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England is Under Lockdown Again. Is Universal Credit Ready?

Concerns About Equal Access to the Benefit and Fresh Fears Over the ‘Five-Week Wait’

Citizens Advice operates the “Help to Claim” service, which helps people apply for Universal Credit online.  © 2020 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch

A bleak Covid-19 winter is coming. Cases are soaring and the UK government has imposed a further one-month lockdown in England. The lockdown could push more than 2 million people into furlough, or temporary leave from work. Hundreds of thousands more could lose their jobs. Universal Credit, the country’s automated social security system, should be the lifeline it claims to be for all who need it, but its flaws could plunge many people into poverty and despair. 

People without internet access or digital literacy skills face particular difficulties applying for Universal Credit online. There are 5.3 million adults in the country that the government considers “internet non-users.” If they need Universal Credit, nearly all of them must set up an online account and submit an extensive application covering questions about their work and income history, financial assets, housing situation, and bank accounts.

This process is challenging for people who rarely use the internet, even when frontline advisors guide them through it over the phone. People without digital records find the applications tough to complete – for example, people who work cash-in-hand or who do not have bank accounts may not be able to fully document their wage history or proof of identity.

Even after crossing this hurdle, successful applicants have to wait about five weeks for their first payment.  StepChange, a debt advice charity, said 92 percent of its clients experienced financial hardship because of the five-week wait; 65 percent had to miss or reduce meals. People can get an advance but have to repay it within twelve months, increasing their risk of problem debt.

In March, just before the first lockdown, “Zach L” a father-of-three in Newcastle, recalled how his struggle to keep up with advance repayments made his family reliant on the local foodbank. “I’m suffering panic attacks and anxiety all because of this,” he told me.

The government should expand telephone options for applying for Universal Credit, and provide emergency grants to local charities that are helping people apply. It should eliminate advances in favor of non-repayable starter grants, as a key parliamentary oversight committee recently recommended, to bridge the five-week wait. As the pandemic continues into winter, these measures could spell the difference between hope and despair.

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