Universal Credit (UC) is the government’s new social security programme, replacing 6 means tested benefits and tax credits. UC differs from the old system in that it is accessed predominantly online, and that payments are made monthly, not fortnightly, and in arrears. There is a minimum 5 week assessment period before the first payment, where, apart from an advance payment deducted later directly from UC payments, no other income is received.

My perspective on Universal Credit comes from my experience as a Support Worker in Bath, one of the first areas to fully implement UC, and from working with Clean Slate – a money and employment service supporting families on low incomes.

Much has been written about the structural failings of UC, in particular a minimum 5 week assessment period which is wholly punitive and takes recipients an average of 6 months to recover from financially.

In my experience, there are two ways to offer good help to those receiving or about to receive Universal Credit:

a) to change the system itself
b) to help everyone – practitioners and claimants – cope better with the system as it currently functions.

Crucially, I believe these things are connected. That by using a checklist of principles, we can make short-term crisis management, long term progress and structural improvement synonymous:

Firstly, let’s look at what needs to change.

The three main problems are:

1) Universal Credit is not set up to achieve its own goals. It ignores intersecting systemic inequalities, making applicants far less likely to use it to successfully move on into new and better paid employment. Those applying must necessarily be literate, computer literate, with easy internet and transport access, ideally physically and mentally fit, and ready or able to prepare for up to 5 weeks (sometimes far longer) with either no income at all, or an advance payment that subsequently removes up to 40% of their monthly income. If this doesn’t sound like a system designed with vulnerable people in mind, that’s because it isn’t.

2) The system itself is poorly managed, with an emphasis on ‘policing’ claimants. The benefits system currently contains an acute imbalance of power. That’s why you can be sanctioned for being ten minutes late for an appointment, while there are no consequences for DWP employees who make errors in UC payments.

Lack of communication between DWP departments means that errors are in fact extremely common, and their consequences can be devastating, rippling through every aspect of people’s lives over months or even years. This creates a reliance on short term crisis management, disproportionately penalising UC recipients (and importantly – only them). As a Support Worker, most of my time was taken up not with long-term planning, but with making someone’s voice heard within the UC system: mandatory reconsiderations applied for online, attending health re-assessments, passed around between telephone numbers, the UC helpline, the Debt Management line, hours spent on hold.

All this tells claimants they are simultaneously responsible for everything, and capable of nothing. It can make people intensely wary of making even small changes in their lives, in case they are unfairly punished for it. It also makes it difficult for claimants to challenge unjust decisions, in case their anger is dismissed as groundless or even weaponised against them.

3) There is not enough effective support in place to help people prepare for and move on from UC as it currently operates. UC sits within a mesh of policies that combine to increase the insecurities in people’s lives rather than reduce them. Much of what support is available wrongly assumes that people have the time and means to save for the transition to UC, or for the extra security now demanded by landlords left out of pocket by UC non-payments. Many employment and training programs are entirely focused on a ‘quick fix’ of writing a one size fits all CV and finding low paid or insecure jobs for those on benefits.

So, from a front-line perspective, how do we tackle these three issues most effectively?  Here is a checklist of tools that ensure that, wherever we sit within those power structures, we can work to reverse them:

1. Listening and Valuing

Support for anyone looking to access work must start from the assumption that they are skilled and valuable people. There are many amazing people working within the welfare system who understand this, but they are up against far larger structures that prevent these ideas from filtering into common practice.

In employment, a CV and covering letter is essential, but means nothing without digging into people’s experiences, allowing them time to identify for themselves that they already have a great deal to offer employers and peers. It also means nothing without a ready supply of good quality jobs.

Financial support should start by asking people what their priorities are, and respecting what they say. It should not contain finger-wagging over the things that make life easier, or telling parents working minimum wage jobs to tighten their belts. I cannot tell you everything that solo parents on UC need, for example, because although I have worked with many, I have never been one. But I can tell you that women with small children who want to go back to work need toilets in job centres, bus passes and a solid support group more than they need to be told to spend less in McDonalds (where the toilets are). And if you need to know more, then you need to ask them, not me.

Lastly, whether they are providing information that feeds into policy, attending training or learning skills, people’s resources are valuable and should be paid for. The smaller your income, the more valuable your time is. Organisations, and especially government departments, should be structured not only to support people, but to hire them, to ask for their expertise in developing their services and pay them properly for it, demonstrating clear pathways from service use to service management. We cannot change the jobs market by ourselves, but our own recruitment practices are within our sphere of influence.

2. Connecting

Surviving on UC means pooling ideas and resources – it also means having the strength to keep going when the system fails you. Those working around the benefits system know that the practical support of people with similar experiences means far more than a budgeting spreadsheet or a CV writing workshop (that you have to take two buses to get to).

Any help with benefits and employment in mind should both fund and link actively with a range of platforms and support networks: social media forums, Citizens Advice, Unions, independent advice services. Money management publications like Quids In and Clean Slate’s UC Guide provide examples of projects geared towards the sharing not just of coupons, but of real stories and effective strategies. In times of emergency, communities work incredibly effectively to find solutions. And practitioners who routinely carry food in their bags to ‘share’ with clients, or see families drawing on US style apocalypse preparation websites to survive, even when in work, should be in no doubt that this system is creating an emergency. In the absence of a decent income, connection – with peers, with ideas – should not be a silver lining, but at the heart of everything we do.

3. Transparency/Accountability

If you want people to enhance those skills that transfer to the workplace you must visibly demand accountability from everyone, including the government, including employers, including ourselves. We must do so in a way that gives the many thousands of people about to access UC the ability and appetite for demanding it. It’s not an accident that Law Centres are closing. It’s not an accident that 65% of Universal Credit appeals are successful.

Claiming what you are entitled to from the current government is a fight. So is finding good quality work that offers a route beyond the breadline. Making information accessible is the only way to make this fight a fairer one.

4. Hope

People accessing UC are already working full time. They are surviving against the odds within a system that sets them up to fail. It is demoralising and above all time-consuming. Caseworkers are struggling to cope with the volume of people experiencing financial and mental distress. And if this is to change, we will all need hope. ‘Hope’ is not fluffy optimism. Hope is the conviction that change can and must be worked for, that individuals, whether working within the system or on the receiving end of it, really do have power.  Resilience, confidence, long term planning: all these are popular ‘outcomes’ for service providers, and all have hope at their core. Hope does not mean papering over the cracks of a decade of austerity with another back to work scheme – it means thinking carefully about who is entitled to respect, choice, freedom from scrutiny. Hope also means money – enough for living, not surviving. In twenty years in the voluntary sector, I have never seen hope listed as an outcome. But in the business of making change, it is the only currency that counts.

Emma Kernahan