To the next Prime Minister: Scrap the Universal Credit five-week wait

Every Wednesday, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) publishes another instalment of its “Universal Credit Uncovered” advertising campaign in the Metro newspaper….

universal credit

….the DWP advertisements present Universal Credit in a wholly – and unrealistically – positive light.

The government’s advertising campaign makes it clear that people can use advances to get cash while they’re waiting five weeks for the first payment.

What it doesn’t make so clear is that these advances must be paid back out of future Universal Credit payments, making them almost impossible to live off.

Cross-party MPs have called the five-week wait “Universal Credit’s fundamental design flaw” and people I have spoken with who’ve been homeless described how it left them in debt and dependent on food banks.

It seems absurd that the design of the UK’s Welfare System forces people who are homeless into debt.

People who’ve received these advances are often unaware that the money had to be paid back, because Jobcentre staff hadn’t explained it.

Depaul UK works mainly with young people aged 16 to 25. For those aged under 25 the standard allowance is just over £250 a month.

Jenny is 19 and lives in a Depaul accommodation project in the North West.

She made a claim for Universal Credit this year, and faced with the five-week wait, accepted an advance of £348.

Paying this back out of her standard allowance has left her with just £50 a week.

She can’t make ends meet with so little money and has to rely on food banks.

She will be paying off this advance for the next 12 months.

The Trussell Trust provided almost 1.6 million parcels of food last year to all sorts of individuals and families.

It found a 52% average increase in food bank use in areas where Universal Credit had been in place for 12 months or more.

Areas that didn’t have Universal Credit, or where it had been in place for three months or less, only saw a 13% increase.

The aims of Universal Credit – to make sure people are better off in work and to simplify the benefits system – are hard to argue with.

People I’ve talked to who have been homeless, often who are working, appreciate the relative simplicity of the benefit and the support they’ve received from the Jobcentre.

It’s extremely frustrating that these positives continue to be undermined by the five-week wait and the months of debt and hardship that often follow.

The government has tacitly acknowledged that the wait causes problems by announcing a range of measures that could make life slightly easier for people on Universal Credit.

These won’t be introduced until October 2021.

Even when they are in place, the system would still push many people to claim advances and get into debt.

The incoming Prime Minister is going have a busy first few months.

Immediately getting rid of the five-week wait, perhaps replacing it with a non-repayable grant, would be an easy win – an immediate and straightforward way to show a genuine commitment to a fairer and more compassionate Britain.

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