Universal Credit Is Riddled With Issues, but Have Some Flaws Been Deliberately Designed Into the System?

by Natalie Leal

12 November 2019

Pete* found applying for Universal Credit so difficult that he almost gave up. His son, Mike*, had to step in, spending up to 20 hours every week helping his dad keep up his claim. Pete, 65, a former painter and decorator, has no internet connection at his home in rural Kent and next to no computer skills. 

“His claim was all messed up at the start because he didn’t understand what was being asked of him,” says Mike. “When asked how he was looking for work he said he couldn’t look due to the location of his home, which is true, but they tried to sanction him for not searching on a website,” he adds. “So I would buy him local newspapers to look for work and I looked online in my spare time and pretended to be him. I applied for work on his behalf.” 

Pete was finally reassessed as unable to work due to ill-health but until that point Mike was scared he would end up destitute. “He would have lost his home, wouldn’t have been able to pay bills, or eat, and would have taken any job to try to survive,” he says.

In the UK “hassle” is built into universal credit (UC) – the Conservative government’s flagship welfare reform which replaces six legacy benefits: income-related jobseeker’s allowance (JSA); income-related employment and support allowance (ESA); income support; housing benefit; and working and child tax credits. The controversial policy, introduced by then-work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith in 2013, has been plagued with issues from the start, leaving thousands reliant on foodbanks and some recipients considering suicide. The policy is considered so unfit for purpose that Labour has said it will replace it entirely if elected next month. But perhaps the hardest aspect of the policy to comprehend is evidence that suggests some of its worst flaws aren’t accidental failings; they may actually have been built into the system, to deter claimants.

The hassle factor.

Over the past 30 years many countries have tightened up their welfare systems. Strict conditions such as compulsory 35-hour-a-week job searches have been introduced, with claimants who don’t comply threatened with losing their money. In countries like the US this ‘conditionality’ has often been referred to as the “hassle factor”, a term which is known to have been used by British policymakers in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) too. Having to attend more meetings at the jobcentre, for instance, “gets referred to internally as the ‘hassle factor'”, Demos Associate Tom Pollard wrote in a paper for the think-tank, after spending 18 months embedded in the DWP as a researcher. It was a phrase Pollard says he heard being used at policy level (although the DWP do not use it publicly). According to Pollard it meant: “You create an environment where it’s not that pleasant being on benefits… [in which] being on benefits is a pain, you have to go to the jobcentre a lot, jump through hoops”. 

There have been studies looking into the effects of “hassle”. A 2008 paper by rightwing think-tank Policy Exchange analysed examples from across the world. The introduction of tougher requirements, “led to falls in the number of people claiming benefits in two of the countries in our report,” the researchers wrote. “In Australia,” they add, “the welfare rolls were cut by between 5% and 10% once claimants were asked to attend initial interviews (of a lengthier type than the ones faced by UK JSA recipients), and around a third once they were asked to attend compulsory work programmes.”

Although it does not use the term “hassle”, the DWP appears to be well aware of the impact “conditionality” can have. According to the department conditionality has been a “key driver” of behaviour change – the behaviour change in this case being to give up on claiming UC entirely.

Meanwhile the government’s behavioural insights team, aka the nudge unit, explicitly refers to the concept of ‘hassle’, pointing to the benefits of reducing it. “One way to increase uptake or response rates is to “reduce the ‘hassle factor’ of taking up a service,” they say. “The effort required to perform an action often puts people off.”

It is despite this insight that the majority of jobseekers in the UK are now required to spend 35 hours every week looking for work, attend regular meetings at the jobcentre and jump through all sorts of online hoops to ensure they receive their money.

A (deliberate) deterrent.

The effort of applying for UC does appear to be putting people off. Carly Thompsett felt hassled away from support after registering for UC while setting up her online clothing business. “My business wasn’t making enough money to live off so I was advised to join universal credit as a self employed person to have my money topped up,” she says. “I wasn’t desperate but the long set up process was painful and unnecessary.” After six months of errors and having to regularly attend the jobcentre to prove she was looking for jobs she didn’t need, Thompsett cut her losses and walked away. “Luckily for me it wasn’t that bad financially but I know for some it wouldn’t have been that easy or simple,” she says. “Emotionally though, that was tough yeah. I couldn’t deal with it anymore.”

