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GUEST BLOG: “Universal Credit is creating nightmare situations for survivors of domestic abuse”

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Elaine is a welfare worker supporting survivors in a Women’s Aid member service. Women’s Aid supports the Trussell Trust’s #5WeeksTooLong campaign to end the wait for a first Universal Credit payment. 

For survivors of domestic abuse, life is inevitably balanced on a knife’s edge. In our service we constantly adjust the ways we work to ensure those we support are helped as much as possible.

We would be doing thousands of women and children a disservice if we did not make it absolutely clear how systemic changes and problems with those new systems can affect those we work with, already facing precariously dangerous and stressful situations.

In May, more than 120 MPs called for an independent inquiry into the way the family courts in England and Wales treat survivors of rape and domestic abuse and their children.

Prime Minister Theresa May responded by saying the family court system should never be used to coerce or to re-victimise those who have been abused.

Unfortunately, what we are witnessing are life threatening situations involving domestic abuse further exacerbated by issues with the Government’s new benefits system. The lengthy period of time between making a Universal Credit claim and receiving the benefit impacts not only on women’s ability to support themselves and their children, but also on the legal process they are often going through when escaping domestic abuse.

Most of our residents will need a solicitor through Legal Aid. Legal Aid is a means tested benefit, and applications to get it require a benefit award letter dated within the last four weeks. Let’s say a resident moves in to our refuge, we claim Universal Credit – and two weeks later she gets a letter from her abuser’s solicitor about child contact, with a court date in two weeks’ time.

As a claim for Universal Credit takes at least five weeks, we don’t yet have the required evidence for Legal Aid. The resident has to attend court with no representation. We support her, but we are not allowed to speak on her behalf. Due to the time that Legal Aid applications take to process, she may have to attend court without representation again, even after her claim goes through.

This creates a nightmare situation for survivors, who, having taken the terrifying step of escaping their abuser, are then expected to fight for their children’s safety alone in the family courts.

This is so scary for the women we work with – and it allows continued abuse by the perpetrator. Child contact is a common way for a perpetrator to continue to try and abuse and control women, and in these cases it is working for him. It has caused and is causing so much worry and concern, and it has a really detrimental impact on women’s recovery and mental health.

We have tried several different strategies to help those we are working with, but we are feeling increasingly disheartened that the system does not recognise the dangerous and distressing situations that survivors and their children are being put in.

We have tried requesting locally if judges and magistrates will allow Women’s Aid staff to talk on behalf of residents but we have been told no.

I have also contacted the local Universal Credit team at the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) to see if they will write a letter once Universal Credit has been awarded so we can use it to claim Legal Aid, rather than waiting weeks for the first statement, but have got nowhere with this as yet.

I have asked solicitors to work for free, but again hit a dead end. This is happening more and more due to everyone going over to Universal Credit and is not acceptable. As someone supporting victims I am starting to feel hopeless as all avenues I go down seem to be dead ends.

We have mums and children with us at the moment who are currently on the old benefits system. They will be moving out to suitable housing soon but they will have to claim Universal Credit due to their change in circumstances.

The problem we now have is families moving from our furnished refuge accommodation to an empty house with only Child Benefit as their income for five weeks as they wait for their first payment to come through. We will continue to support the family as best we can, but if they are on meters for utilities, if they need to use buses, how will they cope?

As we are working with the family we are able to intervene, but what if the family has no one, what do they do then?

In the short-term, DWP should replace advances with grants, at a minimum for those who are experiencing hardship. It should also be possible to obtain proof of a Universal Credit claim being made, that will be accepted in order to access Legal Aid. In the longer term, there are a number of options to bring forward the first Universal Credit payment, like backdating the first assessment period.

 

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The State of Hunger: can we end the need for food banks in the UK?

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A blog post by
Emma Revie
Chief Executive  

‘I was receiving one type of disability benefit and got on OK with that, but then I was told I had to apply for a new kind. I struggled to get the medical evidence I needed in time because I had a new doctor, and then it was decided I didn’t qualify – even though my condition itself hasn’t changed at all. I usually have to choose between buying food and having heating, but until I got my food bank voucher today I didn’t have either.’

