Citizens Advice is calling for immediate changes to Universal Credit ahead of a potential second wave of claims when the government’s protection schemes come to a close.
Data released today by the Department of Work and Pensions shows 1.9 million households have made a claim for Universal Credit in the last two months. This equates to just under one in ten working-age households in Great Britain.
While the rate of claims has tapered in recent weeks, the charity warns its frontline advisors are preparing for a potential spike in enquiries this summer. The job retention scheme is currently due to end on 30th June, which could precipitate further job losses.
The redeployment of staff by the Department for Work and Pensions has helped respond to an unprecedented surge in demand on the benefits system and ensured people can access financial support.
However, frontline advisers at Citizens Advice say many people they support with Universal Credit can face hardship as a result of the five-week wait until their first payment, or risk getting into debt by taking out an advance payment.
Responding to today’s figures, Dame Gillian Guy, Chief Executive of Citizens Advice, says:
“The dizzying number of Universal Credit claims since March is a grim reflection of just how many people have seen their income swept away by coronavirus.
“Decisive action from the government means hundreds of thousands of claims have been processed. The next step is to support people during the five-week wait without putting them at risk of debt problems in the future.
“With a potential second wave of claims looming, now is the time for the government to further strengthen the safety net by turning advance payments into grants.”
Nicky Willshere, Chief Officer at Citizens Advice Ipswich says:
“In Ipswich alone, we have helped with over 420 benefits, 143 debt and 62 housing issues since lockdown. We are expecting many more enquiries as the Government now starts to talk about ending lockdown and the return to the workplace. If redundancies are to come, there will be a further wave of hardship for households who have already had to dig deep. The five-week wait for Universal Credit will add to this.”
“£25 a month doesn’t sound like a lot to pay off, but I know it will be a struggle”
Hairdresser Desislava, 33, has lived and worked in London for more than five years. She lost her job in March and applied for Universal Credit. At the time she was a lodger, and with no savings to fall back on and no earnings, she quickly fell into rent arrears and was evicted by her landlord.
Desislava’s local Citizens Advice supported her with an emergency grant while she waited for her application for Universal Credit to be approved. She has since found a new flat and received an advance to tide her over until the first payment, but the experience has left her shaken.
Desislava says: “Losing my job and my home was horrible. I was shaking and crying because I thought I might end up sleeping rough. I tried my best to look for another job, but nobody has one – it’s a global pandemic.
“I applied for Universal Credit but when I saw the amount I’d receive I realised it wouldn’t be enough to live on and cover my bills. While I wait for my first payment I’ve managed to get an advance of £300 which needs to last me until 4th June, but I’m getting stressed and worried about how I’ll survive on that.
“I then need to repay my advance over the next year. £25 a month doesn’t sound like a lot to pay off, but I know it will be a struggle. Particularly as the amount I’m set to get each month won’t even cover my rent and living costs.”