‘You can’t live on thin air’: the wait for Universal Support

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Abby Jitendra, Senior Policy Officer at The Trussell Trust


‘I am sick, disabled, and visually impaired, hard of hearing. No help has been offered. I had to go ask my local church for help.’

The impact of Universal Credit on society in the UK is only just beginning to be felt. By 2022, all existing eligible claimants – 12 million people – still on the legacy benefits system will have been migrated to the new system. Universal Credit is, by design, a departure from the legacy benefits system, and the transition has already had wide-ranging effects on claimants, statutory bodies, and voluntary organisations.

For vulnerable customers, such as disabled people, people with mental health issues, this support is even more crucial, as these are the groups most likely to fall through the cracks of the new system and, as University of Oxford research shows, most likely to need a foodbank’s help.

The wait for the first payment, in particular, has been identified in our research, Left Behind, as a key trigger for crisis, and it has lasting effects such as debt, mental health issues, and relationship breakdown. Not targeting help effectively at this time can negatively impact a claimant’s journey through the system and leave them more susceptible to financial shocks and less likely to find work.


Where is Universal Support?

Which begs the question: where is Universal Support, the Government’s flagship system of helping claimants transition onto the system, and is it working?

The program now refers to the budgeting advice (PBS) and assisted digital support (ADS) offered to claimants by Work Coaches. When we asked foodbank managers whether they knew what Universal Support was, most respondents said they didn’t know. When we asked people referred to foodbanks whether they’d been offered help during the wait for the first payment, 63% said they hadn’t. Of those that had, the majority had been offered help from a third sector organisation. In fact, some foodbanks were having to provide digital support themselves to make sure people can use the system properly, burdening their own operations.

This help is clearly needed. 70% of respondents to our survey said debt was an issue during the wait, the most likely difficulty encountered by people. These debts lasted well into the claim – the most common issue encountered by claimants on UC were repayments of pre-existing debts, while 1 in 5 had issues repaying their advance payment. Half of our sample cited ‘difficulty managing budgets’ as a direct outcome of the wait for the first payment, and many others cited IT difficulties in their applications. And over a quarter of people in our research reported IT issues whilst on Universal Credit, particularly disabled people, and IT difficulties were cited as a key trigger for failing to meet requirements.

Our evidence points to the uneasy fact that Universal Support is either not available consistently, or is not reaching the people most in need of it. And yet, without it, Universal Credit runs the risk of failing not only its stated aims of getting people into work and making work pay, but also the central role of any public service built on justice and compassion – protecting our most vulnerable citizens from falling into crisis, which, as a nation committed to justice and compassion, must be central to the role of any welfare reform.

So, how can we fix Universal Support?

First, make sure it’s available locally, make sure the people who need it are getting it, and make sure people are made aware of it. We know financial need may not be evident in the first Work Coach interview, so this must be available within the first year of a claim, and frontline voluntary services must be made aware of this help so they can refer people into Universal Support. Foodbanks would be well placed to refer people for budgeting or digital support if made aware of it.

But foodbanks can’t replace this vital help. Beyond ensuring people in need are offered the help already promised, and making sure that appropriate help is available beyond the transition onto U.C., Universal Support should do more to tackle the specific issues associated with Universal Credit’s design.

Debt is not only an outcome of Universal Credit’s design, but a feature of it.

It’s vital that debt advice and management be offered within Universal Support. Debt is not only an outcome of Universal Credit’s design, but a feature of it. Advance payments – loans given to claimants during the wait for the first payment – build debt into the Universal Credit system from the onset, and we know they can push people back into crisis during repayments. Debt can lead to financial need and digital exclusion, and make it more difficult for people to meet their requirements.

We’re encouraged that the Work and Pensions Select Committee are looking into Universal Support, and have invited The Trussell Trust to give evidence – we’re one of the first organisations to look at provision systematically and make evidence-based policy recommendations. Our calls won’t fix everything – to be truly universal, Universal Credit must provide enough financial support for people to protect them from destitution, and that will mean increasing benefit levels across the board, particularly for families and disabled people.

But fixing Universal Support is an opportunity to make real change now, and ensure the system can live up to its name.