This person should never have needed to come to a food bank. Getting the right support to someone changing disability benefits, long before they’re anywhere near needing a food bank, is absolutely within our power as a country.

In fact, getting the right support to anyone, long before they’re anywhere near needing a food bank, is absolutely within our power as a country.

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Locked into poverty: the impact of the five week wait for Universal Credit on domestic abuse survivors

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A blog post by
Abby Jitendra 
Policy & Research Manager 

No-one should face having to choose between staying with an abusive partner or facing financial hardship. But our benefits system often fails to support survivors of domestic abuse – and this has been worsened by cuts and changes to the system, which have slashed benefits and crisis support.

That’s the verdict from the Women’s Budget Group, Surviving Economic Abuse and the End Violence Against Women Coalition today, in their powerful report into how to make social security work for survivors of violence and abuse across the UK’s four nations.

We’re pleased to have the Women’s Budget Group standing alongside us in the #5WeeksTooLong campaign, so thought today we’d delve into their new report and look at what it has to say about Universal Credit, and in particular, the impact of having to wait at least five weeks for a first payment.

It doesn’t make for easy reading. The report details a number of ways in which Universal Credit, in its current form, narrows women’s choices and can fail survivors – right at the point when help is most critical.

One of the key things for us is how the structure of Universal Credit payments can make leaving an abusive partner even more difficult.

We already know, from research done by Women’s Aid and the Trades Union Congress, more than half of domestic abuse survivors said they couldn’t afford to leave their abusive partner.  Having to wait at least five weeks for a first payment can increase the already severe financial barriers women face when leaving an abusive relationship. This isn’t right.

And domestic abuse survivors can be waiting for much longer than five weeks. If someone has moved into a refuge, the five-week wait can be extended for up to ten weeks – especially if they had to flee without their documents, or their partner is disputing their entitlement to parts of a Universal Credit payment, like the child payments.

Chris’ story, in the report, lays out exactly how this wait can lock someone into poverty:

Chris fled her abusive partner and made a new claim for Universal Credit. She claims Universal Credit in her own right but she has no documents with her so it takes a long time for the claim to be verified, plus she has a five-week wait before payment is due. The refuge service helps her claim for an advance but this has to be repaid.

Her partner Jim is disputing her entitlement to Child Benefit and Universal Credit child elements, which holds things up.

Chris shouldn’t be trapped in poverty because she left an abusive partner. This is the exact time when our benefits system needs to be ready to support people.

These issues are in our power to change.

Women like Chris don’t have time to waste. And as we’ll be seeing over the course of the coming weeks in #UniversalCreditUncovered, they’re not alone in facing problems – lots of different groups of people are being affected by the wait for Universal Credit.

If we want to help free people instead of locking them into further poverty, debt and hardship, the Government’s first priority must be to end the five week wait. It’s #5WeeksTooLong.

Agree this can change? Join us.

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‘I’m desperate’: why Universal Credit advances are not the answer to the five week wait

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A blog post by
Adam Butler
Senior Public Policy Advocate at StepChange


‘Imposing deductions on an income that was already the bare minimum to live on made me feel desperate and less than human.’

This is what Chris*, who had been forced to pawn his possessions, told StepChange when people who have sought debt advice with the charity were asked about their experiences of deductions from benefits. He’d been forced to pawn his possessions because deductions – fixed repayments of outstanding debts – reduced the support he received so dramatically.

There is now strong evidence the five week wait for Universal Credit, created because the first payment is made one month after application in arrears (plus one payment processing week), is causing hardship and https://www.trusselltrust.org/2019/04/25/record-1-6m-food-bank-parcels/ for emergency food parcels.

The current fix doesn’t work

As the consequences of the wait have become clear, the government has sought to mitigate the issue – reducing the waiting period from six to five weeks and introducing a two-week ‘run-on’ of Housing Benefit.

But the government has highlighted particularly the availability of advance payments. Advances allow people applying for Universal Credit to get a quick payment, up to the full amount of their expected monthly award, which must be repaid from subsequent monthly payments.

The problem with advances is that they create debt that must be repaid through subsequent deductions from payments, often simply replacing short-term with long-term hardship.

