Serious systematic problems exist with the new Universal Credit system according to a letter issued today by MSPs on the Scottish Parliament’s Social Security Committee. Problems which will only get worse as a result of the UK Government’s planned closure of jobcentres in Scotland.
With the roll-out of Universal Credit in its early stages, the Committee met with those responsible for administering the system and claimants to hear how this is working in practice. The Committee is concerned about unacceptable delays in people receiving the money they are entitled to leading to anxiety, hardship and pushing people into rent arrears.
The Committee has now written to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the Rt Hon Damian Green MP, highlighting the evidence and urging him to address the problems inherent in the system before Universal Credit is rolled-out further in Scotland.
These problems include long waiting times for the Universal Credit helpline. With claimants being charged for calls, these result in extra costs at a time when people are already struggling. The Committee’s letter makes clear that all calls to this helpline should be free.
The Committee also heard that third sector organisations are struggling with increasing, more complex caseloads caused by the change to Universal Credit because local job centres are ill-equipped to effectively support claimants.
Universal Credit replaces six benefits - income support, jobseeker's allowance, employment support allowance, housing benefit, child tax credit and working tax credit - with a single payment. The Committee’s work in finding out how the roll-out of Universal Credit was being developed focused on Musselburgh, one of the first areas in Scotland to roll out Universal Credit.
Convener of the Social Security Committee Sandra White MSP said:
“The whole purpose of Universal Credit was to simplify the process of claiming for social security by rolling six benefits into the one payment. We heard some shocking stories of people whose are being driven to breaking point because this system simply doesn’t work for them.
“We hope that the evidence we heard directly from people using the system will be a wake-up call to the Secretary of State that changes need to be made before Universal Credit is rolled-out any further.
“We recognise any new system is always going to have some issues but most of the Committee agree that if these fundamental, systemic issues are not addressed then Universal Credit is not a workable system.
“Even more concerning is that some of the problems we encountered are likely to be made worse by the closure of job centres across Scotland with more pressure being put on the third sector to help some of our most vulnerable people in Scotland.”
In the Committee’s letter the following issues were identified:
- Local DWP staff were not in a position, at the time of roll-out, to effectively advise claimants. Lessons should be learned from this. Too much reliance is being placed on third sector advice and support workers ensuring people are supported and assisted through what can be a frustrating and bewildering process. Third sector organisations are struggling with increasing, more complex caseloads caused by the UC roll-out. We are extremely concerned that the closure of jobcentres will simply exacerbate this.
- The built-in delay before the first payment is received is causing problems. Advances are available but these are repayable in fixed instalments. It is the view of most members of this Committee that these advances should not be repayable and should be treated as grant monies.
- Calls to the Universal Credit helpline are expensive, particularly so from mobiles. Local DWP staff do not have authority to take decisions and claimants have no option other than to call the helpline, often at great expense. Calls to a helpline such as this should be free.
- A 7 day waiting period for new claims coupled with payments being made monthly in arrears is resulting in real hardship for people. Claimants are waiting too long to receive the money they are entitled to. We did not meet anyone who had been paid within 5 weeks; 8 or 9 weeks was the norm. People are finding themselves in rent arrears unnecessarily due to these delays. This is causing understandable anxiety. The delays in people receiving the money they are entitled to and the increasing demands on the Scottish Welfare Fund were unsustainable in Musselburgh. Claims must be dealt with more quickly.
Availability of support for vulnerable or less able claimants
- The digital by default approach must do more to recognise that not everyone has ready access to a computer or digital device. Even people who do have access are not necessarily equipped with the skills to enable them to assimilate information, make decisions and complete forms online.
- For more vulnerable people, this is simply beyond them. More must be done to take people’s differing needs in to account and ensure the application process is a fair one.
MSPs heard directly from people claiming Universal Credit and described some of their findings as “shocking”. They heard about confusion around entitlement, claimants having to apply for hardship grants and finding themselves in rent arrears as a result of delays in payment and long waiting times for callers to the Universal Credit helpline, often at great expense.
A copy of the full letter to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and a copy of the informal meeting with claimants are available here.