Universal Credit: a lifeline for millions now, and beyond coronavirus

Universal Credit is the lifeline keeping many people afloat through the coronavirus outbreak. We must build on recent improvements to ensure we all come through safely, says Helen Barnard.

The Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP) latest figures reveal that there have been nearly a million new claims for Universal Credit (UC) in a fortnight – a huge surge from the 100,000 claims the department would usually expect in that time.

This clearly shows the impact of pausing large parts of the economy, particularly those parts that employ a lot of people, many on low pay, and who often don’t have the option of working from home.

This highlights just how important it is for all of us that we have a strong social security system to hold people steady and stop them being pulled under. It’s one of the ways we take care of each other on a national level, just as people are doing in communities right now.

Due to the current coronavirus panic and jobs now being very precarious (my husband works in the travel industry) we have had sleepless nights and stress.
Woman, London

A lifeline for businesses and individuals

The Government is rightly giving businesses and individuals billions of pounds of support, and the boost to Universal Credit is a vital part of that.

This is the lifeline for all those who have already lost work, are having their hours cut or who aren’t sufficiently covered by the rest of the help that the Government has offered, whether that’s because they’re gig workers, don’t earn enough for sick pay, need extra help with housing costs and children, or fall outside the conditions set for the self-employed to get support.

It’s a testament to the hard work of DWP staff that the system is still working despite this massive test. It shows that we can design support that can work for people, despite some of the problems we’ve heard about such as long waits to get through bits of the application process.

With everything being online, what are people supposed to do when they don’t have access? Libraries are closed which a lot of people depend on for internet access. I am blind in one eye and can’t stay on the PC for long anyway.
Woman, Scotland

But it’s also highlighted some of the problems that still need to be fixed, like the five-week wait for the first payment, where you can get an advance but it has to be paid back.

Long term, our community would like to see an increase in social security entitlements, consideration of repayments of advances in UC, and more support with priority bills. (Free School Meal) Vouchers are not the best use of getting support to families as they are limited in choices and it further stigmatises people.
Woman, Teesside

What can be done to keep people afloat?

It’s vital that DWP puts a halt on all debt repayments and other deductions for the next few months so that the money people need makes it into their pockets.

We’d also like to see further improvements to keep people afloat, including extending statutory sick pay to low earners, increasing the level of sick pay and Universal Credit temporarily, and increasing help for renters to stop them getting into arrears. One group who have so far been left to flounder are those who are still claiming the benefits which came before Universal Credit – Jobseekers’ Allowance (JSA), Income Support (IS) and Employment Support Allowance (ESA). Those people are facing the same wave of higher costs and few opportunities to work as those on Universal Credit, but have so far been overlooked by the Government. Given the huge numbers already applying for Universal Credit, we need to support those on JSA, IS and ESA rather than ask them to move onto a new benefit in the middle of a national emergency.

Why doesn’t this support extend to disability benefits too? Especially since disabled people are facing higher costs than ever since we can’t trawl round multiple shops so have to buy more expensive items or rely on takeaways; and we’re having to take more taxis to appointments as public transport is reduced.
Woman, Scotland

Once we start moving out of this phase of the outbreak and into recovery we need to keep pulling together and rebuilding our economy to give both families and the nation more resilience.

This situation is showing where we need to do that – more security at work, keeping the stronger social security anchor that’s being put in place now, and making sure everyone has access to a safe and affordable home.

  • Thanks to members of London Unemployed Strategies, Scotland Poverty Truth Community and Thrive Teesside for the quotes in this blog post.