Universal Credit – built to fail

Universal Credit, the Conservative government’s flagship welfare programme, has been broadly criticised by many on the political left. Before I ever had to apply for Universal Credit, I was aware of both these criticisms and the government’s austerity agenda, but I hadn’t fully understood what it was like to directly experience this much-maligned system.

After graduating from university in 2015, I was looking for work, and felt that a natural way to begin was to go to the Job Centre – where better to find advice and support to build my career? I completed the online booking form, detailing my previous experience and qualifications, and soon after attended an appointment with a ‘work coach’.

At the appointment I explained that I was looking for work in the charity or environmental sectors: I had already begun searching for work, so I could see online that there were a wide range of options locally for graduate positions.

I remember feeling an immediate sense of anxiety as my work coach’s face dropped, before they said something like “OK, well you can look for that, but what’s your backup plan?”. I had a good degree and some relevant prior experience. I therefore felt pretty certain that, within a relatively short time, and with some support from the job centre, I’d be able to find a job in these sectors easily enough. My work coach didn’t have that impression. While she was completing the section on my online profile regarding the types of work I was seeking, I said “charity, environmental, maybe something in the public sector”. She added these, before saying “What about retail?”. “OK sure,” I said. “Retail as well.”

This was the point where I first understood that the current welfare system is entirely devoid of any faith in the people who it is ostensibly there to support. There is a constant underlying assumption of failure – you may want x, but really you’re only ever going to get y, so it’s best to just go for y.

At my initial meeting at the Job Centre I was also required to sign a ‘claimant commitment’. This is a long document that lists all of the duties that I, the claimant, am required to complete if I am to receive Universal Credit and avoid being sanctioned or prosecuted for benefit fraud. The commitments included providing evidence that I was engaged in ‘job search activities’ for at least 35 hours per week. A full-time job of job searching. I also committed (on pain of sanction) to completing any further activities that my work coach demanded, such as job fairs or interview training.

I had been considering volunteering at local charities to gain some experience and improve my CV. I was especially pleased to learn that I could do this for up to 17 hours a week and have it count towards my 35-hour total. I quickly set about finding volunteering opportunities in my town, and signed on to work at the local food bank and in the kitchen of a charity tea room.

When I wasn’t volunteering, I diligently went about searching for work, quietly ignoring the suggestion to look for unskilled retail jobs and applying instead for a wide range of roles in different charities. I had around three interviews in about a month. Although I was unsuccessful at the first two, I succeeded at the third – a graduate role in a Manchester-based social care charity. I was given a start date around two or three weeks later.

Shortly after learning of my success, I had another mandatory work coach appointment. I’d had three or four by this point, each with a different work coach. This time I informed the coach that I had successfully interviewed for a job and would be starting in around two weeks time. She was shocked, asking “So you can get paid at a charity?!”

She also asked whether I had been completing my mandatory thirty-five hour job search. I let her know that I’d been volunteering for around seventeen hours, because my previous coach had said that it would count. The response: “Oh, she shouldn’t have said that.” I also let her know that I had stopped looking for work as I was due to start in around two weeks. I had broken my claimant commitment! She simply had to pass this on to a decision-maker, who would decide whether I should be sanctioned for failing to apply for jobs in the interim period between my successful interview and my start date. “What if it falls through?” – again an assumption of failure.

This work coach then decided that it was necessary to send me to a job fair seven days before I was due to start a job. She made sure to remind me that failure to attend could result in being sanctioned. At the job fair, I bumped into my first work coach. I asked if I was OK to ‘sign off’ – “No, you don’t sign off,” she replied. As I was leaving, I heard her whisper to a colleague that I was her ‘star’ (or something to that effect): she was obviously shocked that I had managed to find a job so quickly.

After receiving an ominous letter informing me that my case was under review by a decision-maker and I could be sanctioned, I started work without a hitch. This was about two months after my first meeting. Eventually I received a further letter to say that I would not be sanctioned, and would need to take no further action.

