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Universal Credit: it's worse than we thought

Universal Credit is a direct attack on those in need, through punitive deductions on hardship 'loans' and automated services that inevitably make mistakes, write SOLVEIG FRANCIS and SELMA JAMES

OUR article, “Universal credit — a hostile environment for women” (MS November 6 2018), has proved useful to the growing movement to scrap UC.

Not only claimants but waged workers and trade unionists have been demonstrating on the streets, in city centres and local neighbourhoods.

People are acting on their awareness that UC and other cuts in benefits make it increasingly impossible to refuse zero-hours contracts and other slave wages and working conditions, especially if we are single mothers. Without the backing of benefits destitution looms.
We want to correct an error, when we claimed that the DWP charges 40 per cent interest on loans to claimants awaiting their first UC payment. The DWP doesn’t charge 40 per cent interest. It is worse, since 40 per cent of your UC can  be deducted to repay rent and mortgage arrears, fuel and water charges, council tax, child support, loans (including DWP budgeting loans/hardship payments and integration loans paid to refugees), benefit overpayments, penalties for benefit offences and court fines.  
While the deductions are supposed to be capped at 40 per cent of an already meagre benefit, they can in fact take more.  Additional “Last Resort Deductions” can be made to repay “priority debts” (fuel, rent, mortgage) when the DWP considers this to be “in the best interests of the claimant or their household.” The claimant’s consent is not needed and, although you can ask the DWP to reconsider the scale of their deductions, you have no right of appeal.
You can be left with as little as one penny of benefit — a formula for starvation.
The UN Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty made reference to this gouging of money from claimants in his report. The government has refused to accept his damning conclusions or the facts on which they are based, dismissing them as “political.”
UC is a massive automation exercise. It eliminates human beings who could settle claims and benefit officers who could, for example, tell you where your claim is at, expedite it in some circumstances, correct DWP error, accept a reason for a missed deadline.
Two single mothers have mounted a legal challenge to one aspect of this automation — the computer’s rigid system which denies them payment some months as well as the loss of work allowance worth £500 a year. The DWP claims it is too expensive to fix the IT given the numbers adversely affected — in fact, 85,000, excluding children and other household members — are on the claim!
The DWP said they had considered having individual decision-makers but concluded automation was the only way to operate a system of this size — 8.5 million claimants when fully rolled out.
Hearing the women’s case Justice Lewis commented that the computer must make the system work for everyone.  It’s not the job of claimants to fit themselves around the computer.   
The so-called Helpline is understaffed and the staff are largely inexperienced and unfamiliar with the information claimants require. In any case, Helpline staff cannot intervene to resolve a problem.  They too are turned into robots, speaking to a script even when claimants are suicidal.
Local food banks and other humanitarian organisations where UC is being newly rolled out are raising the alarm about the looming crisis over Christmas.  Food banks are appealing to the public for extra donations, stating they are getting no government support for this period when demand is already doubling, leaving households without money over the holiday period. The DWP has even abolished the small annual £10 bonus given to some claimants! Happy Christmas!
Solveig Francis, benefits adviser at the Crossroads Women’s Centre
Selma James, Wages for Housework Campaign


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