A JPIMedia Investigation Universal Credit in Crisis

An investigation by John Blow, Philip Bradfield, Tom Cotterill, Michael Holmes, Dean Kirby, Joel Lamy, Gavin Ledwith, Paul Lynch, Chris McCall, Oliver Poole and Claire Wilde.

Businessman Garry Byrne needed help.

He had ploughed all his savings - some £40,000 - into starting up an electricals recycling business.

But it wasn’t yet able to pay him a proper wage and he was struggling to put food on the table.

Reluctantly, he decided it was time to supplement his pay with in-work benefits until his business got off the ground.

However, like many people trying to claim Universal Credit, it wasn’t long before he came across infuriating problems.

Garry was asked for details of his income, which he supplied, but was then asked for them again.

To question this, he rang up a Universal Credit service centre, only to be told there was nothing they could do.

He asked to make a complaint, but staff told him complaints couldn’t be taken over the phone. He persisted and a manager went off to check.

We pick up the call more than 11 minutes in.

“I was asked to deliberately lie about my earnings to cover up problems with their system,” Garry said.

“I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.”

The 54-year-old, from Portsmouth, said falsely claiming he had zero income could have left him open to accusations of benefit fraud.

Universal Credit claimant Garry Byrne received an apology after a DWP investigation into the call

In a letter of apology, seen by JPIMedia Investigations, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) said it had “requested a full investigation” into the issue.

The letter said they “should not have asked you to input incorrect information, as you have to state everything you provide is correct and true”.

It said they should have sorted out the glitch another way.

Of course, problems with Universal Credit are nothing new.

The controversial scheme began with the laudable aim of simplifying welfare and saving money by rolling six benefits and tax credits into one monthly payment.

Instead, it has faced fierce criticism from all sides of the political divide for an error-prone system pushing some claimants to near-destitution.

But we have now reached a critical milestone in Universal Credit’s roll-out.

It has so far been introduced in every part of the UK for new benefit claimants or those whose circumstances change - some 1.8m people.

The second half of its introduction - switching over a further 3m people on old-style benefits - is just weeks away from beginning with a trial in Harrogate, North Yorkshire.

The DWP has embarked on a media charm offensive and wants people to look afresh at Universal Credit as a “force for good”.

But today, JPIMedia Investigations can reveal that despite repeated efforts by the Government to improve the system, a host of serious problems remain.

And with millions more people poised to be moved over, charities have called for an urgent halt to the programme to avoid an impending catastrophe.

Pushed out of their homes

For Elle Wilson and Johnathan Downie, who live with their eight-month-old daughter Maddison-Lily in a two-bedroom flat near Preston, life on Universal Credit left them fearing the worst.

“I felt we were going to lose our home,” said Elle, 18, a stay-at-home mum.

The pair were placed on Universal Credit last August after moving in together.

For working people, payments are meant to reduce as earnings increase, but the couple began to suspect the system wasn’t quite functioning as it should.

With Johnathan, 19, moving from job to job, working at a pub, then a restaurant and now a fish and chip shop, Elle said payouts fluctuated from £23 one month to £469 the next.

“They are just not listening.”
Universal Credit claimant Elle Wilson

One month, she said, they got nothing.

“Johnathan was working and they said he had earned an amount of money that he had not,” she said.

“The HMRC got involved and said his employer was not trading anymore - but they are. They are just not listening.”

The pair fell behind on their rent, ended up in court, and are now paying their landlord back arrears of about £2,000.

They have also struggled to pay bills.

Elle and Johnathan’s families have had to lend the pair money for shopping and have even had to fill their cupboards with food.

Elle said: “For the last couple of weeks the fridge has been empty until Johnathan’s mum provided food for us.”

After JPIMedia Investigations contacted the DWP, it found the couple had indeed been underpaid and handed them £485 towards their housing costs.

A spokesman said: “Universal Credit ensures claimants always benefit from working. To ensure that, we rely on information provided by employers.

“In this case that was incorrect and we’ve paid the additional money owed to Ms Wilson.”

But Universal Credit is still pushing tens of thousands of people into financial crisis, we can reveal.

