Why claiming UC has been a “saviour” is misleading

A recent article from The Times stated that Universal Credit (UC) “has been a surprisingly efficient saviour for millions hit by the pandemic.” At Z2K, we know first-hand how misleading this claim is. For too many of the people we help, UC causes financial and emotional hardship and has failed to be of support during Covid-19.

Becca Stacey, Policy and Campaigns Officer

1 October 2020

Richard*, and his husband Peter*, were set to launch their business in March 2020. However, Covid-19 meant this launch could not go ahead, and they made a joint claim for UC. Their first payment date was meant to be 18 April, but because of a technical error which incorrectly stated that Richard and Peter had not accepted their original commitments, their case was closed and they had to make a new claim on 14 April. As a result, they ended up having to wait nine weeks for their first payment, during which time they had to depend on support from friends and family.

Even then, their first payment was only for Peter, as Richard had initially been incorrectly refused UC on the grounds of failing a Habitual Resident Test. Richard requested a Mandatory Reconsideration of this decision, but DWP upheld its original decision (they did not take into account the evidence that Richard had provided the DWP with within the one month time frame). He appealed this with Z2K’s support. Normally our clients wait months for their appeal to be heard, but luckily this time someone at DWP realised the mistake and reversed its decision. Richard finally got his first UC payment in August – five months after his claim.

The minimum five weeks that people must wait for their first UC payment is bad enough in itself, but many people like Richard and Peter actually have to wait even longer. In 2019, 312,000 people received their first UC payment late, with average delays of three weeks in addition to the five-week wait, and 6% of households had to wait around 11 weeks or more for full payment. As Richard explains, issues with the UC system leading to delays in receiving support mean:

“your little reserves get eaten up so quickly, and for the first time in our lives we really need that safety net…if you don’t have parents or friends to support you are out in the street.”

Even now they are in receipt of UC

“it doesn’t even cover rent…Peter has applied for over 150 jobs since March, we’ve been saving every penny…but we’re going to start building up huge rent arrears which would lead to us being kicked out of the apartment…we’re in a precarious scenario.”

Richard hits the nail on the head – if you don’t have savings, UC cannot be depended on to provide an adequate safety net. If UC isn’t working for people like Richard and Peter who are accessing it with some savings and family support, and who are experienced in using online platforms, then it is no surprise that the system really falls down for people turning to UC from a more vulnerable situation. As the National Audit Office recently explained,

“the [UC] system is really designed for simple cases and it works well for those cases…it works less well where there are specific needs for individuals that need a tailored approach.”

While UC has managed to withstand the huge influx of Covid-19 claims, this should not be conflated with the success of the system as a whole. And to go as far as to claim that UC has been a “saviour” is embarrassingly self-congratulating. It completely ignores the experience of the 1 in 5 people for whom UC isn’t working.

It also ignores the facts that; the five-week wait, Benefit Cap and inadequacy of UC pre-Covid has caused many people to accrue debts and rent arrears; that many people on UC have been denied vital additional support that would help them manage their health condition or disability; that many people have spent precious time and energy battling flawed decision-making and maladministration; and that many of our clients in more vulnerable situations found UC inaccessible and inflexible to their needs.

Going forwards, Z2K is going to be highlighting UC’s flaws in our upcoming report, which will call for changes to the way UC is designed and delivered to ensure that it adequately supports everyone, not just those with the most straightforward cases.