That was my first experience with Universal Credit, which taught me that it is a system designed not to help claimants into a career, but solely to minimise government welfare spending. The goal of my work coaches was not to find me a job that I wanted and was qualified for. Their goal was simply to get me off Universal Credit as quickly as possible. It was unacceptable for me to stop searching for work, even with a start-date not far away, because if it ‘fell through’ I would end up being on Universal Credit for slightly longer than necessary.

This reflects the government’s overall goal for social policy as a whole: reduce spending at all costs.

Before describing my second, ongoing experience with Universal Credit, I’ll relay the story of a close friend of mine who claimed Universal Credit in 2014. He had dropped out of university due to stress and anxiety and, like me, went to the Job Centre for support while he found work. He was forced, again on pain of sanction, into a ‘workfare’ scheme at Poundland. This meant that he had to work 30 hours a week in order to receive the weekly £57 allowance, effectively £1.90 p/h. He was meant to be paid weekly.

However, after completing two full weeks of work, he still hadn’t been paid. Infuriated by having to work an almost full-time job for free, he walked out, which his ’employers’ at Poundland apparently understood. On returning to the Job Centre, however, he was told that he had received a bad report from the employer, and his benefits were then sanctioned. He told his work coach that he wanted to work in social care, to which they responded “Why would you want to do that?”. His work coach also had a tendency to forget entire conversations that they had had, and when he began laughing about the insanity of the situation, he was approached by one of the Job Centre’s bouncers asking if he was “causing any trouble”.

This story demonstrates a number of the government’s priorities with welfare. First, as I’ve mentioned, that the system is designed to display no compassion or common sense, and to sanction the maximum number of claimants in order to reduce spending. Second, that the government’s (now scrapped after it was found to be unlawful) workfare scheme was effectively subsidised free labour for some of the private businesses which the Conservative Party exists to represent.

My second experience with Universal Credit began in September of 2017. I had recently left a job as an unqualified teacher due to the stress and anxiety caused by an incredible workload. To add to this, my parents had sold their house and so I had to find a new place to live. I should mention that, with both of the above stories, my friend and I had been living with our parents rent-free, and so were in a far more fortunate position than many people who find themselves on Universal Credit. After finding a very affordable bedsit to live in, I went to the Job Centre again, to try and find financial support to live while I found work.

For the first few weeks, I did the usual thirty-five hours of job searching, while also doing odd-jobs as a gardener to make ends meet. As part of my claimant commitment I had to report every pound that I earned as soon as possible after I was paid.

After a few weeks of job searching I decided to become self employed and set up as a sole trader. This meant that I now had to report my earnings monthly, rather than on the day I was paid. I received a call from the DWP asking me to report my earnings for the month, which I did, specifying that the amount I reported included the earnings that I had previously reported (as required) before I became self-employed. I received a letter from Universal Credit which stated that my earnings were around £200 more than they actually were: they had double-counted the earnings that I had reported before becoming self employed, meaning that I received significantly less in benefits than I was entitled to.

I quickly rang the helpline to complain, and was told that they would open an investigation. A while later I received a letter acknowledging that they had received my complaint and claiming that I would receive further information soon.

Two months later I had received no further contact, so I got in touch again, where they claimed that they “believed the issue had been resolved, and would open an investigation”. Around two months later I had still received no further contact, so I called again: about a week later I finally got a call where they asked me to explain the situation for the fourth time. I offered to send my accounts, but was told that essentially they were worthless as I could have fabricated them; then I told them that if they listened back to the recording of my original phone calls they would see that I was telling the truth, and about a week later I finally received the money I was due.

Usually I am paid my Universal Credit around the 3rd of the month. However, in March I had received nothing by the 16th. I called the helpline again, and they said “We can see that you reported your earnings on the 27th of February, so I’ll get that sent through for you.” Apparently they had simply forgotten to pay me that month.

