The roll-out of Universal Credit should be paused until significant problems with it are fixed, according to Citizens Advice.
In a new report – Delivering on Universal Credit – the charity says that the requirement to wait for six weeks to receive any payment means people face serious financial insecurity, with many being forced into debt.
The research adds that there are a wide range of administrative challenges, including problems with the online system and long waits to get help over the phone, which can make the initial six week wait even longer.
Universal Credit merges six existing benefits into one – including tax credits, housing benefit and Employment and Support Allowance (ESA).
By 2022 over seven million households will receive Universal Credit and Citizens Advice analysis reveals over half (54%) of these will be working households. It is estimated that Universal Credit will be claimed by more than half (52%) of all families with children in the UK and six in 10 (58%) households where an adult is disabled or has a long term health condition.
Citizens Advice surveyed 800 people who sought help with Universal Credit in areas where it has fully been rolled out. It found over a third (39%) of people are waiting more than the six weeks it should take to receive their first payment; over one in 10 (11%) are waiting over 10 weeks without the benefit; and 57% are having to borrow money while waiting for their first payment.
In the last year Citizens Advice has supported more than 30,000 people with Universal Credit issues, with a quarter (25%) also needing help with debt issues.
The report also reveals that people are having problems with the online application process and are having problems people getting help during the application process: nearly a third (30%) of people said they had to make more than 10 calls to the Universal Credit helpline during their application process, often having to wait over 30 minutes to get through.
Full service Universal Credit has been rolling out gradually across England and Wales for over two years, but in October this process will speed up.Citizens Advice is calling on the government to pause this acceleration and use the time to fix key problems with Universal Credit before thousands more people are brought into the system.
The national charity states that, unless addressed, these challenges will undermine the goals of Universal Credit, to simplify the benefits system and offer people the security and support they need to move into and progress in work.
Citizens Advice highlights one recent case where a mum’s application was delayed because her childminder didn’t provide receipts on the type of letter headed paper which was required as evidence for her claim. Because of the delay she lost her childcare places and had to take time off work to care for her children. Further delays to her Universal Credit claim then meant she could still not afford childcare and she has since lost her job for taking so much time off.
Citizens Advice makes a range of recommendations to fix Universal Credit before it is rolled out more widely, including reducing how long people have to wait for their first payment and improving the support available for the application process, such as making the Universal Credit helpline free, at least until the roll out is complete.