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Universal Credit: The Sheffield Rollout Begins

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Jim Spendlove

Universal Credit is the biggest single change to welfare benefits, as they are now called, since the creation of social security in 1948. Over the next five years, more than 60,000 Sheffielders will become UC claimants.

The Child Poverty Action Group's guide to welfare benefits and tax credits runs to 1,740 pages, a reflection of the extraordinary labyrinth of rules and regulations that some of our poorest and most vulnerable citizens have to navigate in order to secure the help they need. UC seeks to streamline the benefits system by replacing six means-tested benefits: Jobseeker's Allowance, Income Support, Housing Benefit, Employment & Support Allowance, Working Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit. But - and it's a very big 'but' - the reality is far from welcome. The problems with UC are legion.

It's a digital-by-default system, so people claim and manage UC online. Claimants must have a bank account, mobile number and email address, and therefore the digital access and skills this requires. They have to wait five weeks before they receive their first payment and far too many people have had to wait much longer. Advance payments are an option, but they are repayable from future payments.

Monthly payments will normally include the housing element, which will no longer be paid directly to landlords, so budgeting will become even more challenging. People on UC will have to check their online 'journal' frequently and ensure that they comply with their 'claimant commitment' and the requirements set by their work coach. All relevant changes of circumstances will have to be reported.

Most importantly, the majority of UC claimants will receive less money than they would have under the old system. The CPAG reckons that 4.3 million families will be worse off. Most of these will be 'working families', not unemployed.

The problems with UC are legion

In the places where UC has already been rolled out, more people have been turning to food banks. Rent arrears and other debts have gone up. Some people have found it near-impossible to cope with the way UC works and have slipped through the net completely.

Child poverty is rising fast, climbing to 5.2 million by 2022, compared to 3.9 million in 2015, the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates. A huge part of this is due to the government's welfare reforms, which will have cut £37 billion from benefits by 2021.

The Government's original aim was to complete UC implementation by 2017. It reset the timetable in 2013 and then again in 2016. In June of this year it did so again and now aims to complete implementation by March 2023 - although judging from recent leaks, this may change yet again.

In Sheffield, the comprehensive rollout of UC begins this November. People who need to claim benefits for the first time and people already on the 'legacy benefits' whose circumstances change will be directed to UC. At some point in the next couple of years, we expect all other people already on a legacy benefit to be required to claim UC.

Sheffield City Council, housing associations, Citizens Advice and many other voluntary organisations are poised to help people with UC. As well as providing straightforward information about how it works, action is underway to help people get digital access and support. An intensive programme of briefing and training for advice workers and many other frontline staff and volunteers is underway.

Nationally, we need to press the government for at least three things now: more funding, so that people do not get less money on UC; changes to the way UC works, for example so that people do not have to wait for their money; and absolute assurance that the system will be able to cope with the millions of new claims that will be made in the next few years.

Local and national campaigns deserve our support, as do all the organisations seeking to help people with UC and other benefits.

Andy Buck, writing in a personal capacity, is Chair of the Sheffield Universal Credit Partnership Group and former Chief Executive of Citizens Advice Sheffield.

Next article in issue 128

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