Extreme poverty and human rights

UN_logoThe United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights is visiting the UK in November 2018. Church Action on Poverty is doing what we can to ensure that during his visit, he hears the stories of the real experts – people with lived experience of poverty.

Alongside many other organisations and individuals, we have already made a written submission to the Rapporteur, sharing stories about the impact of Universal Credit. We conclude:

Universal Credit was meant to simplify and streamline the benefits system, improve work incentives, tackle poverty and reduce fraud and error. In fact, the system is highly complex, undermined by administrative error and is trapping people in poverty rather than liberating them.

Our full submission is reprinted below. You can also read it, and all the other submissions, on the United Nations website. Do take a look if you can – people have shared some really powerful and shocking stories.
The Rapporteur will complete his visit on 16 November, so look out for more updates on this story.

Our written submission

Church Action on Poverty is a national charity, founded in 1982 to develop long-term solutions to UK poverty by working with people in poverty, churches and other partners.  In our work, we seek to actively listen to those with personal experience of poverty, and to amplify their voices.  We have campaigned extensively on issues of benefit sanctions, destitution and hunger over the past five years. A list of resources is appended.

In this submission we specifically wish to shares some stories we have heard over the past 18 months, in the contributors’ own words. Their experiences reinforce our belief that Universal Credit is sweeping many people further into poverty, and needs to be fixed. This submission relates particularly to questions 15 & 16 in the Special Rapporteur’s invitation.

Ciaran, Huddersfield, West Yorkshire

I had been in jail for a time and when I came out I had to sign on to Jobseeker’s Allowance, and they were paying me fortnightly.

I then got rehoused by the council and when I changed address, in November 2017, that meant me switching to Universal Credit.

Straight away, I would have to wait six weeks for a payment. I managed to get an advance from the DWP of £200 but I even had to wait for that, and that didn’t last any time at all because I was just moving into my flat and I had nothing. In the end, my first payment was after 10 weeks.

I contacted a local charity called Fusion and they suggested I come here, to The Welcome Centre in Huddersfield, and I ended up using the food bank. That was right around and through Christmas 2017 and I didn’t get a payment until January.

I soon realised I wasn’t being paid fortnightly anymore and I was really struggling. I had just moved into a flat and I had to get a cooker and a washer. I had no cooking facilities, and it didn’t even have gas and electricity at first. I had to get the storage heaters all fixed, but then it was costing £5 a night just to run them, so I turned them off.

My situation is still diabolical. I’ve been paying back the advance I got at a rate of £50 a month, so this is the first month I’ve not had that deduction. I get £317 a month, but I pay out £50 a month on gas and electricity, £40 a month on water, £33 on council tax, £24.50 on my TV licence and £61.39 a week on rent. So I can’t afford a contract phone, and have to just use pay as you go, as you need to have a phone to access your Universal Credit account.

I had to use the food bank once a week for eight weeks. The flat I had been moved into had 27 leaks in it and was badly damaged, so the council moved me into B&B accommodation, and that move counted as another change in circumstances, then when they put me in my new flat that was counted as yet another change in circumstances, so delayed my first payment, which meant I fell into £240 rent arrears.

Universal Credit is a very complicated system to learn. They separate the council and the DWP from each other, and you have to work out what’s happening with your rent. It’s like trying to walk through one of those huge garden mazes, you don’t know which corner will take you down a blind alley. It’s nigh on impossible to figure out. There’s not enough support, and for those people who have poor English it’s even worse. I have run my own business before, and there were fewer hurdles there than in this system.

I’m trying to find work, but it’s difficult when you’re coming from a prison sentence. I had planned to come out, get into my flat and find my feet. But finding my feet has been like having to try on every pair of shoes in a shop, but none of them fitting. I was amazed how difficult it was. The incompetence and lack of communication between different parties was huge. It turned out that at one time, they had set up two Universal Credit accounts for me, so were paying into one but billing from the other, meaning I was in credit and in arrears at once. I was getting eviction notices and it took six weeks to resolve that.

When I went to the council, they want to help but nobody had any experience of Universal Credit there either. I had no facilities whatsoever. No bed, no decoration in the flat, no furniture, and I would have been living on hot water and Pot Noodles had it not been for this place.

The system seems to make you apply or everything, get knocked back, then win it on appeal.

I would like to see Theresa May or other politicians to try to move into my flat and survive on £317 a month while paying back money. To understand a person, stand in their shoes. I tell you, there’s a bridge at the bottom of this town that has less leaks and less mould than my flat.

The Welcome Centre isn’t called lifeline, but that’s what it has been for me, it has absolutely been my lifeline. If it had not been here, I’d have had to go begging.

I always turn up for my appointments, I do what’s asked of me, I do all the job searches they ask and I’ve never been sanctioned but despite my best efforts, I am still in this mess and ended up two months in arrears.

I’m nine months into Universal Credit and still not satisfied. They want 36 hours’ a week job searching, and I do that but you soon run out of options for work in a town here. I go to Fusion’s jobfinders’ club and that helps, and counts towards your hours but I do worry I could be sanctioned one day if I make a mistake.

Man in Sheffield (name withheld), South Yorkshire

I have angina and a heart murmur and I registered for Universal Credit almost five months ago and have not yet had anything. I’ve had no money for four and a half months, I’ve just been relying on friends. I owe my landlord £1,200 and I’ve explained to him and I’m lucky he is understanding.

