Skint Britain: response to series about life on Universal Credit shows government is still not listening

People are struggling to survive with Universal Credit

It’s customary to celebrate with cake. We all do it. Even the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). Job Centre Plus offices across the country have been marking the roll-out of Universal Credit with big slabs of cake.

But, for many people the introduction of Universal Credit, a new social security benefit replacing six previous benefits, is anything but cause for celebration.

The many flaws with the benefit are starkly depicted in Channel 4’s series Skint Britain, which explores just what living on Universal Credit can entail. The show follows people like David, forced to survive on £5 for a month after a benefit sanction, and Tracey who is unable to access support for her serious cancer prognosis. Their stories are mirrored in the wide and growing evidence documenting the hardship caused by Universal Credit, which is associated with rising food bank use and can all-too often trigger increased poverty and even destitution.

Read more: Universal Credit is built around flawed incentives that are doing real damage – fixing it is essential

As the first episode of Skint Britain aired, the DWP’s press office issued a series of tweets, which sought to sell Universal Credit as a positive and necessary step forward.

In one tweet, the DWP emphasised how Universal Credit’s system of monthly payments is designed to reflect the world of work. Claimants are “helped” into the habit of monthly budgeting to better prepare them for the “reality” of life in paid work. However, as researchers have pointed out, while the government says that three out of four employees are paid monthly, this means that one in four is not. While a fixed monthly salary is the common experience of employees in professional and managerial employment, the frequency of wage payments varies for those who work according to hourly rates and varying shift patterns while juggling caring commitments which don’t fit easily into the rigid monthly framework set by Universal Credit.

The DWP’s social media activity also flagged adjustments made to the benefit, such as the removal of the seven day waiting period before a claim can be made.

But claimants still face a minimum wait of five weeks for their first payment. And five weeks can be a very long time to wait when you are living on no income.

While claimants can access a 100% advance during the five-week wait, any advances received must be repaid back over the subsequent year, which will reduce a person’s monthly entitlement and so often push them into further poverty. Only claimants who meet the eligibility criteria can receive advances. On Skint Britain, a DWP telephone advisor informs cancer patient Tracey that she is not eligible to receive an advance, and that she is out of options for monetary support.

Not fit for purpose

Further tweets from the DWP emphasised that benefit sanctions are a “last resort”, and something which existed prior to Universal Credit. In fact, statistical analysis of rates of sanctions shows that Universal Credit has seen far higher frequency of sanctioning than under the six benefits that it replaces. Too often, people are sanctioned for what seem like minor infringements: simple mistakes which then have significant and long-lasting financial repercussions.

Read more: Two real-life accounts of the effect of benefits sanctions

There is a jarring disconnect between the reality of life for those in receipt of Universal Credit and the DWP’s efforts to draw a picture of a benefit that is fit for purpose. The newly appointed secretary of state for work and pensions, Amber Rudd, has promised to listen “very carefully” to concerns about Universal Credit. But the DWP’s response to Skint Britain appears to be a tone-deaf defence of the system, which is as dogmatic as it is unpersuasive. The official lines and simplistic presentation parroted in these tweets suggest that Rudd’s promise may amount to little more than political rhetoric.

David and his dog Benson featured Skint Britain. Richard Ansett via Channel 4

Sadly, this doesn’t give us much hope for the next stage of Universal Credit’s roll-out, which will move three million more claimants on to the new benefit. This process has been delayed to allow the DWP to “test and learn” from a pilot of 10,000 claimants. But the government fail to recognise the dissonance between the political assumptions on which Universal Credit is built and the reality of claimants’ lives. Paired with the definitive evidence that discredits its flawed approach to reform of the social security system, this makes us fear that very little is likely to change.

Rather than test and learn, the DWP needs to start to listen and learn. Listening to claimants themselves, such as those interviewed for Skint Britain, would be a very good place to start. Then, and only then, might the celebration of Universal Credit’s continued roll-out with cake seem like anything other than a very cruel joke.

