Socialist Worker

Universal Suffering—people at the sharp end of the Tories’ war on benefits speak out

by Sadie Robinson
Issue No. 2634

Poverty

Food bank use has soared by over 50 percent in areas where UC has been in place for at least a year. (Pic: Krystal Garrett/Yokota.af.mil)


Millions of people face a miserable Christmas because of the Tories’ hated Universal Credit (UC) benefit. Around 1.1 million currently claim UC, many with dependent children.

Emma is one of them. “None of us can afford Christmas,” she told Socialist Worker. “I’ve had to put a plea out to friends to send my little boy something, even a card, otherwise Santa won’t visit.

“The pressure is on because his friends at school are saying what they are getting. He made a Lego Christmas tree and decorated it because he doesn’t know if we’ll get one.

“He’s five years old and he deserves better.”

A further 116,000 children face severe poverty at Christmas as new UC claims go in, ­according to the Peabody Trust housing association. New claimants have to wait five weeks for their first UC ­payment—so won’t get any money until the New Year.

And for claimants who are getting paid, it’s a struggle to survive.

Chloe has been on UC for around two years. “Over Christmas it’s even more difficult to get by,” she told Socialist Worker.

“You are in the house more and it’s very cold, so you use more gas and electric. Even if you don’t spend a lot on Christmas presents it’s still difficult as it’s an extra expense.

“If you struggle in general, it’s a lot worse at this time of year.”

Combining

The Tories say UC simplifies the benefits system by combining six benefits into one payment. They say UC “makes work pay”. It’s rubbish.

Chloe said, “I found a job while I was on UC. They sanctioned me for ­missing a ­meeting because I was at work. They knew I was working—they had my hours and they got my payslips before I did.” UC has nothing to do with helping ordinary people. It’s a mechanism for punishing the poor.

Paula Peters is a Disabled People Against Cuts and Unite Community activist. She told Socialist Worker, “My partner has likened UC to the plague. It is causing horrendous destitution, poverty and homelessness—and the Tories are the rats spreading it.”

Paula and other activists have been campaigning against UC outside jobcentres. “We’ve heard horrendous stories,” she said.

“People are being thrown off the benefits system completely, denied support, sanctioned.

“They’re being left with nothing for months. People are relying on friends and family, pawning everything they have, going to loan sharks.”

Charlotte Hughes has been campaigning against UC for about five years. She’s from Ashton-Under-Lyne in Greater Manchester, one of the first areas to pilot UC in 2013.

“My daughter was sent to a ­workfare interview when she was 20 weeks pregnant,” Charlotte told Socialist Worker.

At the Unite union day of action against Universal Credit earlier in December

At the Unite union day of action against Universal Credit earlier in December (Pic: Guy Smallman)

“She’d told the interviewer she was pregnant, and because of that the jobcentre said they were sanctioning her for three years.That’s what set us off. A group of us decided we would stand outside the jobcentre every week to campaign and support people.”

Charlotte said her daughter’s experience was just the tip of the iceberg.

“Everybody we spoke to had been sanctioned,” she said. “The DWP were just doing whatever they wanted. Even though they deny it, everyone knows they have targets to adhere to.

“We’ve heard of suicides, attempted suicides, women and children going really hungry. Some people don’t realise you can be hungry and freezing cold even though you have a home.”

The targets mean claimants are pushed to look for jobs or to up their hours, even when they aren’t well. Chloe said, “I suffer from anxiety and depression, plus I have physical health problems that mean I can’t stand for long.

“I also have epilepsy. I can’t always leave the house on my own because I might have a seizure and black out. They said I have to search for work—but I can’t work.”

UC is currently being rolled out across Britain.

People who claim any of the six so-called “legacy” benefits it replaces, such as housing benefit or child tax credit, are being moved onto it. Eventually all new claimants will have to apply for UC.

Emma ended up on UC after she was forced to flee a violent ­relationship and move to a new area.

“I didn’t think anyone could make me feel like a victim again,” she said. “However, the way I’m being treated is almost on the same level.”

Emma’s work coach told her that she would probably be found “fit for work” before she even attended a medical. “I can’t afford to turn the heating on, so I’m crippled with arthritis,” she said.

The Tories dismissed ­warnings about extreme hardship this Christmas, saying claimants can apply for loans to ease the transition onto UC.

“There’s no reason for people to be without money over Christmas because advance payments are widely available,” said a Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) spokesperson.