The benefit is leaving an ever-growing number of people in deep rent arrears, with the number of claimants evicted from council houses reaching an all-time high.

More than 120,000 tenants on Universal Credit are now behind on their rent, owing a combined £84.5m, according to figures obtained from 145 local authorities with housing stock, as well as the Northern Ireland Housing Executive.

On average, tenants owe £681, more than twice the average arrears of people on the old Housing Benefit system.

And evictions of Universal Credit claimants from council houses, while relatively low, reached a record high in 2018/19 of more than 500.

One of the most controversial elements of Universal Credit is the built-in wait of five weeks before the first payment.

While claimants can ask for an advance loan, this must be paid back through reductions in their benefits.

Stephanie Kleynhans, policy officer at homelessness charity Shelter, said this five-week wait, as well as administration errors, can “mean people going without an income for weeks on end”.

She said: “Our services are telling us quite regularly that they are seeing a lot of problems with Universal Credit that could put people at risk of rent arrears or homelessness.”

Universal Credit: Rent arrears Average amount owed by a Universal Credit claimant behind on council house rent (Excludes councils which transferred their housing stock to housing associations)

The charity has called for an urgent halt to the Universal Credit roll-out and a root-and-branch review of the system.

At Vale of Glamorgan Council in Wales, every single one of its tenants on Universal Credit was in rent arrears earlier this month, figures obtained by JPIMedia Investigations show.

A spokesman for the authority said arrears rates changed throughout the month and were "very often due to Universal Credit being paid monthly in arrears to claimants".

The picture is also particularly stark in Northern Ireland, where experts say larger families mean welfare changes have a bigger impact.

There, 92 per cent of Housing Executive tenants on Universal Credit were behind with their rent, compared to just 40 per cent of people on the old Housing Benefit system.

"It is difficult to imagine the hardship that is going to exist"
Kevin Higgins, of Advice NI

Kevin Higgins, head of policy for independent advice network Advice NI, said advisers tasked with helping people cope with Universal Credit were already at breaking point, even though only a fraction of claimants were on the benefit so far.

“If we are experiencing these unprecedented pressures now, then it is difficult to imagine what awaits us whenever we get into managed migration of legacy claimants onto Universal Credit," he said.

"It is difficult to imagine the hardship that is going to exist whenever we get into that territory."

A similar picture is being seen in social housing run not by councils but by housing associations.

Sue Ramsden, of the National Housing Federation, whose members house more than 5m people in England, said: "We survey our members on a regular basis and they consistently report a higher level of arrears on Universal Credit than other types of benefit."

But the Department for Work and Pensions robustly defended its system.

A spokeswoman said it was wrong to blame Universal Credit for rent arrears, claiming such problems were often due to people’s personal circumstances rather than the benefit itself.

She said: “We completely disagree with this analysis which compares fundamentally different claimant groups.

“Many people claim Universal Credit after a significant life event and will join with pre-existing arrears, while those on legacy benefits are likely to have been claiming for a longer period, with arrears having reduced over time.”

She said the department had also made various changes to Universal Credit to prevent people falling behind with rent.

This included paying two weeks of extra Housing Benefit for those moving over to Universal Credit and paying rent directly to landlords where requested.

A broken system

People wanting to claim Universal Credit have to do so online, a process many continue to have problems with.

In March, 80 per cent of complaints to the DWP about making a claim mentioned difficulties with the online process, such as system crashes or lack of access to the internet, we can reveal.

The Government also runs a Universal Credit telephone helpline.

But more than two million calls to the helpline have gone unanswered in just over two years, figures obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show.

One in seven people abandon their call before getting through.

And with the second half of Universal Credit’s roll-out now just weeks away from beginning, the number of abandoned calls is growing.

More than half a million callers gave up before getting through in the first three months of this year, a greater number than in the whole of 2017.

The helpline, which answered 7.8m calls last year, has already had to be changed to a freephone number after pressure from campaigners.

Unanswered calls to the Universal Credit helpline
2.2 million
Proportion of calls abandoned
14 %
Number of calls abandoned in first quarter of 2019
560 k

The DWP said according to its latest figures, people waited less than three minutes on average before their call was answered.