Thankfully I had earned enough that I didn’t go into arrears, but someone in a worse position could easily have been threatened with eviction if they didn’t have that money in the bank at the start of the month.
Both of these recent experiences have led me to believe that the DWP is relying on a type of wilful incompetence in order to reduce spending. Many people would not have been so diligent in following up on what they were entitled to, or would assume that they were simply not entitled to it, and the government would happily have saved a few hundred pounds.

When I initially signed up for Universal Credit on this second occasion, I was required to attend a training seminar which explained how Universal Credit is “Making Work Pay”. For every £1 of earnings that I declare, I receive 63p less in benefits. This is “Making Work Pay”, they claim, because it means that my income is being topped up by 37p per pound. However, from the perspective of someone in this system, it feels more like for every pound’s worth of work that I do, I am actually only earning 37p. As I earn more through work, I receive less in benefits, meaning that I never actually get much better off. My Universal Credit combines both income support and housing benefit, and when I first signed up I was asked how much rent I pay (£350p/m).

However I have never been asked about any other essential bills that I must pay, such as water, electricity, council tax, or my phone and internet bills (both essential for my work). The most I have ever received from Universal Credit was £530.88, in a month where my total bills amounted to £542.39 and my business expenses were £363.54, and where, due to the ‘Beast from the East’ affecting my gardening business, I had only been paid £100.

As I’ve mentioned before, I have been very fortunate to receive significant help from family members and inheritance, without which I would already have already been evicted months ago. I genuinely can’t imagine how less fortunate people could possibly survive on Universal Credit. It is no surprise to me that the system has been criticised for driving thousands of people into arrears and forcing them to seek help from food banks. As a side note, when I volunteered at Rochdale Food Bank back in 2015, the vast majority of people using the service stated that they were there due to either ‘benefits delays’ or sanctions.

Before concluding, I’ll describe the tense atmosphere that I have experienced at the Job Centre. On one occasion I was entering the building for a work coach meeting: there was a woman crying and bleeding from her hand on the floor outside the main entrance. She begged me, asking if I had a plaster or anything to help. I went inside and asked the bouncers whether anyone had a first aid kit for the woman outside. They responded angrily saying “not for her we don’t” or words to that effect. Other people nearby commented that she was “a junkie” and was “causing trouble”. I said that I just wanted to help her as she looked to be very distressed, at which point the bouncers approached me in what I felt was an intimidating way and said “why are you getting involved?”. Their response to my attempt to help another human was to escalate the situation and get angry with me, and I had to de-escalate by saying I was just trying to help.

On multiple occasions I have witnessed Job Centre users becoming upset or irate, probably because their lives were about to be devastated (or already had been) by a sanction for a minor mistake, before being approached by one of the many bouncers. It seems somewhat bizarre to me that a service that is supposedly designed to help people with their lives requires an aggressive security detail: surely a just system would not put people into these dire straits where they feel the need to lash out.

In conclusion, I feel that the implementation of Universal Credit reflects the priorities and attitude of the Conservative government. Reducing spending is prioritised above compassion and decency towards the poorest people in the country. It is a self-destructive system, by which I mean that its purpose is to minimise the number of people who access it, either by getting them into any job as quickly as possible (regardless of individual circumstances), sanctioning them, or by simply failing to pay them what they are entitled to. I feel that Job Centre staff are often ill-equipped to help people into work, lacking knowledge about, for example, the existence of the entire paid charity sector or the nature of self-employment.

Having said that, I have generally found my work coaches to be well-meaning and apologetic. They themselves are powerless to help, lacking virtually any decision-making power and being forced to defer to opaque IT systems and the Universal Credit helpline.

All of this is to be expected by a neoliberal government that is ideologically committed to the reduction of state spending at all costs, that has MPs such as Jacob Rees-Mogg who claim that food bank use is ‘rather uplifting’ rather than tragic, and that ultimately has no understanding of the lives and struggles of ordinary working class people in this country.