Comment: Universal Credit is a minefield of nasty surprises

A third sector worker shares her concerns about the introduction of the DWP's flagship policy in her area


I work for a local organisation that supports vulnerable working age people in a place where Universal Credit (UC) launches early next month. A particular postcode area, small but densely populated, will be one of the first to move to the digital version of the new benefit.

There are several local organisations, advice centres, housing associations and charities (my own included) which serve the population here. And if our meeting recently was anything to go by, we had very little warning that UC was coming to us and we are totally unprepared for its introduction.

The status of UC has been so changeable over the last couple of years and its pilots so farcical, that it had become almost mythical to those areas it hadn’t reached – staying somewhere on the distant horizon. But now it has crept up on us, not allowing any time for us to get our own heads around the new rules so that we might be able to assist the locals who will be migrated onto it.

We wanted to be able to do some ground work; raise awareness and set up more digital support services to cushion the impact and pace of change. But there hasn’t been time.

The general atmosphere in my local sector is fraught with concern; it has become apparent just how little transparency and inclusion there has been. You would think the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) might have involved those of us in the voluntary and community sector more if they were serious about making UC a success, since we are the ones who have ongoing relationships with their claimants.

How capable people are at navigating themselves through the transition will, at least in part, be dependent on how prepared our services have been to assist them. Instead, the DWP have not been forthcoming and we find ourselves scrabbling around for snippets of information.

The overwhelming majority of the vulnerable people I work with do not have internet access; the first hurdle we need to overcome when the digital version of UC comes next month. This is in part due to the cost of running a telephone line. Most people I visit just have a mobile phone because they cannot afford line rental charges. And rarely are these ‘smart phones’, or those with contracts that include use of 3G.

Nationwide there are around 9.5 million people who are not online, and nearly half of these live in social housing. So we can expect a great many of them to be in receipt of housing benefit, and likely to be migrated to UC in the coming months.

In the past, for other reasons, I have helped set up internet packages for low income households, such as BT Basic. Had we been given more warning, we could have ensured that this was at least offered to all those in the affected area who do not have internet.

But even if internet access wasn’t a problem, digital skills certainly seem to be. We were informed at a recent conference that 40 per cent of DWP frontline staff were not themselves adequately trained to assist with the move to digital services. So not even those employed to process UC claims are ready for its online-heavy introduction next month. A recipe for confusion and frustration, and between the claimant and the Jobcentre Plus staff I don’t know who I feel more sorry for.

Rather than looking at where the population and those serving it currently are in their skill set, the DWP is trying to force us where it thinks we should be. It is like tripping us up on the start line and wondering why we are running behind with a limp.

We are also concerned at the lack of clarity around what circumstances will actually trigger a new claim for UC. It would have been helpful to have known in advance what changes in employment status, family circumstances and other would cause a claimant to be migrated to UC. These triggers should be made publicly available so people can anticipate and prepare for the change.

As it stands, UC is a minefield of nasty surprises and we can expect a sharp and urgent spike in referrals to our advice services, which we will be ill-resourced to respond to. In our line of work, it is much better to be well informed of, and proactive about, upcoming changes. What never works well, is a game of catch up where we are reacting to stressful situations as they arise like a game of whack-a-mole, rather than preventing or at least pre-empting them.

And as we count down to the start of next month with a sense of fatalism about what lies ahead, there is one thing on everyone’s lips; Alternative Payment Arrangements, or APAs, the only potential veto we have against UC. APAs are a safeguard against the inevitable rent arrears that uninformed, unsupported and vulnerable tenants will fall into when they suddenly get their housing benefit paid directly to them.

Basically APAs undo what UC does, after UC has done it; landlords can request an APA so they are paid directly again if their tenant gets into arrears. Although I wouldn’t be surprised if the additional administration and time involved in this process makes evicting tenants for arrears the easier option.

It doesn’t bode well for the DWP’s supposed ‘digital flagship’ that all those involved on the frontline are talking about cancelling out its impact as soon as possible. But then I feel we have been cheated out of any meaningful attempt to ever get a grip on this.

From next month the residents in my local area, through no fault of their own and with enough problems to be dealing with as it is, will unintentionally trigger a change in circumstances; maybe they get a job, or take on caring responsibilities.

And UC, with all its uncertainties, will land on their doorstep. I only wish organisations like mine had been given the opportunity to get there first.

Erin Mee works in the voluntary community sector in South London

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