The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is under the microscope again. Once more, it’s over the contentious benefit Universal Credit. But this consultation could be game-changing. Because the organisation doing it wants claimants to share their experiences.
The DWP: “Universal Discredit”?
Universal Credit is the DWP’s flagship welfare policy. But it’s in constant chaos, from taking Greggs’ staff bonuses to the DWP not knowing if it causes poverty. The issues with the benefit led UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty Philip Alston to call it “Universal Discredit”.
Recently, the Economic Affairs Committee said it was doing an investigation into Universal Credit. It wanted claimants to email it with their stories. But now, the National Audit Office (NAO) is getting involved. And potentially, every claimant in the UK could have their say.
Another Universal Credit probe
The NAO want people to complete a survey on the benefit. It’s doing a consultation:
Have you claimed #UniversalCredit or work for an organisation that supports claimants?
We’re conducting a study on Universal Credit – examining the process of making a claim and getting to first payment.
— National Audit Office (@NAOorguk) January 31, 2020
As the NAO wrote:
This consultation is aimed at organisations who represent or provide services to the UC claimants, and individual members of the public with experience of claiming UC.
We will use the information gathered to help us understand the perspectives of claimants and organisations that support them.
It is specifically looking into the five-week wait for a first payment. It’s no shock that the NAO is doing this. Because the five-week wait has been marred by scandal.
a 52% average increase in food bank use in areas that have had Universal Credit for at least 12 months compared to 13% in areas that have not.
But it went further, saying that:
the five week wait is one of the key reasons why we’ve seen a rise in people needing food banks where it has been rolled out.
Moreover, in 2018 the NAO previously looked at the five-week wait. It said:
nearly 60% of new claimants (around 56,000 a month) receive a Universal Credit advance to help them manage before receiving their first payment.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) estimates that, under Universal Credit:
5.1 million people in working families are expected to see a reduction in income.
It also says that:
1.7 million people living in poverty in working families… face a substantial reduction in income, on average £2,500 a year.
And, as BBC News reported, by August 2019 54% of landlords had seen tenants on the benefit fall into arrears in the last year. As The Canary‘s Fréa Lockley reported, the benefit could well be driving rising homelessness.
So, the NAO’s new probe into Universal Credit may throw up some telling results.
A welcome move?
Campaign group BENEFITS NEWS welcomed the NAO survey:
Now this time, we sincerely hope, a HALT is called and no more on legacy system moved to Universal Credit, please.
This is the worst policy ever dreamt up.
Why do VERY SICK who can NOT work need even a single mention a 'Work Coach' / Job Centre?https://t.co/MQnyEwEm0t
— BENEFITS NEWS (@BENEFITS_NEWS) February 3, 2020
But will the DWP listen? Possibly not, as it already knows that Universal Credit is causing severe hardship. As The Canary reported in 2018, its own survey of claimants found that only 25% of them said they were “keeping up with bills… without any difficulties”. In total, 72% either struggled from “time to time”, struggled constantly, fell behind, or were having “real financial difficulties”.
So, it remains to be seen what impact the NAO’s probe will have. But any chance for claimants to have their voices heard is a good thing. And the more pressure people and organisations apply to the DWP, the better.
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