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Pauline is a young woman who was put on Universal Credit (UC) in January 2017. Before this she was a self-employed personal trainer working for a gym and claiming Working Tax Credits (WTC). After this she worked in a number of zero hours contracts but found that she was not given enough hours to continue claiming WTCs. Applying for UC was quite straight forward. She had to wait six weeks for payment. She was assigned a work coach who she saw weekly for the first two months and then fortnightly thereafter. This is her story.
The first problems I had with UC were when I discovered I had wrongly been made to wait the waiting week. I transferred over from a legacy benefit and should only have waited five weeks for payment. They owed me a week’s money and I also had had to pay a week’s full rent for the waiting week. This was sorted but it took months. They had to shut my claim down and rebuild it. This closed my claim and then stopped my Direct Housing Payment (DHP) and council tax reduction. At that time the service centre number was not free but fortunately I had a mobile phone contract that included that number free. This was just as well or I would not have been able to afford the calls. I have no journal. I am still a live claimant even though my area is now full service.
I am in the all work group which means I have to do search for work for thirty-five hours a week. This has been cut down to thirty hours as I have five hours paid work in the week. I have to have internet access. My broadband costs me £19.99 per month. It would cost me £3.50 a day or £17.50 a week on the cheapest bus ticket to get to the town centre and use the library. I have a friend who is a bus driver who can get me cheap tickets, £7 for a whole week – but she can only get me these a few times a year. Travel is also something that penalises the less well off. In my area a single fare is £2. An all-day ticket is £3.50. A weekly ticket is £17.50. If you buy for a longer period the price comes down, but many people on UC cannot afford to pay £48 at one time for s 4-week bus ticket.
“You can be sanctioned if you go on holiday – twenty-eight days without money, or you can close your claim down and re-apply when you come home.”
I have had a number of job interviews. I was not told of the Flexible Support Fund. There is a fund you can use to claim travel fares back. I asked for support for funding to do a course but was told that none was available. I was asked to attend a course in the Job Centre at a days’ notice on two separate occasions. If you are on Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) you get those fares refunded, on UC you don’t.
On JSA you can also apply for discounted bus travel. On UC you can’t – even if you don’t work.
While I was working the year before I had booked and paid for two holidays. I didn’t know that while on UC I was not allowed to leave the country. Technically you are, but the legislation is a tad woolly. If you are abroad you must fly back and attend an interview if you get one. It is basically down to your work coach. You can be sanctioned if you go – twenty-eight days without money (rent will still be paid), or you close your claim down which means you need to start again and apply although you won’t wait the waiting week.
On JSA if you went on holiday you lost two weeks money. This will also affect people who work part time (as I do), so you could have someone who works a twenty-hour week, books a holiday but faces losing it or sanctions because their holiday clashes with the appointment to see their work coach. There is no advance notice of appointments. I was allowed to go but I had to job search while I was abroad.
When I was renting I got a letter every month for ten months threatening me with eviction because my landlord wanted rent paid on time, but UC is paid in arrears.
My first brush with sanctions came when my mum was ill with cancer. I was not coping well and I had missed updating my Universal Jobmatch (UJM) for a few days. I was told I was not meeting “conditionality.” I was very distressed and called the service centre to explain. My work coach was okay in the end but I was assigned to someone else and she was unhappy with my job search. She did not like the sites I was using. I applied for eight jobs in a week – jobs I am qualified to do, but I was told this wasn’t enough.
My work coach started telling me to apply for call centre jobs. I have no experience in that line of work. He was also unhappy with my CV. I went through weeks of stress over this until I was assigned someone else who had no problem with it.
“My first brush with sanctions came when my mum was ill with cancer. I was not coping well and I had missed updating my Universal Jobmatch for a few days. I was told I was not meeting “conditionality.” I was very distressed.”
I have had to turn work down because of the UC taper due to travel expenses. I cannot do a job that would rely on me getting taxis home in unsocial hours (I don’t drive); it would wipe out all my earnings. My in-work allowance would double if I had kids because I do not claim housing costs any more. I get none.
I own my home, but I have no kids. If I had kids I would keep £192 of my wages before the UC taper hit. I keep nothing. As soon as I earn a pound 63p comes off my benefit. When the minimum wage was £7.50 I kept £2.33 an hour and that was before travel. I also did not qualify for the warm home discount and did not get the cold weather payment which was triggered twice in my area before Christmas.
Now I work in a job where I am being harassed. I wrote a letter to the board of directors and their response was to withhold my pay. They’ve also docked me. I can’t leave or I will be referred to a “decisionmaker.” If I am sacked I will also be referred. I also suffered from the double pay in one assessment period last month. I was paid a day early for Easter which had the knock-on effect of cutting my next month’s payment of UC. As both payments fell into one assessment period I lost £80 in wages. If I had been paid a day later this would not have happened. I had to live on £147 pounds that month and my work didn’t pay me at all.
I was also forced to job search for a month while signed off as unfit to work by my GP. These requirements were then switched off by another work coach.
I have recently been referred for a sanction. I was twelve minutes late for my appointment. If I am sanctioned for this it will either be a seven day or a twenty-eight-day sanction. If I am sanctioned for leaving or being dismissed from my job, or if my contract is ended through ill health, I will face a thirteen-week sanction on top of this. That will be five months without money. I can apply for hardship money, but if I get it – unlike on JSA – it has to be repaid. My MP is currently involved in helping me fight these issues.
“There is no consistency across work coaches. I have seen Job Centre staff sit and laugh with people over not doing their job search.”
My thoughts are this:
There is no consistency across work coaches. I have seen Job Centre staff sit and laugh with people over not doing their job search.
Sanctions are punitive and do not work. Even the threat of them has made me unwell.
Some people cannot cope with their job search, some people have literacy problems. People are not informed that you are allowed to have someone who can help you with job search. They can fill in your journal for you. You can also take people with you to appointments.
There are people who are on “light touch.” They are only need to check in with their work coach by phone every eight weeks, but this depends on the individual work coach.
Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) work coaches can also do phone appointments. Some may even let you do interviews over the phone.
People are allowed two sick periods in 12 months. But it is a rolling twelve-month period and not twelve calendar months.
People have lost income because their in-work allowances were reduced. People on Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) are also facing difficulties because on new style ESA you get no more money for being on ESA and UC. ESA is now deducted from the UC payment. The Limited Capability for Work (LCW) element was abolished for new claimants from 3 April 2017 and for people already claiming UC before this date. If you are affected by this change and are found to have LCW you will not receive an additional amount when calculating your UC entitlement.
I am an SNP supporter and a Yes voter. The Scottish government has some influence over UC, but it is not enough; they cannot stop sanctions, they cannot stop people suffering. In full UC areas foodbank use is rising, as people face delays in their claims and sanctions. All the SNP can do is pay people twice a month in full service areas (mine is but I am still a live claimant and do not have a journal) and pay rent direct to landlords. There are people who think that the SNP have control over all benefits. It absolutely does not.
A Universal Basic Income is the way forward, as far as I am concerned. It gives you a basic income if you are in work and one if you are not in work. No threats of sanctions, no hoop jumping. And in my view the only way Scotland will get UBI is if we are independent and have full control over our welfare benefits.
This has been a horrible experience from start to finish, and I don’t say that lightly. It is nothing like being on JSA. UC claimants are also more likely to be sanctioned than people on ESA. People on UC should not have to sit explaining to others why they need internet, or need a mobile phone, or what they spend their last penny on. Quite frankly, it is hard enough.
The Butterfly Rebellion