Ciara Fitzpatrick, PhD Candidate and Research and Policy Officer at Law Centre NI, Ulster University and Ruth Patrick, Lecturer in Social Policy & Social Work, University of York

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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One Response to “Skint Britain: response to series about life on Universal Credit shows government is still not listening”

  1. William Webster

    The whole systems corrupted, there is just excuse after excuse for the government to pit there hands in your pockets and remove your last penny.. have you heard about the CMS?.. I’ve lost my career of 15years, forced into poverty, forced onto universal credit, told i have to work 35 hours a week looking for work and give timings of every application sent and provide evidence or i will be sanctioned! Never mind the fact that it takes an entire day just to speak with the HMRC and the CMS, who the CMS say they get the figures from bur when you speak with the HMRC they tell you that they do not share any information with the CMS and that they’re LYING!! .. So whils the CMS are taking £150 per week for a single child from somebody’s wages directly from false calculations apparently recieved directly from the HMRC and adding charges as they please, a person like myself who was temping and only earning £250 per week is then sent into debt. Any attempt to rectify there calculations only makes it worse, i personally have had 3 years of bank statements lost on 2 separate occasions and have been told that my sensitivity documents that apparently they never received were destroyed?? Wow! I mean like WOW.. are they even trying to come up with a convincing lie, or is it just me? … Ive place a subject Access request and ive not heard anything back from them yet apart for an acknowledgement letter stating they recieved my request, its going to be a month in 3 day (its now Thursday) .. but snap back to the universal credit agreement you’ve made so you can try to afford to eat! You’ve now wasted an entire day getting the run around so now you’ve got to spend even more time catching up on proving youve been looking for a JOB.. 4 weeks of job search equates to on average 140 hours plus all the time you have to keep logging back into the portal to upload your application timings individually to prove you aren’t shooting up heroin.. and, you’re actually looking for work! You’re brought into the jobcentre sat with the junkies who all have more money than you by this point only to be told by an “experienced benifit advisor or Jobcoach” you’ve not done your job search correctly! And you can be placed on sanctions and threatened with even further financial damage!.. excuse me?.. I’ve worked, I’ve payed my taxes! I’ve been victomised by a system that is “not fit for purpose!”.. 5 weeks into severe poverty, you’re hungry and you’ve lost your home and your career.. you’re then told that youre only going to receive £164 for that month you’ve spent working full time looking for a job.. let do some basic maths now.. 140 hours devided by £164.00 equates to £0.84p per hour.. but this same government that says the minimum wage is £8.25 can say a human being must live off of a tenth of what they dictate to employers is adequate??. Am i stupid? Did i come down in the last rain shower? Hmm so now that needle of heroine is looking like a great option! .. sorry to be blunt but it’s about time someone spoke up! I’ve had everything I’ve ever owned stripped from me, ive had my own child taken from me, I’ve lost my career of 15years, im in debt to the tune of 15k and even if i do go get a job, any chance of clawing back some sort of life will automatically be taken out of my wages without consent by a “government organisation” that is totally unregulated!.. so now you see that heroine needle as an easy way out or maybe if i killed myself then someone would ask why? Why did this happen?.. but thats not what I’ll do, i have a son i havent been allowed to see for three years and he doesn’t deserve to be told his father was a waste of space ar his father gave up on him.. not allowed to see his father because his mother said so.. because his mother can make demands for contact orders without good reason, but she can refuse to go to mediation! But if the father wants to see his child he has to summon up thousands of pounds for a family solicitor to be given the run around buy the childs mother.. I have a C100 in my possession, but I’ve been so financially damaged that i cant even afford to eat let alone pay £350 to represent myself in court. I’ve never been violent, i dont do drugs and there is no reason as to why i shouldnt be allowed to see my son. Ive been thrown from pillar to post by these corrupted “agencies” enough for one lifetime and i hope my story can show them exactly how desperate they make people with there “polices” and there shear disregard for human life.. as far as im concerned they should all be held responsible for manslaughter given the current statistics of suicide rates.. but will anyone responsible for this absolute shambles be held responsible?.. im guessing that not a single one of them will see a day in court… like i said the whole system is corrupt and it probably wont change anytime soon.

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