Disabled activists who have spent years raising concerns about universal credit have warned of its cruelty and how the system “hounds” claimants into complying with strict rules.
They spoke out this week as Disability News Service (DNS) reveals how a disabled woman took her own life after she was left traumatised by the daily demands of universal credit and its online journal.
DNS is also reporting on two other disabled people left in despair by the system.
Only last month, DNS reported how DWP admitted repeatedly breaching the Equality Act, after a disabled man was left needing hospital treatment three times for suicidal thoughts caused by months of failures by universal credit advisers and jobcentres.
Similar concerns were raised in June when DNS reported how the independent case examiner upheld a series of complaints from another universal credit claimant, after DWP failed to communicate clearly with him, and ignored questions he asked through the online journal, even though he was “begging for help”.
Another DNS report, earlier this year, described how a disabled patient was told in January 2020 to leave hospital to visit a jobcentre to confirm his identity as part of a new claim he had made for universal credit, even though he was severely ill with a condition that later killed him.
And in 2018, DNS reported how a man with learning difficulties died a month after attempting to take his own life, following a move onto the “chaotic” universal credit system that left him hundreds of pounds in debt.
Disabled activist Ellen Clifford, author of The War On Disabled People and a member of the national steering group of Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), said her experience of the universal credit online journal “has fully supported the idea that the benefits system is now literally mad-making”.
She said: “Work coaches make demands that you have to jump to meet, but without key information, and then fail to provide that information despite repeated requests.
“The journal seems to work one way only, with the claimant’s communications simply ignored.
“To be fair to the Bolton service centre, my experience is they try their best to answer my questions, but they don’t have the information about why a work coach in Bromley has made a particular demand or arranged an appointment without saying what it is for or what information to take and they can’t get through to the job centre on the phone to find out either.
“So I am frequently left in states of high anxiety even though I am in the limited capability for work-related activity group due to mental distress.
“At some points I have handed over my log-in information to my mum and given her third party permission to manage all communications on my behalf to avoid the journal experience aggravating my distress.
“It needs to be a two-way channel of communication, but for whatever reason – whether lack of resource or deliberate design to push people out of the system – it isn’t.”
She said it was vital to continue to highlight the “inadequacy of the online portal and journal” for many disabled claimants.
DWP has now begun the final stages of “managed migration”, where claimants of employment and support allowance and other means-tested “legacy” benefits will be pushed onto universal credit (UC) over the next couple of years.
Jones said she was waiting to be transferred to UC herself, and still remembers a friend, Ivan, who took his own life about five years ago after he became “incredibly overwhelmed” after he started a claim for UC, experiencing increased paranoia, convinced that he was being spied on by the people sending him updates through his journal.
She said Ivan had ended up smashing his computer, surrounded by paperwork he had written on in his distress, and some papers he had burned.
She added: “All that was needed for him to be saved was for the right support to be in place for him, for his needs to be supported, but they weren’t, and we lost him because of it.
“Preventable deaths need to be highlighted, investigated and those in positions of power must be held to account. An online-only format is not accessible to all.”
She added: “We are acutely aware that the process causes terrible anxiety and distress to many claimants and that where there should be support, people are so often left feeling overwhelmed and with no support, which can devastatingly in some cases lead to very serious mental and emotional crisis.
“It is devastating that there are so many people who have struggled with little to no support in order just to get those initial legacy benefits in place, but are now facing those same anxieties all over again.”
She said DWP had a duty to make reasonable adjustments and ensure adequate support was in place for disabled claimants.
She said it was crucial that disabled people faced with the prospect of universal credit knew that outside support was available, either through Citizen’s Advice, their MP’s office, or through other welfare rights or support services.
Earlier this month, the advice website Benefits and Work warned that the “shocking level of service” at DWP call centres could lead to “life-threatening destitution” for some claimants forced through the migration process.
It pointed out that claimants who need extra time to complete their UC claim could lose all their legacy benefits if they were not able to reach DWP on the phone.
It has heard from hundreds of claimants who have described being left waiting on the phone for hours, “not just once, but day after day”.
Activist and journalist Charlotte Hughes, author of the blog The Poor Side of Life, which exposes the impact of universal credit on claimants, said: “Many claimants that I’ve helped have found the online claim process to be unfair, discriminatory and hard to access.
“Various reasons being a lack of access to the internet, access to a device to use to access the internet and the ability to physically do so.
“Once successful in making a claim, many find that their disabilities and concerns about job searching are ignored.
“They’re left to it, being told that they’ve got to comply with job searching requirements that they can’t physically do.
“Many face being sanctioned, leaving them without the ability to feed and even house themselves.
“The whole system is unfair and cruel to those that are most in need of a safe, secure social security system.”
Activist Gail Ward said claimants are often “bombarded” with jobs to apply for, even if they are not remotely suitable candidates, and other messages, which causes mental distress when universal credit was “supposed to take some of this out of the system”.
She said it can take up to two weeks for work coaches to reply to messages left by claimants, which also triggers mental distress, while requests for reasonable adjustments are often ignored.
Ward said she believed that claimants are “genuinely scared of being sanctioned, so feel hounded into compliance, which of course is the idea behind it”.
She said she had “grave concerns” about how many people would cope with the online system, and manage the cost of internet access in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis, while some claimants will also have to cope with DWP’s new intensive work search programme.
She also has concerns about how disabled people in the employment and support allowance (ESA) support group will manage with the “fit note” system when they move across to universal credit from ESA.
Mark Harrison, chair of Norfolk Against UC (NAUC) and Scrap UC Alliance (SUCA), and a member of the steering group of Reclaiming Our Futures Alliance, said: “Those on universal credit are being targeted for bullying and sanctions in the most reckless way, with little or no regard for the mental distress caused.
“The benefits system should be there to support people, instead it is being used by this government as an instrument to intimidate and put fear into claimants.”
DWP has this week refused to answer a series of questions about universal credit, the cases reported on by DNS, and the safety concerns they raise.
It refused to say if it needed to make changes to ensure the safety of universal credit, and whether it believed claimants were being hounded through their online journals.
Instead, a DWP spokesperson claimed in a statement that “emphasis is placed on protecting vulnerable claimants”, and she added: “Universal credit offers a vital safety net to millions of people, enabling them to support themselves and their families while building towards financial independence through work.”
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