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‘It’s not a magic bullet’: Life on Universal Credit in lockdown

Leah Scott and Tamara Ellison, have shared their experiences with applying for Universal Credit as more than 1.8million people applied for the benefit during the coronavirus lockdown Pictures: MARK SCOTT/TAMARA ELLISON

Leah Scott and Tamara Ellison, have shared their experiences with applying for Universal Credit as more than 1.8million people applied for the benefit during the coronavirus lockdown Pictures: MARK SCOTT/TAMARA ELLISON

MARK SCOTT/TAMARA ELLISON

Soaring numbers of people are turning to Universal Credit as the economic hit of the lockdown lands hard - but how is the system coping?

More than 76,000 people in Norfolk and Suffolk now rely on Universal Credit to keep them going - a number which has rocketed by 60pc in a year.

“The system has proved itself in the face of unprecedented demand,” work and pensions secretary, Dr Therese Coffey told the Commons last week.

In March an extra 1300 people in Norfolk and Waveney signed up to UC taking the total to 44,500. In Suffolk, 31,600 were claiming it – an increase from 20,000 compared to March 2019.

Since it was introduced by the coalition government, scrapping several different benefits with just one payment, UC has faced severe criticism for long waits.

Therese Coffey (r) with Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Chancellor Rishi Sunak. Dr Coffey praised the way the Universal Credit system had dealt with huge demand. Picture: PA/Matt DunhamTherese Coffey (r) with Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Chancellor Rishi Sunak. Dr Coffey praised the way the Universal Credit system had dealt with huge demand. Picture: PA/Matt Dunham

Charities have blamed it for a rise in foodbank use and the amount people get varies wildly depending on savings and previous earnings.

But Will Quince MP, work and pensions minister, said more than 90pc of claims were paid “in full and on time” despite the leap in numbers.

•How do I live off £30 a week?

Yolande Southgate, Help To Claim Project Coordinator at Norfolk CAB. Photo: Yolanda SouthgateYolande Southgate, Help To Claim Project Coordinator at Norfolk CAB. Photo: Yolanda Southgate

Leah Scott, a 20-year-old hairdresser from Stowmarket, is self-employed.

She is currently receiving just £30 a week of UC – and missed out on a payment being given to self-employed workers during June because she had a tax bill in the last financial year.

Miss Scott also won’t go back to work until July as lockdown restrictions mean hair salons cannot open – leaving her without income for almost four months.

“It feels so unfair,” she said. “When I applied for UC, they asked how much I had in my savings. There were three different brackets, I was in the middle, because of my tax bill and my house savings for the future.

Embargoed to 0001 Monday July 23 File photo dated 11/1/2018 of signage for the Department for Work & Pensions. A "significant" number of people are struggling to navigate the Government's flagship Universal Credit benefits system, according to a new study.Embargoed to 0001 Monday July 23 File photo dated 11/1/2018 of signage for the Department for Work & Pensions. A "significant" number of people are struggling to navigate the Government's flagship Universal Credit benefits system, according to a new study.

“They said you’ll be getting £90 a week, so I thought brilliant, that will just cover it.

“Then I had to give them outgoings and income for this month. They gave me £199.37 for seven weeks, which is not enough. It’s £30 a week.

“I would have got further if I had gone out every single weekend, spent £100, not having savings.”

•‘Simple and easy’

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Yolande Southgate, who helps people at Norfolk Citizens’ Advice with Universal Credit issues, said almost 600 people in Norwich came to them in the first month of lockdown, compared to 214 for the same period before; that is a rise of 173pc.

But she said the system had held up.

“We have seen some cases where people have not been paid on time,” she said, but added that is normally resolved when they contact the JobCentre.

She said the other cause of complaint was the five-week wait to get money.

The government gives advanced payments to those who cannot afford to wait. To get them, claimants need to verify their identity, but Ms Southgate said there were some issues when claimant numbers were at their peak.

She added that making a claim online was easy, but those without the internet had problems applying on the phone.

Daniel, 23, from Norwich put in a claim at the start of April after losing his job as a parliamentary assistant for an MP.

“The process is simple and easy,” he said.

“They explained that I would receive my first backdated payment a month after I first applied, which I’m expecting on the May 18th.

“I won’t find out how much I receive until then, because it depends on your income over the next month, but I’m hoping it covers my portion of the rent at least.”

•‘No end in sight’

Mum-of-two Tamara Ellison, from Eriswell near Mildenhall, started a new job on March 2 but was furloughed just two weeks later.

The next day, she applied for UC. She wasn’t eligible, as she rents out a property which once belonged to her husband – but it isn’t drawing any income, as the tenant is unable to pay during the coronavirus outbreak.

The 48-year-old was also unable to access the government’s job retention scheme as. It left her with just £83 of child benefit and two weeks’ worth of pay to survive on – and as the sole income provider, she fears for the future.

“There’s no end in sight,” she said. “I paid tax for 35 years and never had a break in employment, and yet when I need some support there’s absolutely nothing available to me.

“UC is not a magic bullet, it’s not designed to help people who actually need it, when they need it.”

A DWP spokesman said: “We are doing whatever it takes to ensure people are supported through these unprecedented times, implementing an enormous package of measures to do so.

“Widespread support is available, including increased Universal Credit payments, income protection schemes, mortgage holidays and improved safeguards for renters.

•For support, visit citizensadvice.org.uk


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