Front-line services lay bare the ‘nightmare’ impact of Universal Credit

Front-line organisations have laid bare the “nightmare” impact of Universal Credit at a meeting held in Kirkcaldy this week.

An upsurge in poverty, addiction, crime and prostitution have been ascribed to the flagship welfare policy, which was rolled out in Fife in December 2017.

The meeting at Templehall Community Centre on Tuesday was organised by Lesley Laird MP for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, as a follow-up to a similar event held to prepare for Universal Credit.

Attendees included representatives from Citizens Advice Rights Fife (CARF), Home-start Kirkcaldy, Link Living, Kirkcaldy YMCA, Fife People’s Assembly, Kirkcaldy Food Bank, Fife Voluntary Action and Fife Trades Union Council.

All reported a huge increase in demand on services from people going weeks without money due to being sanctioned or waiting for a first Universal Credit payment.

Joyce Leggate, chair of Kirkcaldy Food Bank, said: “We used to provide a service for people with acute need, now it is chronic support.

“We’ve got people coming every week for a year and we see the mental health of people deteriorating. Their heads are down, they’re beaten by the system.

“We are seeing more people get sanctions, more and more families in food crisis. Two thirds of recipients are children.”

According to Fife Economy Partnership’s latest published figures, 7422 people in Fife are registered as Universal Credit claimants seeking work.

The meeting reported people working in low-paid jobs and eligible for Universal Credit top-up were expected to evidence they were looking for more work – or face sanctions.

Zoe Nicholson, of Link Living said: “In the past, if you couldn’t make an appointment because you were working, you would phone your job advisor, explain and reschedule.

“Now it’s a 45-50 minute call on hold to a Universal Credit contact centre in Dundee just to tell them.

“People are just too exhausted by the system. People don’t have the fight in them; it’s just not worth it.”

Groups also reported that:

  • Mental health issues/limited IT literacy/English not being a first language were “massive barriers” for people in terms of making and sustaining their first claim.
  • People were running up rent arrears for the first time in their lives – on average £1200 each.
  • An increase in referrals to the adult protection system/children’s reporter.
  • Large families separating because they cannot afford to live.
  • People being released from custody without help to claim Universal Credit and deliberately committing crime to go back to jail.

The meeting highlighted a ‘hand-in-hand’ rise in the black-market economy, addiction and prostitution in the Kirkcaldy area alongside Universal Credit.

Meanwhile, frontline services and charities were struggling to meet an upsurge in demand.

Liz Easton, manager Kirkcaldy YMCA said: “When you apply for funding all you hear is ‘how little [money] you can do this for?’

“It’s a race to the bottom.”

Richard Burnett, chief executive CARF added: “We are trying to teach people to budget but how can they do that when they don’t have enough money? It’s impossible.”

Speaking afterwards, Lesley Laird said: “I couldn’t be at the meeting because Brexit cancelled recess at Westminster this week, but this was too important an issue to reschedule.

“We all met prior to the roll-out of Universal Credit to prepare for an anticipated onslaught of Universal Credit problems and I wanted the group to meet again to share experiences of what’s happening on the ground now.

“The picture painted by front-line services makes for grim reading – a litany of despair which starkly illustrates how Universal Credit is actively harming claimants’ mental and physical health, consigning our children to a life of poverty, and, ultimately, damaging our communities.

“This is a deliberately punitive, penny-pinching system which serves only to humiliate people in genuine need – and the cost to our services, including the NHS, far outstrips any savings made by the DWP.

“The Tory government needs to call a halt to this madness now.”