By VIEW editor Brian Pelan
Universal Credit should be perhaps renamed Universal Misery given the countless stories of those severely impacted since its introduction in the United Kingdom.
A recent article in the Guardian newspaper showed that more than a million households on universal credit and 60 per cent of them are having their benefits cut to repay debts and loans.
The deductions have forced many claimants to turn to food banks.
One young woman told VIEWdigital about her frustrating experience going onto Universal Credit herself. Joanne (not her real name) helps advise people about a range of issue, including welfare benefits.
This is Joanne’s story in her own words.
“I’ve been with an advice service for about 13 years. We have witnessed an increase of people coming in wanting to access food banks.
I began my Universal Credit journey on October 3 this year.
I’d been getting Tax Credits prior to that, and I was getting £40 a month in Child Tax Credit.
On Universal Credit, 63 percent of your earnings are disregarded. So, I did the calculation and I was better off by £90 a month. So as far as I could see, it was a no brainer. I’m in full time employment, working 37 and half hours. I thought – if I make this application, it’s all done online, it works off Real Time Income from HMRC, I’m going to get more money and I’m not going to have to meet any work requirements because I’m a worker. That was the purpose of the benefit. So, I made the application.
I have rent to pay and I have a child, a dependant child. So, I made the application. I submitted all the information that they asked on the very first day – all online. They asked for my rent, how much I get paid, where I work, my children, my household members – they were all added in, all that information was added in.
On the same day I requested that my payments were made monthly. In Northern Ireland, claimants have an option of getting paid two payments per month, where it’s not like that in the rest of the UK.
I wanted to be paid monthly, that’s the way my wages are paid, that’s the way my direct debits come out. It was easier for me. I then received a message on my online account journal telling me that they were going to pay £333 to my landlord which I knew was incorrect. I wasn’t entitled to it.
My calculation was I should be entitled to £129 per month. I contacted Universal Credit. The first guy that I spoke to clearly didn’t understand how the benefit was calculated. I tried to go through the calculation with him for about 15 minutes. I was getting nowhere. I asked to speak to a manager. A manager came along. I ended up having a conversation with him for about half an hour, maybe a wee bit longer, trying to calculate and work out how they were coming to this figure.
It then transpired that the amount that they said that they were going to pay my landlord was in fact a figure that they were using to calculate entitlement. So, it’s not necessarily what they are paying, even though the message in the journal stated that we are now going to pay this to your landlord.
I did raise it with him at that point and said the wording of that message needs to be changed, because claimants looking at that will automatically think – happy days, I’m entitled to X amount of money, spend whatever money they have, maybe borrow money, and come the end of the month not as much is paid to their landlord as what they think, and they are then are in difficulty.
He said that he would raise it. Then I had to go for a meeting to verify identity, even though I had already verified my identify online. When you make your application, you have an option of making an appointment to go into the office to verify your identity or doing it using an online service that’s recommended by Universal Credit or approved department.
I chose the Post Office. My identity was verified. They asked me then to go into a meeting to verify my identity, which I did. I went in with my documents, I brought in payslips, my passport, driving licence and tenancy agreement.
While I was at the meeting a young guy that I was speaking to asked me a couple of questions. He told me he’d only been working a short time. I asked him how he was finding working there. He said that he was struggling a bit, because he didn’t really understand it. I asked him what his training was like. He said it was OK, but he wasn’t really worried, because he wasn’t going to be there for long. He was an agency worker and was only going to be in his position for six months.
I mentioned that I wanted paid monthly. He said it would be fine. I then asked if I could receive it. – The money usually goes straight to the landlord but you can request the payments are made to yourself. There is a criteria. He didn’t know how to do it. He went and got the manager. She didn’t know how to do it or if I could do it. She had to go upstairs and talk to somebody upstairs for 15 minutes and then came back down and told me that she couldn’t do it. She didn’t know why they couldn’t do it. All she could tell me was because I was a social tenant. So, I just left it at that.
The next day, I got a message on my journal telling me that my payments would be two in a month, after me asking for a monthly payment on two occasions. I left a message on the journal, detailing that I had requested a monthly payment, and could somebody get back to me.
Five days later I still didn’t have a response. I left another message asking if somebody could please provide clarity. I then received a message the next day, telling me to ring the centre.
That did bother me, because I’m in work. The purpose of the journal is to communicate with Universal Credit, so with something as simple as that, why do I have to then call them, why could it not just be amended when it was already agreed.
I phoned them. I asked why am I having to phone here? He said: “Well I’m sorry but your caseworkers, could have up to 500 clients and we can’t just get back to you right away.”
I said – well I’m not expecting you to get back to me right away, but I’m expecting that things are done whenever they’re supposed to be and I’m upholding my responsibilities as a claimant, so I would expect the same.
