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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2 Responses to “Comment: Universal Credit is a minefield of nasty surprises”

  1. Bill irvine


    Congrats on a well crafted piece. Your title is spot on!

    I’ve been assisting Housing Associations and Private Landlords for years in relation to Housing Benefit and more recently the “Bedroom Tax” and Universal Credit. The focus nowadays is definitely on Universal Credit. Although its rollout has been painstakingly slow; that’s been a blessing for both tenants and landlords alike, as it’s still very much a “work-in-progress”. You and the organisation you represent will shortly become part of the UC bandwagon as it spreads throughout the UK with now 125,000 established claimants with another 11.9 million due to join the ranks before 2019/20. I hasten to add the date is likely to change as every other DWP prediction has been wrong so far!

    Only when you start dealing with real live cases will you truly realise just how complex this new benefit can be and just how difficult it can be dealing with a DWP administration which operates remotely and is generally ambivalent to interests of both tenants and landlords – certainly that’s been my experience so far. Social & Private landlords can also testify to some of the schoolboy errors that have been made causing worry & distress to tenants and causing major cash-flow issues for landlords as anticipated rental payments are missed, adding to the already burgeoning rent arrears.

    You might find something a bit different as you’re going to be pioneering the new “digital” system. Contrastingly, it has been receiving, on the whole, good feedback from the housing staff involved in both Sutton and Croydon. I visited the Croydon pilot only a few weeks ago and was pleasantly surprised by the feedback. Apparently, the new system is being received well by both claimants and administering staff. But in these areas, it has to be noted, DWP has invested heavily ensuring support is available for the 300/400 claimants involved in each site. The housing staff, whilst supportive, have concerns over, what will happen, if, and when, its extended into new areas starting next May/June where it’s unlikely there will be the same networks of tenant support?

    I have similar concerns, as I’m seeing first-hand what’s happening or not for that matter, at the coal-face and assisting housing associations secure compensation for DWP maladministration, caused by a work-force who clearly haven’t a clue about what they’re doing, especially in relation to the “housing element” and the applications for Alternative Payment Arrangements made by landlords, oftentimes with the consent and support of their tenant.

    Too much ground to cover in this piece, but have a look at—compilation-of-critical-helpful-information-for-front-line-staff as you’re sure to find some interesting tit-bits of information that should assist you.

    Good luck!

    Bill Irvine

  2. Sean Garrity

    A well written article but why anyone is surprised about the dogs dinner that is Universal Credit astounds me.
    At its head is Ian Duncan Smith the most inept deceitful MP this country has ever produced.
    His lack of skills were highlighted long ago when he failed as Tory Leader I would not put this cretinous being in charge of making the tea never mind a department which deals with the most vulnerable people among us.

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