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Universal Credit: Time is running out for the government to do the right thing

by David Scott, CAS policy officer (Social Justice team).

This article was first published in The Herald on 8 September 2021.

There’s a real sense of déjà vu with this pandemic. When the strictest restrictions were in place, you would get up, maybe go for a walk, then turn round and go home. There wasn’t much else you could do to break the days up, so it was easy for one day to blur into another and into the next.  

Maybe you’ve had déjà vu with this opening paragraph, too. We’re all sick of talking about the last 18 months. We all had a hard time, and now that things are opening back up, it’s understandable to want to consign the pandemic to history. 

But there are some important lessons we need to take forward. The pandemic has highlighted some real weaknesses in the support available to people when times are tough. And here at Citizens Advice Scotland, we want to make sure those lessons aren’t forgotten.  

In January, we commissioned a survey of over 600 Scottish CAB clients who’d sought advice on Universal Credit (UC) during the first nine months of the pandemic. In July, we published the first part of that research, which focused on the difficulties people faced accessing UC, where we found that over seven in ten people (72%) found the application process stressful, more than a third (36%) encountered some kind of difficulty with the process itself, and almost half (48%) had to go into some kind of debt to cover the five week wait for first payment.  

This week we released our second report from the survey, which looks at how people found the experience of living on UC. It’s a grim picture.  

More than two thirds (67%) said UC was inadequate for their needs. More than a quarter (27%) had to borrow money to make ends meet. Almost half reported cutting down on heating (47%) and electricity (45%). One in five (20%) had cut down on food. 

When we interviewed some of the people we surveyed, they told us the stories behind these statistics. They told us they frequently had to go without essentials, toiletries, clothing. They had to cut back to make sure their kids were fed and kept entertained during lockdown. They had to choose regularly between electricity and food. This is bare living. 

One client, who we’ve called Robert in the report, told us about the coping mechanisms he has developed to get by. He told us that he usually runs out of money before the end of the month, leaving him without heating for the last few days. When this happens, he’ll go to bed at 6:30pm to stay warm. And when Robert’s UC claim was sanctioned due to difficulties with his online application, he told us: ‘I couldn’t pay for anything. I had no gas for days, no heat or hot water.’ He attempted suicide twice. 

Robert is representative of many of the people we surveyed. He had been in work until March 2020 but lost his next contract when the pandemic hit. This was a common story from many of our respondents: two in five (43%) had lost their job as a direct result of the pandemic, and 81% had never claimed UC before. At a time when these people needed support the most, they have learned how weak our social security net really is.  

With that in mind, the UK Government’s decision to power ahead with its £20 a week cut to UC on the 6th October is absolutely the wrong step to take. Strengthening our social security net not only lifts people out of poverty but also takes pressure off our other public services, like healthcare and homelessness support. And as people on low incomes spend their UC payment in their local area, it also acts as a targeted economic stimulus for some of the most deprived parts of the country. Cutting that £20 a week, when added up across Scotland, means a cut to our economy of more than half a billion pounds a year.  

You might be getting a sense of déjà vu again. Back in March, the UK Government had planned to cut UC right up until the Spring Budget, when under immense pressure from the third sector, cross-party MPs, and others they announced a six-month extension. We’re hoping they do the same again this week.  

It’s not fair to string folk along like this. The looming threat of an overnight cut of as much as a quarter of someone’s income is causing anxiety for those who know it’s coming and will be a huge shock for those who don’t. People cannot and should not have to live with that kind of income insecurity.  

In our survey, we asked people how they would cope with further cuts to their income. Nearly three quarters (74%) said they would not be able to cope with a £20 a week income drop. When we asked what would be the single biggest impact that the cut would have on them, 26% said they would be unable to pay for essentials, 9% said they would be unable to pay their bills, and 14% said they would be unable to buy food.  

The UK Government needs to listen to these people. The statistics I listed above – a quarter borrowing to make ends meet, almost half going without heating, a fifth going without food – are what people said with the £20 a week increase included. Choosing to cut that support now – and it is a choice, not a necessity - will thrust more people into poverty and undermine the UK Government’s Plan for Jobs. How can you be expected to find work if you have no heating or food? 

The Government must do the right thing and make the £20 increase to UC permanent.