I can only recall two occasions where I’ve encountered staff that were actually friendly. I mostly found their attitude to be very dismissive. When I attended the meeting to verify my identity, the manager, who was chatting to me, found out I worked for an advice service. She said: “Oh I suppose you have to deal with all the same ones as us – and rolled her eyes.”
I’m sitting across the desk from her. I’m not a colleague , I’m a customer just the same as the other people coming through the door. I just didn’t like that.
The payments then did get sorted out by a lovely girl. She did it quite quickly for me.
I then received a message asking me to upload details of my monthly pay, going back to October last year. Universal Credit is calculated on your earnings over a monthly period, so the month before, that’s what your entitlement is. So, I couldn’t really get my head around why they wanted to know what my income was going right back a year.
I provided the information anyway. I uploaded it all. I then got a notification of what my payment was going to be. So, a couple of days before you receive a payment, on your Home Page they will put a notification in of how much your payment is going to be and the calculation, how they’ve calculated it. So, you can see all the different elements that have applied, what you’re entitled to and then what they remove for deductions. There were two things wrong with the calculation.
The first one was that they had put my child maintenance money on as a deduction in full. They were counting that pound for pound as income, when that’s supposed to be completely disregarded for benefit purposes.
it’s for the child – it’s not my money.
The second thing that they didn’t have on it was my earnings. I had provided the earnings at the beginning of the claim, They calculated that I didn’t have any earnings. So then, the payment that they were going to make was £441 to my landlord and £594 to me when my overall entitlement only should have been £129.
I put a message on the journal first. I didn’t get any response from it. I then phoned and firstly raised the issue about the child maintenance. I said that it shouldn’t have been taken off.
The case manager, that I spoke to said the reason why it was so high was because my earnings didn’t pull through from HMRC and so they are supposed to use Real Time Income figures from HMRC.
They said that my earnings didn’t pull through, which I found very strange. So, I asked her – well look, regardless of that, I’ve told you what my earnings are at the beginning of the claim and I have told you two days ago what my earnings were going right back to October last year. So, I want to know why you’ve ignored that.
She said: “Well, it’s just the way the system works.”
I said but now I’m getting an overpayment. I don’t want that benefit paid now. I want you to stop it.
She said: “We can’t, it’s already in motion.”
I said I don’t want the payment. I’m being overpaid. I’ve told you what my income is and you’re not acting on that information.
She said: “Well just you think of it as an interest free loan.”
I said – but it’s not an interest free loan. It’s debt. That’s what it is. It gets referred to a Debt Recovery team.
So, she asked me then to upload my payslip that day, which I did. I uploaded the payslip onto the journal, and she said that she’d try and get it sorted out for the following month – the following assessment period.
So, I thought – right, it’s been overpaid, there’s nothing I can do about it. They’ll recover it anyway. Just let it go and the next time, hopefully it’ll be sorted out.
I got a message on my journal an hour later inviting me to a new appointment at the Jobs and Benefits Office to review my claimant commitment.
Whenever a person claims Universal Credit, they have to sign a claimant commitment. It’s an agreement that the claimant is going to do specific things like look for work.
Because I was a full-time worker, my only commitments was checking my journal to keep up to date on messages that they’re sending me. That’s all I had to do.
The review of my commitments was they wanted me to do was go the Jobs and Benefits Office to sign a new agreement to say that I’m going to be looking for work for 35 hours a week, applying for jobs, going to work focussed interviews.
So, when I called them about this, the lady that I’d spoke to said. “well there’s nothing you can do, you just have to go to it or else the benefit will not be paid. You’ve been placed into the intensive Work Search Group. So, you just have to go.”
No, I refused. I told her I’m not going. You need to get it sorted out. I’m not going to the meeting. I don’t have to go to the meeting. I said I have provided the information three times of my employment. My last payslip that I sent you shows what my earnings are to date this year.
The case worker said: “I don’t know what you’re going to do. You’ll probably just have to go round to the meeting.”
I saId I’m not going round to the meeting. I’m going to be in work that day. I work full time. I told her I wouldn’t get off the phone until it was sorted.
I did kick up a stink over it, because by this point, I had spent two hours of my time that day on the phone.
I didn’t go to the meeting. A man phoned me and he was really nice and said he had just removed the appointment.
The thing that concerns me the most is staff are not fully trained, they’re not there long enough to have experience to learn and to give the right guidance to claimants.
The average claimant doesn’t have experience in how benefits are calculated. If they had seen that amount on their journal, they’d have thought – happy days, and spent it. The next thing they’ve don’t have the money for their rent. It puts them into debt. They’re already in debt when they start off on benefits.
Universal Credit is not working. One of my clients has been waiting for over a year. He’s having to send in sick lines constantly. He shouldn’t have to be doing that at this stage.
An advisor that I spoke to said that Universal Credit is not working. They know that it’s not working.