Universal Credit. According to the gov.uk website:
Universal Credit is a payment to help with your living costs. It’s paid monthly - or twice a month for some people in Scotland.
You may be able to get it if you’re on a low income, out of work or you cannot work.
Early 2020 saw the arrival of a global pandemic, now known as COVID-19. Lockdowns brought a significant majority of the country to a standstill, jobs were furloughed, self-employed people suddenly found they couldn’t work, and those who were looking for work found that to be even more difficult. As part of a massive package of financial support, the UK Government added a temporary extra £20 per week to the standard Universal Credit and Working Tax Credit payments. This was widely welcomed by those receiving these benefits and anti-poverty charities alike, as it helped to ease a little of the pressure and worry for individuals and families coming to terms with a new and quite scary situation.
The key word about that extra £20 is ‘temporary’. At the end of this month (September 2021), that extra £20 a week (£86.67 a month) will vanish off all Universal Credit and Working Tax Credit payments.
Now, views around the ‘sort of people who claim benefit’ vary wildly depending on who you speak to, which newspaper you read, where you live, what job you have…There is a widely held assumption in many places that those in receipt of benefits are lazy, don’t want to work, have been busy spending that extra £20 a week on more booze and cigarettes etc etc. Such assumptions are dangerous and overlook the grim reality for many millions of people who are legitimately claiming benefits.
As of 8 July 2021, 5.9 million people in Wales, England and Scotland were claiming Universal Credit (source: gov.uk), roughly 8% of the population. It’s quite hard to imagine what 5.9 million people looks like, after all I lose count when I’m in a room with more than about 30 people in it, but I am one of those 5.9 million people. More on that in a moment.
Universal Credit is one of several benefits available in the UK, and within it there are elements paid towards housing costs, childcare and to support those with no or a low household income. Claimants have to make a ‘Claimant Commitment’ which may include agreeing to undertake a set number of hours a week looking for a job, or looking to increase the number of hours they already work. Failure to log activity or ensure that you keep to your part of the deal can result in sanctions; payments may be reduced or stopped altogether. For some new claimants there can be a wait of up to five weeks before they receive any money, and whilst it is possible to request an advance, this will then be paid back over several months as a deduction from future payments. When it was introduced, Universal Credit was supposed to be supporting people back into work, and making it easier to access support by combining several legacy benefits into one simple monthly payment. For some people this has been the case, but for others it’s been, and continues to be, a difficult and frustrating system to navigate.
Back to that £20 a week. What would you spend £20 on? Maybe a takeaway, or a movie download. You might put it towards some new clothes or have a day out somewhere with friends. You probably wouldn’t count it as part of your general household budget, after all it’s only £20, you can’t really do much with that.
Several million people in the UK right now do count that £20 a week as part of their household budget. It covers the gas and electric for a few days (prepayment meters tend to cost more than credit meters), it means that there’s enough food in the house for everyone to eat this week, not just the kids. It’s been the difference between putting the heating on during the really cold days of winter instead of wearing coats indoors. It’s meant there’s enough petrol in the car to go to work and collect the children from school when it’s raining.
For me, a ‘not quite fitting the stereotype’ Universal Credit claimant, it’s £20 a week I can ill afford to lose. I am a full time student, single parent, doing all I can to improve my skills in order to secure better paid employment and improve the prospects for me and my family. My studies require a full time level of effort and include placements where I am required to be on site 5 days a week, full time for up to 10 weeks. My youngest child is not old enough to be left home alone for long periods, meaning if I was able to find work that would accommodate my studies, I’d need to pay for childcare (not easy to find if you’re working an evening shift in a local pub). Anything I earn above a threshold of £293 a month means Universal Credit cut my payments beyond that point by 63p for every £1 earned, further reducing the household budget once childcare has been paid for (which can easily eat up a reasonable chunk of what is earned per hour anyway). It’s complicated.
The reduction in monthly payments, at a time when the cost of living continues to rise, means tough choices being made. The heating will not be on when it’s cold, we’ll put coats on indoors. I’ll eat my tea away from the children, so they don’t know that I’ve not had anything. If the car breaks down, I’ll have to beg lifts from friends as there’s no flexibility in the budget to put aside money each week for those unexpected costs. There’s no scope to put aside money towards Christmas gifts either, and any school trips requiring payments will have to be skipped.
I know that the cost of the £20 a week uplift to the national budget is significant. When it’s viewed through the lens of numbers on spreadsheets by people who haven’t had regular contact with claimants, it’s easy for decisions to be made with little consideration for the impact.
There are 5.9 million individual people about to lose £20 a week. These are actual humans, people with families to support, people already working trying to make ends meet, people who have not been able to work through ill health, be that physical or mental ill health, who are now having to deal with yet more upheaval, distress, frustration and fear. For some, £20 is neither here nor there. For too many people, already trying so hard to make their lives and those of their families better, £20 a week may be the difference between life and death.