Citizens Advice Manchester is warning that Universal Credit is putting people’s financial security at risk as they wait six weeks or more for their first payment.
Many people have already turned to Citizens Advice Manchester for help with "live service" Universal Credit, a temporary version of the benefit available to people in the area with straightforward claims.
The charity says the numbers struggling will grow rapidly from October, when “full service” arrives, meaning anyone who would previously have claimed one of the old benefits - such as tax credits or housing benefit- has to apply for Universal Credit.
By 2022 Universal Credit will affect 104,500 households in total across Manchester as a whole.
Across the country 1 in 4 (28%) working age households will be claiming Universal Credit, more than half of which (54%) will be in employment. The benefit will also 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.
In a major new report - Delivering on Universal Credit - national Citizens Advice has revealed that 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.
As part of the new study, national Citizens Advice surveyed 800 people who sought help with Universal Credit in areas where there is full service.
- Over a third (39%) of people are waiting more than the 6 weeks it should take to receive their first payment.
- Just over 1 in 10 (11%) are waiting over 10 weeks without the benefit.
- 3 in 5 (57%) are having to borrow money while waiting for their first payment.
The report also reveals that people are having problems with the new online application process. These range from difficulties using a computer, 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.
The rollout of Universal Credit is set to speed up significantly in October this year. Citizens Advice Manchester 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.
The charity also highlights that, unless addressed, these challenges will undermine the goals of Universal Credit: to simplify the benefits system and offer people the security and support they need to move into and progress in work.
As it stands, many people are facing uncertainty about how much money they will receive and when it will arrive. This insecurity filters through to other areas of their lives, for instance making it harder to focus on finding work while they worry about how to keep on top of bills or put food on the table.
One man recently came to see us, as when his Universal Credit payment was made, after the standard six week wait, the housing element of his claim was not awarded with no reason given despite enquiries from him and his housing association. As Universal Credit were unable to offer an explanation, he was issued with an eviction notice which we have now resolved.
Andy Brown, Chief Executive of Citizens Advice Manchester said:
“The principles behind Universal Credit are sound, but a mix of flaws in how the benefit was designed and problems with how it is being delivered is leaving many people’s finances in tatters.
“We’re already helping many people across Manchester who are having problems with Universal Credit, and we are concerned this will rise significantly from October. By 2022 it will affect thousands of households across the area.
“If the government doesn’t fix significant problems with Universal Credit then many families across Manchester may be put at financial risk, which can in turn put huge pressure on other local services such as health, housing and social care.
“If anyone does run into problems with Universal Credit, don’t hesitate to contact Citizens Advice Manchester for help.”
In its new report national Citizens Advice makes a range of recommendations to fix Universal Credit before it is rolled out more widely:
Reduce how long people have to wait for their first payment
- Remove the 7 waiting days at the start of a claim, to reduce the amount of time people have to wait for their first payment.
- Make sure everyone moving to Universal Credit is told they can get an Advance Payment to help them while they wait for their first payment.
Improve the support available to people so they can make ends meet
- Introduce an online system for people to book their initial Jobcentre appointments, rather than having to call the Universal Credit helpline.
- Make the Universal Credit helpline free of charge, at least until the roll-out is complete.
- Allow people to adjust to Universal Credit by offering everyone options in how they would like the benefit to be paid.
- Put in place a comprehensive support package before Universal Credit roll-out accelerates, to make sure people get advice to manage their money and deal with any complications in the application process.