Making universal credit work better

28 Jun 19

There are three steps the government can take to transform the roll-out of Universal Credit, argues Jenny Luckett of Riverside Group.

Universal credit, which amalgamates six welfare benefits, still has cross-party support, despite being beset by delays and fears that it will fail to meet its main objective of encouraging people to work


“I am in so much debt with my family. I’m in arrears with my rent and council tax; I just can’t get straight with everything. Going on universal credit has made me hit rock bottom.”

Susan* is just one of many of our tenants struggling and in debt after applying for universal credit. Riverside has surveyed tenants on UC – and our findings show that the situation has got worse.

While Riverside is supportive of the simplicity that an integrated benefit like universal credit could bring, we are seriously concerned that the way it is being implemented is causing increased debt and arrears. Indeed, arrears for our tenants on UC are three and a half times higher than those in receipt of housing benefit or paying their own rent

Since moving on to UC, almost two thirds of our tenants surveyed (63%) have seen an increase in debt and almost three-quarters (71%) said they find it more difficult to keep up with household bills. More than three-quarters (78%) have to rely on loans from family, friends or a private loans provider.

'We don’t have enough money to support us so we are having to visit the food bank more regularly.'

Shockingly, two-fifths (41%) of our tenants have had to rely on foodbanks to feed themselves and their family after moving on to UC – a 10% increase from last year.

Tenants also reported going without food, heating and showers in order to get by. Anne*, a tenant in her 40s, said: “We don’t have enough money to support us so we are having to visit the food bank more regularly.”

For over 80% of our tenants, the five-week wait caused them financial hardship. This is why Riverside backs the Trussell Trust’s #5WeeksTooLong campaign – our tenants cannot wait five weeks for their first payment.

The DWP has said that the answer to the five-week wait is to take an advance and then repay this over 12 months. However, the repayments are taken at a fixed rate, so 40% of the universal credit standard allowance is deducted (although this will reduce to 30% from October).

There is a high take up of advances among our tenants (77%) but repayments are causing hardship for two-thirds of those who accept them. They are stuck between a rock and a hard place: if they accept the advance they face hardship because of deductions, but if they don’t many cannot meet their basic needs during the five-week wait.

Riverside want the government to take three steps:

Firstly, increase data sharing between housing associations, local authorities and the DWP. Informing housing associations when tenants are notified of their need to claim universal credit allows them to plan support before, and during, the claim process which could help to alleviate the hardship caused by the five-week wait. If housing associations only find out when they get a rent verification notice, it is often too late to help their tenants avoid getting into debt.

Secondly, extend universal support funding to those social housing landlords who provide welfare advice and support services. Housing associations know their residents well and are often best placed to support them.

Finally, and most crucially, listen to the growing list of organisations putting their name to the #5WeeksTooLong campaign – and end the five-week wait immediately.

Until these changes are made, instead of acting as a safety net, universal credit will continue to drag people into debt and despair.

 *Names have been changed to protect identities

  • Jenny Luckett
    is the public affairs adviser for the Riverside Group social housing provider

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