Impossible

This assumes that dealing with the DWP is simple and straightforward. Yet many people find it impossible to get through to the UC helpline, or don’t have internet access to progress their claims.

Time after time, ­claimants describe making requests in their online journals, only to be ignored. And if ­claimants do get an advance, it’s later taken out of their UC payments—at up to 40 percent of the benefit.

Chloe said, “I had to apply for two advance payments when I went onto UC because I just had no money. But then you have to repay it. It leaves you short every month. At one point I was left with £7 for the month after paying for gas, electric and food.”

Some 113,000 UC payments were late last year, ­according to the National Audit Office. Even when the system “works” it plunges people into poverty and despair.

Charlotte said that, in her years of campaigning outside the jobcentre, she has noticed a “sharp increase” in sanctions in the run-up to Christmas.

“They do it to the most vulnerable people, people they think don’t know how to fight back,” she explained. “At Christmas time, what are you going to do? There’s nowhere open to get support. People can’t get through to the DWP. It’s the worst time of year to do it.”

Lack of money leaves claimants reliant on charity, especially if they don’t have family or friends to fall back on.

“Somebody has set up a free Facebook donations page for gifts and they are raffling prizes to help people,” said Emma. “A support worker is trying to get us a food hamper. But the demand is so high this year I’m not sure it’s happening.”

Charlotte said there’s a danger that food banks are being “normalised”.

Woman on benefits says—‘Tory benefit cuts forced me to starve’
Woman on benefits says—‘Tory benefit cuts forced me to starve’
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“Sainsbury’s has signs on the shelves saying this or that would be good for food banks,” she said.

“Food banks have become a ­feelgood thing for some. But we don’t need people pacifying the system. We need to campaign against the system that is creating the poverty.”

Paula said the Tories are using UC for their own ends. “This is an ideological, political choice to abolish the welfare state,” she said. Charlotte said the aim is to “punish the poor”.

“It’s what the Tories do,” she added. “They think we’re a burden on society, they think we’re worthless. They think disabled people don’t have any financial value. They look down on us.”

The Tories have been forced to retreat partially as the disaster of UC continues. As more people move onto it, the crisis will grow.

A Public Accounts Committee report in October warned that the number of claimants per work coach “is set to increase fourfold”.

Pete, a jobcentre worker, told Socialist Worker that there is “horrific understaffing” in jobcentres. He said UC is “causing havoc”.

But he added, “The real problem isn’t understaffing, it’s that UC is designed to punish claimants. At the recent TUC congress, our PCS union delegates voted for a motion to scrap UC.”

As the horror of UC unfolds, there’s real potential to force the Tories to scrap it. UC claimant and ­blogger Alex Tiffin has called for a “welfare ­rebellion” along the lines of the Extinction Rebellion climate protests.

He says we need “UK wide civil disobedience” to draw attention to the horrors of UC and to fight to get rid of it.

We should call on the unions and Labour to up their game too.

“Labour wants a year’s study and then it will decide what to do about it,” said Charlotte. “John McDonnell agrees UC should be scrapped, but it’s not the official policy.

“I’m a Labour Party member and I think it should be scrapped. It would be a vote-winner. But they don’t seem to see that.”

She added, “Unite Community do some things, but they’re not doing as much as they could be. People need to realise how much people are suffering.”

In the meantime, claimants will suffer stress, hunger, cold and despair as images of joyful Christmases are rammed down our throats.

“For many, Christmas is cancelled,” said Emma. “I’m just reiterating the importance of love, not presents. It’s horrible and it needs to change.”


Scrap this rotten system

Universal Credit has been condemned by claimants, charities, MPs, jobcentre workers and even the United Nations (UN). UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston condemned the policy for driving more people into poverty in a report last month.

More claimants are due to be moved onto UC in the middle of next year.

But MPs have warned that getting this “managed migration” wrong could “plunge claimants into poverty and even leave them destitute”.

A Public Accounts Committee report published in October said UC is “causing unacceptable hardship”.

Soared

Food bank use has soared by over 50 percent in areas where UC has been in place for at least a year.

The Tories, desperate to keep the policy going, threw a bit more money at it in November’s budget. But the Resolution Foundation think tank said some three million “working families” will still lose out.

A BBC Panorama programme that month found that council tenants on UC have on average more than double the rent arrears of housing benefit claimants.

Across 129 councils, the average arrears for UC claimants was £662.56. For housing benefit claimants it was £262.50. UC was originally supposed to be fully operational by October 2017.

That deadline has now been pushed back to December 2023.


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