Universal Credit has dominated the social security landscape in the UK over the past ten years. Whether you see it as the answer to claimants’ prayers, or think it should be scrapped and replaced, for anyone interested in social policy it has been hard to avoid. But those responsible for making decisions about Universal Credit may not be familiar with findings from recent research, or the experiences and views of claimants.
On 29 October, the Social Policy Association supported a webinar, chaired by Jane Millar, for parliamentarians and others to learn from research evidence about Universal Credit and experiences of claiming it. Both researchers and ‘experts by experience’ made presentations, including those involved in projects examining Universal Credit in the pandemic. As Ruth Lister, who was hosting, said, the recent finding that public views on benefits are becoming more generous makes it even more important to address the flaws in Universal Credit.
Couples on Universal Credit: mix of individual and joint aspects
There are certainly flaws in how Universal Credit deals with couples, with its complex mix of individual and joint aspects, being investigated by an ESRC-funded research project (presented by Rita Griffiths and Marsha Wood, University of Bath). Specific issues include the single payment by default, often seen by the couples interviewed as more suited to a bygone era. The same was true of work conditionality for couples, which requires them to nominate a ‘lead carer’, whilst not recognising any parental responsibilities for the other partner.
Couples with two earners can find the income volatility caused by the monthly assessment formula in Universal Credit doubly destabilising, and the arrangements for meeting part of childcare costs onerous and unreliable. The research showed that both these issues can lead to ‘second earners’ considering withdrawing from work or reducing their working hours.
Universal Credit in Northern Ireland
Universal Credit operates somewhat differently in Northern Ireland, as Ruth Patrick (University of York) explained, with twice monthly payments and housing costs paid to the landlord as the default. But improvements are still needed, as participatory research has revealed. Maria Thompson, who has been claiming Universal Credit for two years and has a disabled child, described her experience of living on an inadequate amount and how she felt those not currently in a position to take paid work were forgotten.
Deidre McCausland, also a Universal Credit claimant, described the work of UC:Us (also ‘you see us’), the group of experts by experience in this research project, who are pushing for change. They call for Universal Credit to be paid at a level that meets living costs including housing; for the five-week wait to be reduced to one week; for advance loans to be replaced with grants; and for manageable deductions and immediate support in debt crises, as well as a supplementary payment for Northern Ireland. But they argue that change will only happen if claimants’ voices are heard.
Claiming Universal Credit in Glasgow
The government has previously been defensive about Universal Credit. But in research presented by Sharon Wright (University of Glasgow) and Laura Robertson (Poverty Alliance), researchers were allowed to talk to Jobcentre workers as well as claimants in Glasgow. The five-week wait, as often, came across as the worst aspect of Universal Credit; but managing between payments is also an ongoing struggle, not really resolved by the twice-monthly payments more widely possible in Scotland. Work coaches can be supportive and helpful, and the system has improved over time. Universal Credit does also offer more flexibility in moving in and out of work. But management of the online journal, in which claimants post messages to their work coach and record their job search, is challenging on a mobile phone in particular; and the fear of sanctions is a constant anxiety. Jobcentre staff do not believe sanctions are a positive influence, and can feel ill-equipped to help those with serious mental health issues.
Benefits may be increasingly digitised. But face to face and telephone contact is crucial for claimants. More investment in Jobcentre Plus and reform of sanctions are needed for meaningful personal support. Other changes should include abolishing the five-week wait and making advances non-repayable. The £20 per week uplift in the pandemic is not sufficient, in particular because deductions go up in line with this and more time spent indoors increases bills.
Researching Universal Credit in the time of coronavirus
Universal Credit is included in the ESRC-funded Welfare at a (Social) Distance research examining social security in the time of COVID-19, as described by Lisa Scullion (University of Salford). This includes surveys of claimants of a range of benefits, qualitative research into claimants’ experiences, and interviews with organisations supporting them. A linked exploratory project with the Health Foundation is examining what happens to those whose benefit claims do not succeed. The new claimant group tends to be younger and more likely to be BAME. In May/June, those on Universal Credit were more likely to still be connected with work. Many still looked for work, even when conditionality was suspended. Claimants appreciated digital processes; and to be useful, human interaction needed to incorporate trained and appropriate support.
Another research project, COVID Realities, has been analysing parents’ and carers’ experiences from June 2020, via diaries and discussion groups as well as posing a ‘big question of the week’. As Maddy Power (University of York) summarised, for families with children, the additional help provided so far is insufficient and many are struggling. The return of conditionality has also caused anxiety for parents with children at home. The £20 uplift should be complemented with additional targeted payments for families, and the benefit cap lifted so they can benefit fully.
Commission on Social Security: experts by experience set out principles
The Commission on Social Security, led by experts by experience with recent or current experience of benefits, has been discussing ideas for a better benefits system, with a view to producing a White Paper. The basis for developing their solutions is a list of five principles for social security, described by Mike Tighe, one of the Commissioners. The first would mean that benefits would provide enough to live on, and meet additional costs such as for disability or children, with amounts based on the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s Minimum Income Standard. Secondly, everyone should be treated with dignity, respect, trust and a belief that they can choose for themselves. Social security should also be a public service with rights and entitlements. It should be clear, user-friendly and accessible to all. And it should provide claimants with free access to support and the ability to make their voice heard.
Additional issues emerging from discussion included difficulties with twice monthly payments, in part because this means receiving half the total even later. Inconsistency between different work coaches and Jobcentres is a real problem. Challenged by being asked what one change they would like to see, speakers emphasised improving the amount of Universal Credit, and providing a feasible bridge to employment for those out of work for a long time.
Millions of people are, or will be, receiving Universal Credit. This timely research from members of the Social Policy Association makes an important contribution to the debates about priorities for reform.
Fran Bennett, Senior Research Fellow, Department of Social Policy and Intervention @DSPI_Oxford, University of Oxford, works as a researcher on social security, poverty and gender. She is involved in an ESRC-funded research project into Universal Credit and couples, and co-organised the webinar described in the blog with Jane Millar (University of Bath).
Disclaimer: All blogs express the views of the author(s), and not of the SPA.