Repayments are often unaffordable

The current system of deducting money from Universal Credit to repay debts like advances operates largely automatically: repayments are taken at a fixed rate regardless of affordability, up to 40% of the Universal Credit standard allowance (this will be reduced to 30% from October this year).

That means someone may have up to £160 (depending on their household) taken from their award each month. Applying for help is often a signal that someone has exhausted their own financial resources as well as other avenues of support. For those in financial hardship, amounts much less than £160 are more than they can afford.

In StepChange’s research, over two-thirds of those who had a deduction in place said that it had caused them hardship. But the real impact of deductions comes across in people’s experiences.

Helpless, hopeless, forced to use a food bank

 Clients were forced to ask for help from family and friends and request food vouchers from local crisis services. One person said that the system had made them scared to buy food. People were budgeting down to pennies and still not able to afford essentials like being able to eat or buy warm clothing.

The horrendous impact of hardship linked to deductions on people’s mental and physical health was clear. People referred to depression, panic attacks and struggling with suicidal thoughts. Others said they felt trapped, worthless and like a criminal. Words like ‘helpless’ and ‘hopeless’ recurred. Anxiety was common and people were ashamed at having to ask for help or not being able to provide for their children.

Automatic deductions to repay debts can be justified in a minority of cases as a last resort, for example to help people stay in their home or to prevent disconnections of essential utilities. Most deductions are not made for this reason, however, and much more flexibility could be shown in repayment.

What’s the solution?

The Department for Work and Pensions can do much better at giving people sufficient notice of deductions (at least 28 days), referring them to free debt advice and giving them the opportunity to negotiate affordable repayments rather than setting fixed rates. The Department should also incorporate industry standard affordability assessments, drawing on best practice in the debt advice sector, so that debts are collected in a sustainable way.

But these problems ultimately show why advances cannot be the answer to the five-week wait. Creating debt carries with it problems that cannot be avoided entirely.

That’s why StepChange supports the Trussell Trust’s #5weekstoolong campaign to end the five-week wait. There are a few ways this could be achieved. In the short-term, the Department for Work and Pensions should replace advances with grants, at a minimum for those who are experiencing hardship. In the longer term, there are a number of options to bring forward the first Universal Credit payment, like backdating the first assessment period.

Ending the five-week wait would substantively address an unnecessary driver of financial problems and hardship. It would also be a first step in revisiting values and assumptions that have underpinned a series of poor design decisions in Universal Credit. Whatever else the social safety net is designed to be, it should be a source of help, not a driver of debt and hardship.

*name changed

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No two people at a food bank are the same – but there’s always one similarity

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A blog post by
Bethany Biggar
Operations Manager at the Edinburgh Food Project 


 

We opened our doors at the Edinburgh Food Project six years ago and since then, we have seen the number of emergency food parcels handed out to people in crisis drastically increase. Much like the Trussell Trust’s figures, each year is worse than the last.

From families with children to people with disabilities, more and more people across Scotland are being forced into needless poverty through no fault of their own.

Our benefits system should be caring, compassionate and supportive, offering people that much-needed hand up out of tough times. But currently, the very system that should offer any of us financial support when we need it most, is allowing people to fall through the cracks.

One of the common things we’re seeing lately is people being referred to us while waiting five-weeks wait for Universal Credit. As a food bank manager, it never fails to amaze me when I explain to people that anyone applying for Universal Credit has to wait at least five weeks for their first payment. The most common reaction is ‘how can anyone survive without any money for that long?’

Exactly.

Dave* needed our food bank while waiting for his first Universal Credit payment to come through. He’d been working in restaurant kitchens for the last 25 years but problems with his knee were leaving him struggling to walk, so he was signed off work by a doctor and had to turn to Universal Credit for support. Although he followed the government’s advice and took out an ‘advance payment’ to bridge the wait, the money had to be paid immediately towards his rent to avoid eviction, leaving him without enough funds for anything else.

Situations like this are entirely preventable.

