November Bedford Independent Column – Universal Credit is not fit for purpose

I have long argued that Universal Credit is not fit for purpose. Sadly, I’ve seen countless examples of it failing my constituents since it was rolled out in Bedford and Kempston in 2018.

Numbers of claimants in our area have risen as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, as people fall through the gaps of the Government’s support packages.

It’s a hard reality that job insecurity will be a feature of the slow economic recovery when we are finally able to put Covid-19 restrictions behind us.

Last week, a long-recognised error in the UC system finally led to the Department for Work and Pensions putting in place new regulations following four single mothers winning a legal case against the Government in June.

Many claimants who work, but whose employer’s pay dates clash with the set-in-stone UC assessment period dates, have repeatedly had their benefit incorrectly calculated resulting in wildly fluctuating payments, often by hundreds of pounds a month.

Claimants are now able to check their UC payment calculations online ahead of payment and challenge errors so payment is automatically recalculated.

Whilst this is a better outcome, I am hugely frustrated that the DWP’s solution still puts the onus onto the claimant to check their payment is correct, rather than fixing the crux of the problem and moving assessment dates so that they no longer risk clashing with pay dates.

For the many claimants who have fallen prey to this issue, it has been a nightmare.

Through no fault of their own, rent arrears have been amassed, homes have been lost and people have been forced into debt they struggle to repay.

Some have had to give up work to avoid losing their homes – that way, at least their monthly income would be predictable. So much unnecessary and avoidable stress and anxiety for so many people, all to protect a system that was always unfit for purpose.

On paper, Universal Credit is sold as a benefit that allows people to work, to avoid having to sign on and off each time their job circumstances change and in theory enables claimants to budget in the same way as anyone else working and receiving regular payments.

In practice, the UC system failed to recognise that a double work payment was being counted during one assessment period, leading to a low or even zero payment, which resulted in a person’s life being thrown into chaos.

I urge anyone who claims Universal Credit who is either aware that they have already experienced this issue, or thinks this might explain fluctuating payments, to ask for a Mandatory Reconsideration of any payments where this might have occurred.

Find out how to do this

Also in recent days, yet another shocking loophole in Universal Credit regulations was exposed, following a court ruling that the DWPs policy in operation since 2013, which meant disabled students have been unlawfully refused a work capability assessment and therefore couldn’t claim the Universal Credit to which they should have been entitled. It’s been estimated 30,000 disabled students may have been adversely affected.

Anyone who applied before 5 August, when the Government closed the loophole, may ask for the decision to be challenged.

Now more than ever, we need a benefits system that provides a genuine safety net. There should be no gaps for eligible people to fall through.

To get there, the Government must put the needs of claimants first, close all loopholes and admit policy failures rather than sacrificing those it’s meant to protect.

The published article can be read on the Bedford Independent’s website

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