UNIVERSAL Credit is making headlines again – and that will continue throughout the winter unless the Government comes to its senses.
For the uninitiated, Universal Credit (UC), is this government’s flagship Welfare Reform.
It’s an all-in-one benefit system that replaces several existing benefits, including housing benefit and child tax credits, with one single monthly payment.
So what’s going wrong?
The main issue is that people moving onto UC are faced with a six-week delay before receiving their first payment. Nationally, more than a quarter of claimants have been waiting even longer than that. Months, in some cases.
Such delays are totally unacceptable. They are needlessly pushing many people into debt and rent arrears, causing great stress, especially to the most vulnerable, and can lead to eviction or homelessness.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) says UC is “an online service” and last week used that to justify their telephone helpline charging callers 55p per minute.
Well I’m sorry but how on earth can hard-up people be expected to pay a premium rate to get help in claiming money that they are actually entitled to? What’s morally defensible about charging those most in need of the money for help with their claims?
The DWP says encouraging people to use UC online helps with their digital skills and employability. That’s fine, but those struggling financially are less likely to have a smartphone, tablet, PC or even their own internet connection. And you can’t just cut people adrift like that.
For me, social security should do exactly what it is supposed to do – offer a safety net for those who need it and help to get people back into work.
When Oldham agreed to become an early adopter of UC in 2013 we envisaged working with the DWP to help identify problems and produce a more effective system before it was rolled out nationally.
That simply hasn’t happened and unless a debate led by Oldham East and Saddleworth MP Debbie Abrahams is successful in Parliament today (October 18) then I really fear the impact in the months ahead.
Sadly there’s a wealth of local data showing the true impact of UC here in Oldham.
Oldham Food Bank has seen a 77 per cent increase in people getting food parcels due to benefit delays or changes in the last two years, for example.
At Oldham Council our benefits advisers are spending an average of one hour and ten minutes on the phone just to help each claimant through the online application process.
Politicians – and that’s from all sides – are now uniting with public sector bosses, advice services and the voluntary sector in calling for the national rollout of UC to be stopped.
Even the National Audit Office, the body overseeing government spending, has said that UC is “driven by an ambitious timescale” with “weak management, ineffective control and poor governance”. We can’t all be wrong, surely?
Universal Credit just isn’t fit for purpose as it stands and our society should be treating vulnerable people much better than this.
Instead of continuing to try and save face and push on with this rollout, the Government should acknowledge these failings, press the pause button and stop this minimum six-week delay. And do it now.
The consequences of not doing so, for many people and families, don’t bear thinking about.
With winter on the horizon some could be facing the coldest months of the year making the hardest of choices, like whether to heat their home or feed themselves and their families.
This is a Government that has talked a lot about creating ‘an economy that works for everyone’ and its concerns for those who are ‘Just About Managing’ – so how on earth does the UC rollout fit with that stance?
Please spare a thought for those affected by this as we head towards the festive season and visit the Oldham Foodbank website here to find out how you can help make a difference for local people in crisis.
And finally this week: after thousands of steps, 12 weeks of practice, two outfits and two left feet, I am as ready as I will ever be to strut my stuff on Friday at Strictly Kershaw’s.
Although I’m used to speaking at public meetings and debating issues with large groups of people, this is really going to be something very different.
I’ll let you know how I get on in next week’s blog.