A built-in delay of at least 42 days before claimants receive payments leaves people struggling to pay bills and buy food, says Citizens Advice. A study by Citizens Advice found that delays in universal credit payments left people dependent on food banks. Written by Patrick Butler Social policy editor ‘The Guardian’
Design flaws in the government’s troubled universal credit system are leaving vulnerable claimants hundreds of pounds in debt and dependent on food banks, according to a study of how the system is working in practice.
The main cause of difficulty is a built-in delay to universal credit which requires claimants to wait at least 42 days before receiving a benefit payment. This has left some claimants penniless, stressed, forced to borrow cash to pay rent or utility bills and struggling to buy food.
The system, which is being being slowly rolled out across the UK and is years behind its original schedule, is also dogged by computer processing errors, poor communications with claimants, and delays in fixing simple administrative problems, says the study by a group of Citizens Advice offices.
It says that although universal credit assumes claimants are paid monthly in arrears – and therefore if they lose their job they can manage until their first benefit payment – half of low paid workers are paid weekly, meaning they must last for six weeks on a single week’s money.
More than 60% of the study’s respondents reported that they had found it “very difficult” to pay rent, utilities and food bills during the 42-day period. A third had waited even longer for their claim to be processed, with one in 10 waiting at least 63 days.
The study says these problems undermine the aims of universal credit because “claimants are forced into focusing on getting their benefit income into payment, finding food for their families and negotiating late payments of bills with their landlords and others instead of looking for work”.
It mirrors warnings given by charities and local authorities last month to an MPs’ inquiry into benefits delivery that the 42 day universal credit assessment period would pitch thousands of low income claimants into hardship and debt.
The Citizens Advice study was based on 350 universal credit claimants who had presented with benefit problems at 16 of its offices in England and Wales between March and June 2015. The study says that although this cohort is not representative – because it studies only those claimants who have had difficulties with universal credit – it indicates serious problems that will proliferate as universal credit rolls out.
Sue Royston of Citizens Advice, who coordinated the research, said: “Advisers who have taken part in this research and regularly see clients on universal credit agree that the benefits system needs simplifying and support the aims of universal credit.
“However, they believe that universal credit will not achieve its aims unless the problems identified in this report are resolved.”
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) insisted that universal credit was working well on the ground and there was no systematic evidence of payment delays.
A DWP spokesman said: “The reality is that universal credit is simplifying the welfare system to make work pay and is already transforming hundreds of thousands of lives. Universal credit claimants are moving into work faster and staying in work longer, and the new welfare system will ensure 3m of the poorest households will be better off.”
The Citizens Advice study found that it was frequently difficult and time consuming for advisers to help clients who had suffered from serious DWP administrative errors.
It says: “Our advisers frequently found that there was no effective way of speaking to anyone who could resolve the problem quickly. No one at the local Jobcentre understood what was happening or had any reliable way into the system to find out.
“In some cases local authority staff had also tried but had been unable to reach someone within universal credit who had the will or the authority to investigate and break the logjam.”
Universal credit, which wraps six benefit into one, has been hit by a series of delays and cost overruns. Originally conceived in 2010 with plans for a full rollout by May 2015, it is now not expected to be fully implemented until 2020.
Although an estimated 8 million claimants are supposed to be covered by the system when it operating fully, just 141,000 were on the caseload by October.
Source: The Guardian