A spokesperson said: "We regularly review our staffing levels to ensure we have the right number of people available to answer calls and we reallocate resource where necessary.”

Universal Credit was meant to reduce scope for fraud and error.

But the DWP has faced repeated criticism for under-staffing the support system behind the controversial benefit.

Many claimants of Universal Credit describe bewildering layers of bureaucracy, with frequent mistakes made.

One charity gave an example of a "farcical" situation which had seen a Peterborough man hit with unfair benefits sanctions.

Forty-two-year-old Chris Bloy found himself thousands of pounds in rent arrears after having his Universal Credit payments cut.

But instead of evicting him, his landlord helped him fight back.

After splitting with the mother of his children, Chris had moved into a home owned by homelessness charity Hope into Action.

Chris Bloy won a tribunal against the Department for Work and Pensions after being hit by unfair sanctions.

This proved particularly fortunate when Chris was told he was being sanctioned.

His Universal Credit payment was cut, he says, by about £250 a month for six months, later extended to eight.

The offence? Missing appointments he says he was never told about.

Chris was suddenly faced with the reality that he would not be able to pay his rent, but Hope into Action helped him fight his corner as he prepared for a tribunal against the DWP.

"Hope into Action have been amazing - without them I would have been stuck," he said.

“Any other landlord would have just said 'get out'.”

Paddy Ryan, of the charity, said: “As Chris's empowerment worker for almost all of the time he was with Hope into Action, I could see the lengths he had to go to just to make sure he was receiving his monthly payment before he was sanctioned.

“Chris would regularly contact Universal Credit by phone and it was a complete surprise to him and me when they authorised the initial sanction of six months for non-attendance.

“I distinctly remember Chris being in our office on the phone to one department of the DWP while another one was calling to talk to him.

The controversial design of Universal Credit Three aspects of the system causing problems
Online claims
Five-week wait
Less money for some
Universal Credit is a digital system and people must claim it online, save for a few exceptional circumstances. Many struggle with this. According to the Government's own research, nearly half of claimants were unable to register their claim through the website without help.
Deliberately built into the system is a wait of five weeks before people can get their first Universal Credit payment. If there are any hold-ups with a claim, the wait can be longer. Many claimants have to request to borrow an advance payment, which then has to be paid back through benefit deductions.
The Government had long insisted no-one would be worse off under Universal Credit than old-style benefits, but last October then-Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey admitted some would lose money. The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates 1.9m people will lose more than £1,000 in annual entitlements.

“It was farcical. The whole system is disjointed and very punitive, leaving those that are trying to get themselves back on a level footing no real assistance.

“It's just black and white; no humanity or compassion.

“Luckily Chris had myself and his MP willing to further his case, but for the thousands upon thousands of people who don't have this support it must be a nightmare.”

Chris said the “horrible” experience took its toll on his health and he lost lots of weight.

“I couldn't even afford new shoes. Everything was hard,” he said.

In the end, phone records proved Chris had regularly been in contact with the DWP and he won his case.

He received the money he had missed out on which paid off his arrears, and now has a job cleaning car parks, meaning he has left Universal Credit behind him.

"When I came off Universal Credit they still sent me letters saying I'm not fulfilling my commitments and they will sanction me again," Chris said.

“They just did not have a clue. The system does not work."

A DWP spokesman said: “Mr Bloy was sanctioned because he failed to attend scheduled appointments or make contact with his local JobCentre for a period of six months.

“However, as Mr Bloy’s appeal has found in his favour we have now paid all benefits due to him.”

Why we’re all paying

Universal Credit was meant to save the taxpayer money by simplifying the welfare system and getting more people into work.

But with the programme facing a barrage of delays and hitches, it has been branded a false economy.

Last year, the National Audit Office labelled Universal Credit “not value for money” and said the Government was failing to take into account its knock-on costs on councils, housing associations, foodbanks and advice services.

And in October, former Prime Minister Sir John Major warned the Conservatives that Universal Credit could be the new poll tax, amid growing disquiet in the party about its introduction.

