The rollout of Universal Credit should be paused until significant problems with it are fixed, says Citizens Advice.
In a new report – Delivering on Universal Credit – the charity said the requirement to wait for six weeks to receive any payment means people face serious financial insecurity, with many being forced into debt.
The research also identifies a wide range of administrative challenges, including problems with the online system and long waits to get help over the phone, which can make the initial six week wait even longer.
Universal Credit ‘bundles’ individual benefits including Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA), Housing Benefit, Working Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit into a single monthly payment.
By 2022 over seven million households will receive Universal Credit and new Citizens Advice analysis reveals over half (54%) of these will be working households.
Universal Credit will be claimed by more than half (52%) of all families with children in the UK and 6 in 10 (58%) households where an adult is disabled or has a long term health condition.
The RLA’s main concern is the way in which the housing costs element is paid, and, in particular, the lack of a right for landlords to insist on direct payments, as well as the six week delay before the first Universal Credit payment is made to the claimant.
The result of landlords not having confidence that they will receive the rent is that fewer will be willing to rent property to those in receipt of benefits, something that is already happening.
Research by the Residential Landlords Association (RLA) last year found that 25 per cent of landlords with tenants in receipt of Universal Credit said that they had tenants in rent arrears.
Ministers argue that insisting that Universal Credit is paid directly to the tenant promotes financial responsibility, but the RLA believes that for some tenants who are fearful of going into rent arrears, the responsible thing to do would be to opt to have payments made directly to the landlord
As part of the new study, Citizens Advice surveyed 800 people who sought help with Universal Credit in areas where there is full service – meaning anyone who would have previously have claimed one of the old benefits has to apply for Universal Credit.
- Over a third (39%) of people are waiting more than the six weeks it should take to receive their first payment.
- Just over one in 10 (11%) are waiting over 10 weeks without the benefit.
- Three in five (57%) are having to borrow money while waiting for their first payment.
In the last year Citizens Advice supported more than 30,000 people with Universal Credit issues, with a quarter (25%) also needing help with debt issues.
The report also reveals that people are having problems with the application process. These range from difficulties using a computer or with the online system, to issues getting hold of the right evidence to support their claim.
And when things go wrong the research shows people are not able to get the help they need: nearly a third (30%) of people said they had to make more than 10 calls to the Universal Credit helpline during their application process, often having to wait over 30 minutes to get through.
Full service Universal Credit has been rolling out gradually across England and Wales for more than two years, to around five new areas each month. But in October this process is set to speed up significantly, to over 50 new areas every month.
Citizens Advice is calling on the government to pause this acceleration and use the time to fix key problems with Universal Credit, before thousands more people are brought into the system.
RLA trainer and Universal Credit expert Bill Irvine has been campaigning for the suspension of Universal Credit until the administration issues can be sorted out.
He said: “I hope the government will take notice of this report, but what Citizens Advice is saying is no different to what the councils and housing and landlords’ associations have been saying before them.
“I support the underlying principles of Universal Credit, but there are huge problems with the DWP administration.
“I believe the government should suspend the roll out until all issues are sorted out. If they continue at the pace they are proposing it will be an absolute disaster and arrears levels will go through the roof.
To read the report in full click here.
The RLA runs Universal Credit courses, with dates currently available in Manchester, Leeds and Cambridge. For more information and to book click here.