‘How am I going to survive?’ – Hairdresser, 20, and married couple on life on Universal Credit in lockdown
- Credit: MARK SCOTT/TAMARA ELLISON
A mum-of-two, a 20-year-old hairdresser and a married couple have shared their experiences of claiming Universal Credit during the pandemic - as Citizens Advice workers warned a “fresh wave of hardship” could arrive when lockdown is lifted.
Ipswich Citizens Advice officers have already taken on more than 600 cases relating to benefits, debt and housing since restrictions began in March.
This week, chancellor Rishi Sunak announced a four-month extension to the furlough scheme, bringing fresh hope to some workers and employers.
Yet Suffolk Coastal MP Dr Therese Coffey, who is work and pensions secretary, revealed last week that her department has received around two million claims for Universal Credit (UC) during the coronavirus lockdown.
Figures for April aren’t available yet, but in March 31,600 people were claiming UC in Suffolk – up from 20,000 last year.
Colchester MP Will Quince, work and pensions minister, told the Commons this week that more than 90% of UC claims will be paid “in full and on time” despite a leap.
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‘I won’t get the help I need’
Leah Scott, a 20-year-old hairdresser from Stowmarket, is self-employed.
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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’s just unbelievable, and 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.
“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.
“It feels unfair because I would have got further if I had gone out every single weekend, spent £100, not having savings.
“But because I’ve saved so hard – I’ve worked since I was 13 – I won’t get the help I need.”
‘We’ve waited several weeks’
Michael, from Ipswich, and his NHS worker wife applied for Universal Credit after the pandemic left him unable to work. The process, he says, has left him “gutted” and uncertain about the future.
The pair are entitled to UC but won’t receive a payment until May 21 - and even then, they are unsure how much they will get.
“Because I haven’t been self-employed for very long, I didn’t qualify for government help,” he said.
“The only thing I could do was to apply for UC. I had to do a joint claim, because I’m married. My wife is still working, but her earnings alone wouldn’t have covered our living costs.
“All this stuff is new to me, I’ve always worked. I haven’t really spoken to anyone, it was all done online, we got an email back saying we’re entitled to it, but we won’t get a payment until May 21.
“It’s lucky my family have been able to sort us out with food, otherwise I don’t know what we would have done.
“It’s gutting. You’ve got to grin and bear it. We didn’t get a rent payment holiday, our landlord encouraged us to go on UC so we could still pay.
“We don’t know how much we’re going to get – no-one has let us know. It could be £200, and we’ve just waited all that time just for that, which won’t cover anything.”
‘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, because she was a new starter, her real time information (RTI) form was submitted later than the March 19 deadline.
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.
MORE: All the latest coronavirus news in your area“There’s no end in sight,” she said. “I still don’t have a date for when I can go back to work and start earning again, I’ve applied for loads of different jobs – jobs that are going to put me out into danger of becoming infected and bringing it home to my family.
“My daughter is type 1 diabetic so her immune system is compromised as it is. What am I supposed to do?
She added: “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.
“The chancellor has extended the furlough scheme until October - I can’t survive until October.
“Universal Credit is not a magic bullet, it’s not designed to help people who actually need it, when they need it.”
MORE: ‘Will you help me’ – The stories of rough sleepers taken off the streets during coronavirus lockdownNicky Wilshere, chief officer at Ipswich Citizens Advice, joined the national arm of the organisation in calling for “immediate changes” to UC ahead of a potential second wave of claims when the government’s protection schemes come to a close.
The charity warns its frontline advisors are preparing for a potential spike in enquiries this summer, with the job retention scheme currently due to end in October.
It said a redeployment of staff by the Department for Work and Pensions has helped respond to an unprecedented surge in demand on the benefits system and ensured people can access financial support.
But frontline advisers say many people they support with Universal Credit can face hardship as a result of the five-week wait until their first payment, or risk getting into debt by taking out an advance payment.
Ms Wilshere said: “We are expecting many more enquiries as the Government now starts to talk about ending lockdown and the return to the workplace.
“If redundancies are to come, there will be a further wave of hardship for households who have already had to dig deep.
“The five-week wait for Universal Credit will add to this.”
Speaking in the Commons, Mr Quince said: “Despite (a) surge (in UC claims), the system is standing up to the challenge and demonstrating that resilience is part of its design, with over 90% of new eligible claims expected to be paid in full and on time.
“There is no way that the legacy benefits system would have been able to cope with this pressure.”
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 the Citizens Advice website.