Like Dave, many other people have had to take out an advance payment from the Government to cope with the wait on Universal Credit but this is a loan. And like any loan, it has to be paid back, often at rates which people with such little money coming in can’t afford. Advance payments aren’t the solution – they’re a sticking plaster at best.

No two people who walk through the door of a food bank are the same. People could be working or on benefits for a range of reasons. But there’s always one similarity: the desperation of people trapped in poverty, left with no options because the cost of living has moved so far beyond what their benefits, minimum wage and zero-hours contracts can cover.

And the five-week wait has only exacerbated this further.

We try our hardest to signpost people to long-term support with other agencies but we need a minimum wage that covers the essentials and a workforce that is reliable and secure.

If the department’s latest PR campaign is to try and encourage people to claim Universal Credit then they aren’t going about it in the right way. Too much damage has been done in recent years to our welfare system and this nine-week campaign in the Metro isn’t going to fix the things we need our Government to fix.

We’re firefighting increasing levels of poverty at our food bank, but we can’t continue to pick up the pieces. The time to end the five-week wait for Universal Credit is now.

*name changed

 

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Universal Credit Uncovered? A challenge to the Govt to keep listening

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A blog post by
Natalie Williams
Head of Policy & Communications at Jubilee+ and volunteer at Hastings Foodbank 


 

While last week’s news has now been overshadowed by the announcement by Prime Minister Theresa May that she will step down, there is a lot that has happened that is important and mustn’t be missed or lost.

For example, a report issued by Human Rights Watch last Monday accusing the UK government of failing in its international duty under human rights law to ensure that people have enough to eat. Furthermore, it specifically blames the government for pursuing “cruel and harmful policies”.

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Universal Credit’s failings can’t be glossed over with ad campaign

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A blog post by
Tom Say
Campaigns Manager

This week the Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP) launched “Universal Credit Uncovered”, newspaper advertorials to “myth-bust common inaccuracies” about the Government’s new benefits system.

The nine-week campaign kicks off with a front and back page advert in the Metro newspaper and a four-page feature inside, and purposefully does not feature any DWP branding.

At the same time Philip Alston, the UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty, has published his final report on poverty in Britain. We think of ourselves as a nation built on justice and compassion.

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Caught between a rock and a hard place: why advance payments are not the solution to the five week wait

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A blog post by
Abby Jitendra
Policy & Research Manager


 

Unaffordable DWP loans are not the answer to the five week wait

Would you be able to go five weeks without any money?

When you apply for Universal Credit, that’s the minimum amount of time you have to wait for your first payment.

We put out our year-end food bank figures last week showing that a record 1.6 million food parcels had been given out by our network last year, a 19% increase on the year before. Universal Credit now accounts for half of all referrals to food banks due to benefits delays, and waiting for Universal Credit is a growing trigger forcing people to food banks.

While you wait, you can apply for an ‘advance payment’ – that’s a loan from the Government to see you through that five week period. Once your Universal Credit payments start, you pay that loan back automatically through deductions from your monthly payments.

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Stem the rising tide in food bank referrals – end the five week wait

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A blog post by
Ellie Thompson
Policy & Research Co-ordinator

The benefits system was designed to act as a safety net, providing support for any of us if we need it. But the Government’s new welfare reform, Universal Credit, pulls people into poverty, rather than helping them out of it.

In areas where Universal Credit has gone live for a year or more, food banks have seen a 52% average increase in food bank use compared to 13% in areas that have not. Increasingly we are seeing Universal Credit payment delays as a key driver of food bank referrals. Even Amber Rudd, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, acknowledges that the delay in Universal Credit payments has led to a rise in referrals to food banks.

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Next week the Chancellor has the opportunity to reduce food bank use – will he take it?

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A blog post by
Abby Jitendra
Policy & Research Manager


Last year, the Prime Minister told the nation that austerity was over. But food banks, and the growing number of people who need them, will need convincing.

So far, the Government’s attempts at protecting people in poverty have been piecemeal. Rather than bold action to end austerity, the last Budget made some cash available for some very low paid working households on Universal Credit, but still left millions worse off.

This support won’t go far enough to reduce the record demand food banks have seen – our network gave out 1.3 million three-day parcels, a 13% increase in need, in the last financial year.

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