Nick* and his girlfriend have just spent four hours completing an online application when I speak to him. “My partner and I started applying for Universal Credit yesterday. It’s literally taken me four hours to get the form done, and it’s still not authorised,” he says. After creating two separate accounts, joining them, then creating two separate accounts to verify their ID they need to call the UC hotline to book an appointment for the jobcentre. “I just don’t think it should take that long,” he says. “I joked to my partner that it’s probably easier to buy a gun on the dark web than it is to claim universal credit.”

The complexity of the application surprises Nick because he works as a housing benefits officer, a job he’s had for the past fourteen years which regularly involves helping others with these sorts of forms. As a low-income family they are applying to access tax credits – one of the six existing benefits being rolled into UC. “I found it relatively easy to answer these questions because I know what they’re asking for,” he says. “I really feel for people who aren’t computer literate or who don’t use online services because it’s really, really quite convoluted. Two or three times when I was applying things timed out and I had to log back in and if you don’t have that perseverance and are not fluent with using online services then you will just give up.”

In fact, one in five of all claimants do give up according to a report out earlier this year by the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Universal Credit. No one knows what happens to them next. “This is far higher than the proportion of people gaining well-paid employment during the claim period,” the report says. “If there are people who are not claiming anything and therefore receiving no support into work or training because of the system of making a universal credit claim, the DWP needs to look at the reasons why this is and implement changes to the way people can make a claim to assist these groups, who are potentially missing out completely.”

The most vulnerable people could drop out of the system.

Natalie Williams, who runs a food bank in Hastings, says she often encounters people who find the system too complex to navigate. “What worries me about this is I think that side of things is going to get worse but it won’t be people who can just about manage who drop out, it will be people who it’s just too complicated for,” she says. 

This month the Trussell Trust published the results of a three-year-long study which revealed two-thirds of people arriving at their food banks had a problem with the benefits system in the last year. A DWP spokesperson said they are taking this report very seriously and continue to work closely with the Trussell Trust.

“We already spend over £95 billion a year on welfare, and have simplified the benefits system through Universal Credit – making it easier for people to access support,” the spokesperson said. “This week, we also announced working-age benefits will rise in line with inflation from April, giving millions of people more money in their pockets. But we are not complacent, and continue to make improvements to the benefits system to make sure people get all the support they need.”

Williams recently shadowed staff at her local job centre to gain a better understanding of what happens there. “I went in for two hours thinking I might see five or six different claimants but actually my whole time was spent with one person with multiple complex needs and he got first grade care, absolutely amazing attention from these two members of staff,” she says. “They walked him through every step of the process.”

“But then I said to one of those members of staff ‘what’s going to happen when 7000 of the most vulnerable people in Hastings – the long term sick, people with long term mental health issues, the long term unemployed – when those 7000 most vulnerable come on [to UC] how are you going to give that level of care?’ and she was like ‘well obviously we won’t be able to’.”

The complexity and hassle now involved in claiming UC means many more people are likely to require more face-to-face support. But this is at a time when caseload numbers are set to explode. According to the APPG report “the number of claimants per case manager – who make decisions on issuing sanctions to claimants and other individual issues – is due to rise from 154 to 919. This is nowhere near the time required to understand a claimant’s requirements, especially if they have additional needs”. 

Williams has huge concerns. “By their own admission once they start seeing waves and waves of the most vulnerable coming onto UC there’s no way they’ll be able to give them that attention,” she says. “So I think at that point we will see some of the most vulnerable people drop out of the system simply because they just can’t navigate it and they can’t get the help they need to navigate it.”

*Mike, Pete and Nick’s names have been changed to protect their identities

Natalie Leal is a freelance journalist.

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