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24 January 2018

Universal credit: set up to fail

Only a few days after the roll-out of the Tories' new 'universal credit' benefits system, the working poor, disabled and most vulnerable in our society are already suffering. Ronnie, an income officer for a housing trust in Halton, Merseyside, spoke to the Socialist Party's Stephen Armstrong about the difficulties encountered by claimants and her own organisation.

"Since the roll-out of universal credit full service hit Halton in July 2016, claimants are required to apply online and then create a journal which they must keep up to date and use to query payments or discuss their claim with their work coach or case worker. For elderly people or some of our clients with mental health or special needs, this can present real problems.

"The 55p-a-minute helpline put many clients off ringing for advice. We aren't allowed to contact the DWP [Department for Work and Pensions] without the client being present - and when we do, we get through to a call centre which could be anywhere in the country.

"Operators don't have local knowledge. Often the computer system is down or the operator won't have all the information. It feels like the government wants the system to fail."

The disastrous housing policy of the Tory government is adding to the problems. Ronnie told us: "Social landlords have to bid for funding to develop new properties. The government can determine what type of scheme and mix of property size or tenure type they want.


"Social landlords are having to wait for universal credit payments to be made from the DWP and they can be delayed sometimes for more than a couple of months. Compare this to housing benefit paid from the local authority, where payments would be made direct to social landlords on a regular four-weekly cycle.

"The rents that do come in have to be allocated to repairs, staff wages, et cetera - leaving little for us to bid on new property with, meaning a smaller pool of suitable properties for claimants.

"The six-week wait for claims to come through is creating problems across the board for clients.

"The benefit cap has already had a negative effect on their finances and now they are having to make hard choices with the little money they have. It can often come down to food or rent, and few people will let their families go hungry if they can put off paying the rent instead.

"Claimants can apply for advance payments of universal credit, which isn't something they widely publicise. It's an advance on your personal allowance, but universal credit makes you pay it back over six months.

"But what they also fail to publicise is that it can be paid back over 12 months - and you have to prove financial hardship. Well surely the mere fact that you're asking for advance payment means you're struggling financially?

"Vulnerable clients, already struggling with disability or mental health issues, are now suffering with anxiety as they juggle the various issues around universal credit and housing benefit. It can be very distressing for staff who want to help, but are unable to, through no fault of their own."

This means housing trusts are issuing more repossession orders, although many are not followed through as payments can arrive in the nick of time. Emergency 'discretionary payments' are available from local councils - but few are aware of them, or how to claim.

The few houses available to housing trusts are in great demand. This gives families two choices. Sit on an ever-growing waiting list with no certainty of getting an affordable home. Or pay over the odds to private landlords without the protections guaranteed by social housing tenancy agreements.

Ronnie told us there is little optimism among her colleagues that things will improve for their clients or the housing system in general. "We're already sending out more rent arrears notices and repossession orders. We're dealing with more and more distressed clients every week.

"Our workload has increased and staff are becoming frustrated, and stressed, with a system which seems set up to discourage people from claiming. It definitely feels that universal credit is about forcing people off benefits and into low-paid jobs, which means our clients have little chance of moving up the property ladder."

The only solution to these problems is a socialist programme of mass council house building, rent controls, and reversing all cuts to benefits and public services, so they are properly run and accessible to everybody.