, ‘You’re not good enough.’”
The Tories say UC “is designed to make sure that you’re better off in work”. It’s a lie.
Liz from Torfaen in South Wales is due to return to full time work in January after having a baby. But the Tories’ “two-child limit policy”, introduced to UC in April last year, stands in her way.
“UC said I can’t get help for childcare for my baby,” she told Socialist Worker. “This is because there are already two children on my claim—my eight year old and my 11 year old.”
Liz is a trained social worker but is currently working 16 hours a week as a childcare practitioner as it fits around caring for her children.
“I’d like to go back full time,” she said. “I’ve always worked. But for social work roles you are looking at 30-40 hours a week.
“I would need a full time nursery placement. At the nursery I work in, that’s an £845 a month fee.”
Lack of money has forced Liz to make changes. “I’ve had to cut back on things like the amount of recreational activity my children do outside school,” she said.
“But it’s still not working and I don’t know what else we can cut. I’ve got an overdraft and because money’s tight I’m always going into it.”
The financial hardship causes severe stress. And the system treats claimants and their children as worthless.
“Being on UC was terrible,” said Fiona. “I was ill with it. It put me and my 17 year old son into poverty. He’s doing painting and decorating at college.
“It threatened his education as I might not have been able to afford it.
“I’ve had to borrow money to pay for his travel and lunches. I had to go to a backstreet lender for a loan to buy clothes for him. A few years ago I wouldn’t have had to do that.”
Many claimants are forced into making humiliating and upsetting decisions.
Karan claimed UC while working at the Department for Work and Pensions, which administers the benefit. After her contract ended, she worked in a college doing admin.
“After six weeks our college went into liquidation and our wages were frozen,” she told Socialist Worker. “I informed UC about the changes and they gave me the grand amount of £300 to survive on for the month.
“At one point my little boy had to stay at his auntie’s house just to make sure he was getting a meal. I’ve worked ever since he was five weeks old.”
Liz’s partner moved cities to be with her when she found out she was pregnant, and initially didn’t have a job. “He was made to feel like dirt when he walked into the job centre,” she said. “He’s an accountant. But they sent him for jobs stacking supermarket shelves on the minimum wage.”
She added, “UC has been a nightmare. I’m on government maternity allowance, which they treat as a benefit. When I asked for my claim to be reassessed, I was told to go to a food bank. Unless you’re in that situation, you don’t realise how soul-destroying it is.
“People say this government is making the rich richer and the poor poorer. Unfortunately that is the way it looks.”
Dean calls UC “Theresa May’s ‘final solution’”. “It’s the complete humiliation of sick and disabled people,” he said.
And the experience has made him “angry for other people”. “I’m educated and I can argue my case,” he said. “If it can get me to the point of taking an overdose, how are other people coping?”
‘It’s a bureaucratic nightmare for us’
Universal Credit claimants face a life of form-filling, delays, mistakes and pointless procedures that waste their time.
“Since I’ve been on UC they’ve made mistake after mistake,” said Dean. “Every single thing except for the basic amount has been wrong.”
Liz said, “Every month I have to tell them my earnings. It never gets locked into the system.
“If there’s a problem, they advise you to put it in your journal.
“But no one gets back to you.”
Dean said, “They’ve overpaid on rent, even though I’d told them about 15 times in the journal what it was. Now they’re demanding that back.”
An error with council tax has left Liz with a big bill. “Just last week I got a letter saying my council tax payments have gone up to £160 a month,” she said. “That’s because they had previously calculated it as £20.88 a month.”
Liz had asked at the time whether this was correct and was wrongly told that it was. “I’m struggling now,” she said. “Our total income is £1,600 a month. Rent is £800. I’ve got four children.”
Dean has had to fill out “loads of forms” despite the fact that “they’ve already got all the information”.
“They say the system is all online,” he said. “But then they ask you to take all the information into the job centre. Everything is duplicated.”
The online system is inaccessible for many people. And it doesn’t work. Gemma and her partner claimed UC in August last year.
“Even though I completed the forms online, only half of the claim was on their system,” she said.
Gemma was then expected to attend the office twice a month—despite having no money for travel. “We had to rely on a neighbour to get us there and back,” she said.
Dean is a “lifelong Tory voter” but he’s now joined the Labour Party. He described how his family all voted Tory and were “of the belief that hard work and education would get you somewhere”.
But his revulsion at the government led him to join the Not One More Day protest in July last year in his wheelchair.
“Next to the stage they had a list of names of people who they said had killed themselves because of the benefit changes,” he said. “It’s horrific.”
“UC needs scrapping. It’s a disaster.
“It just needs to go.”