I was on sick pay but they threw me off that and told me to go on Universal Credit. My solicitor has sorted it out with the court and I should get my first payment now in two weeks.

If it was not for my landlord being supportive and not telling me to get out, and if it was not for this place, then I would probably be in hospital by now. I’ve been coming here about three and a half months, as I got a referral from the council. Usually you can only get three referrals a year but they put a note on saying I was waiting for my Universal Credit to be sorted.

Friends are helping me out a bit but if it was not for this place I would be in hospital because I would not be eating. I don’t know how they expect me to get by with no money.

Man in Salford (name withheld), Greater Manchester

I waited nine weeks for Universal Credit. They told me they didn’t get the form they needed, so I sent it off again, then they sent me another one to fill in, and it just carried on like that.

It’s sorted now but it took so, so long. For nine weeks I had to rely on my mum and some friends, just doing what I could to get by. It’s a nightmare and I’d rather be back in jail, really I would

I’m getting depressed all the time. When you ring the benefits people and ask for some support, you’re told to talk to the council, then the council refer you back to them.

I live now on £91 a fortnight. How can you live on that? I don’t. I have court fines to pay, and some rent goes out, and I have old bills to pay and £15 to £20 a fortnight goes out for gas and electricity, then £20 on shopping. I just have to shop in pound shops and try to get offers.

I’ve been out of jail for about six months, but with this Universal Credit I just don’t know what to do. I don’t want ‘owt for nowt’ but I have nothing to pay with. In my flat, I haven’t got a washer, all I’ve got is a rug and a tele. I want to get my basics but everyone says there’s nothing they can do. The Job Centre tell you to ring the council and the council tell you to ring them. I don’t understand how I can get help.

Some people say, ‘oh these foreigners get this and that’. So they should, I say – they’ve come from nothing. But I just want a little bit of help as well.

A lot of people have been hurt now from Universal Credit. I feel like I shouldn’t be moaning, I don’t like to, but they’re not giving people what they should. That first wait is horrible. I got into £810 debt. I went to a guy to borrow some money, and to friends, but other people would not be able to even get that help.

I am severely depressed. If they paid the money weekly or every two weeks, that would make a big difference. I said to them as well that they shouldn’t give me the rent, they should give it straight to the landlord. If you give people it all, they might spend the rent, then they are down. It’s a vicious cycle.

Before Universal Credit, I just owed a few people, but nothing much. Then Universal Credit came in and changed it. There are a lot of people suffering. On my estate, there are a lot of people really, really struggling. Everybody is in some bother, it’s such hard work. I have got nothing in, nothing to work with. I’m on my own, but I’m starting to see my kids again after being in jail. I need to not go back to prison, or I will never see my kids for years, but this is just so hard.

I rang the Universal Credit line and they said to ring the council. I rang the council again and that time I was breaking down. They rang me back and put me in touch with the food bank and that’s where I am now. That’s how it goes. I might have had to steal if it had not been for that. It was easier in jail because you get what you really need. If the food bank was not here, I would be out shoplifting, just to get something, anything, for my stomach.

I think, if it wasn’t for my kids, I might have killed myself by now. It would be easier not being here, or easier being back in jail. This system is just horrible.

Niel, Harrogate, North Yorkshire

Universal Credit I have found to be pretty rubbish. The Jobcentre put me in touch with here and I’ve used it ever since. I volunteer as well now, to give something back.

I come here every evening and receive food to take away, and that has helped me a lot.

I really struggled with Universal Credit. I had had my own business. It wasn’t working out but they said because I had a company I could get only £328 a month Universal Credit, which didn’t cover the rent. When I spoke to them and told them the company wasn’t working, it went up to £648. That’s much more but my rent is £365 and once that and bills and council tax go out of it, there’s not much and this place helped me a lot.

I used to be a snob. This was not a place I would ever dream of coming too, but my flat mate got me to come and I have got to know more people. And I’m not a snob now.

I never envisaged being on Universal Credit. The Jobcentre have been good for me. My workcoach provides a lot of information about courses and suggests things but work here is quite limited if you don’t have transport. I ran an events company in the hotel industry for 20 years but a lot of the things I apply for now, I never hear back about.

I think councils need to give more support. What did they want me to do? Live on the streets? It’s even harder for people who might struggle to write to them. If you don’t know what to ask, you’re left high and dry.

If it was not for this place, I would not eat. I struggle month to month. Hopefully I will find at least a part-time job soon, then see how that leaves Universal Credit. But I think the Government need to give councils more funding.

The big picture

Universal Credit was meant to simplify and streamline the benefits system, improve work incentives, tackle poverty and reduce fraud and error. In fact, the system is highly complex, undermined by administrative error and is trapping people in poverty rather than liberating them.

As part of End Hunger UK (www.endhungeruk.org), we are calling for action to ‘fix’ Universal Credit:

  • Urgent action to improve the flexibility and support for people applying for and in receipt of Universal Credit.
  • Improvements to the design of Universal Credit, to ensure it does not leave more people at risk of debt and destitution.
  • A long-term commitment to ensure that Universal Credit provides people with an adequate income, so that they can afford good food on a regular basis.

Niall Cooper                                        Gavin Aitchison
Director                                               Poverty Media Coordinator

Additional resources