'I'm trapped in Universal Credit hell' - Readers speak out over controversial benefit rollout
Archant Norfolk 2013
People claiming Universal Credit in our region are struggling to feed themselves, clothe their children and keep up with rent and bills, an investigation by this newspaper has revealed.
We spoke to people in Suffolk and Essex about the flagship welfare reform – already fully rolled out in areas like Ipswich – amid hard hitting warnings from politicians, foodbanks and debt advisors.
Universal Credit or UC replaces six major benefits – including child tax credit, jobseeker’s allowance, employment support allowance (ESA), and income support.
A full UC service is already in place across most of Suffolk and north Essex – with parts of Suffolk Coastal, Forest Heath and St Edmundsbury due to be completed later this year.
According to latest Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) data, 13,885 households were on Universal Credit in June 2018.
Waveney had the highest number, with 5,333 signed up.
More than half of the claimants we spoke to said they had visited a foodbank, advice centre, debt advisor or applied for an overdraft while on UC, though just under 60% said they had not experienced issues with delayed payments.
Darryn Nunn had been claiming ESA for several years – but after a health assessment gave him a score of zero, he was moved onto UC in June.
“I’m trapped in Universal Credit hell,” the 51-year-old from Ipswich warned.
“Once they had put me on it they did another assessment and it turned out I was 27 on the scale – I needed 15 to stay on ESA, which I’d been on for a few years – and I got nearly double that.
“But I was told once I’d been put on Universal Credit I couldn’t go back to what I was on before.
“So now I’m trapped and can’t get out.”
Mr Nunn claims he did not receive his first payment until the end of July.
He added: “I’ve got a huge council tax bill hanging over my head of £622 and it’s so stressful.
“It’s now affected my health to the extent I can’t do my little part time job.
“The way I have been treated is abysmal.
“The system is farcical and the future doesn’t look good at all for me.”
One Ipswich woman with a young daughter said she had visited a foodbank – and was feeding her child, not herself.
“[I found UC] very stressful,” she said.
“[It is] Leading me to get seriously behind with bills and feed my daughter not myself.”
A university student with a young child, who wished to remain anonymous, said she had to go on UC during the summer holidays.
She said: “I found it appalling. I received nothing during the summer holidays as I had to wait five weeks by this time the school holidays were coming to an end and I was getting ready to return to uni.
“If it wasn’t for parents, savings etc my child and I would have had nothing the whole summer holiday, no food, couldn’t pay bills.”
And a disabled man from Lowestoft said he got a job and puts himself through pain every day to ensure he doesn’t have to go through the process of claiming UC.
Meanwhile Colchester woman, who said she visited the town’s foodbank for help and Citizens Advice, also warned if she didn’t receive PIP she wouldn’t be able to clothe her son.
However, some claimants were positive about the transition from normal benefits to UC.
One Sudbury woman, who did not want to be named, admitted that moving onto the system was quick and easy and said: “When we moved to Sudbury, we were transferred from live service to full service, which was quick and easy.
“They even offered my husband a Saturday appointment so he didn’t have to take a day off work.
“I really sympathise with people who have had a hard time claiming, the rollout hasn’t been implemented very well, but I honestly believe that once the whole service is rolled out across the country and everyone has been on it for a few years, we’ll all look back and realise that it was for the best.”
Another reader, living in Suffolk Coastal, said the transition was relatively smooth. But she also claims to have experienced issues with delayed payments, and added: “There is a lot less money coming into the household.”
Their remarks come as former Tory prime minister Sir John Major called for a rethink on the Universal Credit rollout.
What does the government have to say?
A DWP spokesman said: “UC replaces an out-of-date, complex benefit system with cliff edges that disincentivised work and often trapped people in employment.
“Under UC people are moving into work faster and staying in work longer than under the old system.
“The reasons why people use food banks are complex, so it’s wrong to link a rise to any one cause.
“We’ve already made significant improvements to UC, such as 100% advances which support people before their first payment, removing the seven waiting days, and two weeks’ extra housing support for claimants moving onto UC.”