The reform of the benefit system in our country is long overdue, and the introduction of Universal Credit was planned to simplify a complex system and guarantee that work pays and having a job is better than a life on benefits.
However, instead of improving things, the government has created a system which is not fit for purpose. Universal Credit, which merges six benefits and tax credits into one, is supposed to be flexible, making it easier for people to move into a job, cope with periods of insecure employment and ensure in-work payments for low-income families.
Unfortunately, flaws in its design and implementation are causing financial hardship. In Stockport, with our full rollout not expected until later in 2018, people already on universal credit are contacting my local office because of late payments and mounting debt.
The number one issue for people is the six-week wait to receive your first payment. As I learnt when I visited Stockport Foodbank this summer, having no income for six weeks, for people who had been unable to build up any savings, means you can’t pay the rent or afford to pay for heating or even food. If the rollout in Stockport goes ahead next year, with 14,000 more claimants, that means many more families heading for the foodbank.
Universal Credit applications must be done online, and this creates problems for people who don’t have a computer, a smartphone or internet at home, and have to use the local library. The online system is not user-friendly and about 60% of claimants have difficulty completing their application. The other big issue being raised with me is the telephone helpline, which cuts off your call after you’ve been waiting for 3 minutes, making you try again and again to get through.
I just don’t think it’s right that people are being pushed into debt and rent arrears, or even losing their home, because of problems with Universal Credit. We need to get this right. I have written to the Minister at the Department of Work and Pensions asking him to urgently reconsider the huge rollout of Universal Credit which is being planned across the country. Like Citizens Advice and Child Poverty Action Group, I am asking the government to put a brake on the rollout until the problems with it are fixed, to save further hardship and long term debt for thousands of families.