The following month, Chancellor Philip Hammond ploughed an extra £4.5bn into the benefit to stave off a Tory rebellion.

The move was roundly welcomed but means it is now more expensive than the systems it replaces.

And local taxpayers are often paying the price for Universal Credit’s failures, JPIMedia Investigations can reveal.

Tens of thousands of claimants are now behind with their council tax payments, owing millions to already under-strain local authority coffers.

Critics say Universal Credit can leave people with such little money that they are forced to choose between buying food or paying bills.

Working single parent Kayleigh Richardson, 27, was plunged into financial turmoil when she signed up for Universal Credit after the breakdown of her relationship.

She was left unable to pay her council tax for more than a year.

Working mother Kayleigh Richardson, 27, was left unable to pay council tax for a year.

She said: "I have no choice but to leave some bills unpaid because I can't afford to pay them.”

The care home worker, from Shoreham, West Sussex, uses Universal Credit to top up her part-time wage.

She said she felt “forced” to take an advance loan to cover the five-week wait for Universal Credit to begin, but says the repayments are now eating into the money she has to get by each month.

Councils could have lost out on £130m in unpaid council tax from struggling Universal Credit claimants in the past year alone, our investigation shows.

Most local authorities in Britain said they did not record whether someone in council tax arrears was on Universal Credit.

But data obtained from 77 councils shows they were owed a combined £27m in unpaid tax from claimants for 2018/19, an average of £355,404 for each local authority.

It is not the only cost being faced by local authorities.

Councils with housing stock are owed, on average, £565,694 in rent arrears by claimants.

Many councils also said Universal Credit was leaving them with other hidden costs, such as spending money on helping people in crisis.

The DWP provides local authorities with grants to reimburse them for Universal Credit’s introduction, called New Burdens funding.

The local cost
Wigan
Universal Credit claimants in Wigan failed to pay £2.2m in Council Tax in 2018/19, our investigation shows. Wigan Council’s housing and welfare boss, Cllr Terry Halliwell, said the situation was “being felt by all councils”.
Glasgow
The introduction of Universal Credit cost Glasgow City Council £2.2m in 2018/19 alone, it said in response to a Freedom of Information request. The authority said it had so far given out more than £437,000 in crisis loans or grants to Universal Credit claimants in financial difficulty.
Newcastle
Newcastle City Council said council housing tenants on Universal Credit owed £2.8m in unpaid rent this spring, with £1.1m of these arrears “attributed solely to Universal Credit”. In 2018/19 it also handed out more than £30,000 in crisis awards to claimants suffering hardship because of “waiting periods for payments and incorrect awards”.

They amount to more than £19m this year, but many authorities say they are not proving sufficient.

COSLA, the national association of local authorities in Scotland, has tracked the impact on councils north of the border.

Councillor Kelly Parry, its community wellbeing spokeswoman, said: “Councils are experiencing sharp increases in rent arrears, administrative and support costs as a result of this policy.

“While we have welcomed some of the changes introduced by the DWP, Universal Credit remains far from fixed.”

A DWP spokesperson said: "Council tax collection is an issue for the local council.”

Last week the UN released a damning report on poverty, with special rapporteur Prof Philip Alston being particularly critical of Universal Credit.

In his report, he said: “Local authorities, devolved administrations and the voluntary sector described their preparations for the roll out of Universal Credit as if they were preparing for an impending natural disaster or health epidemic.

“They have expended significant money and energy to protect people from what is supposed to be a support system.”

With the UK's employment rate this month at a joint record high, the DWP insists Universal Credit is a “force for good, providing support to more than 1.8 million people”.

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A spokesman said: “Universal Credit gives people control over their finances and helps them into work."

But Labour has demanded that the roll-out of Universal Credit be halted.

Margaret Greenwood MP, Labour’s Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, said: “This important investigation is a shocking reminder that Universal Credit is clearly failing.

“It was meant to simplify social security, but instead people face a series of hurdles when making a claim, from the requirement to claim online to the five-week wait for payment.

“It frequently fails to take into account basic realities such as the way people are paid.

“People should not have to repeatedly face barriers to receiving support.”

View the dataset behind this story here.