People with mental health problems are becoming “tangled up” in the bureaucracy and flaws of the government’s new universal credit benefit system, a committee of MPs have heard.
Members of the public accounts committee heard this week that claimants were facing “considerable hardship and considerable deterioration in their mental health” because of universal credit.
Sophie Corlett, director of external relations for the mental health charity Mind, told them: “They struggle with the process, but they end up tangled in the process and unable to dig their way out of it.
“They struggle with the online application, they struggle with the conditionality that comes while you wait for your work capability assessment (WCA), they struggle with waiting for their first payment and if they are able to get an advance payment they struggle to pay that back.”
She also highlighted concerns about the role of the government’s work coaches, who are based at jobcentres and have “discretion” about whether they make adjustments to the process, including whether to relax the conditions placed on disabled claimants.
A key concern, said Corlett, was the period between the start of a universal credit claim and the WCA, during which claimants can be forced to carry out the usual 30-plus hours of jobsearch activity while waiting to be assessed for their “fitness for work”.
Carrying out this jobsearch activity was “a huge barrier” for many people with mental health problems, who were often not even well enough to visit their jobcentre.
She said work coaches were often not using their discretion in such cases, which meant claimants ended up being sanctioned.
Under the sanctions system, benefit recipients have part of their payments temporarily stopped if they fail to meet strict work-related conditions, such as failing to attend a work placement, or being a few minutes late for a jobcentre appointment.
Corlett said that many claimants with mental health problems were struggling with the online “journal” that universal claimants must keep updated, because of fears that they will be “caught out” by one of the requirements that keep “popping up”.
She told the committee: “People talk to us about the fear of something popping up on that that they might miss and that they need to be eternally vigilant and constantly looking at it.”
Corlett, whose evidence was based on reports from the charity’s 130 local groups across the country, said the “bureaucratic entanglement” of universal credit meant people with mental health problems “struggle financially” and their “trust in the system and their trust in the work coach is really undermined and it has a massive impact on people’s mental health”.
Emma Revie, chief executive of The Trussell Trust, which runs a national network of 400 foodbanks, told the committee that disabled people were among the groups “over-represented” among users of foodbanks.
She said that foodbanks in the areas where universal credit had been fully rolled out for at least a year had experienced an average increase of 52 per cent in the number of people using the services in the 12 months after the full rollout began.
But those in areas that were either not subjected to the universal credit “full service”, or had been subject to the full rollout for less than three months, had shown an average increase of just 13 per cent in users over the same period.
Revie warned that the universal credit caseload would at least “quadruple” when DWP began introducing “managed migration”, when claimants on existing benefits whose circumstances have not changed in the meantime – including a large number of disabled people on employment and support allowance – are moved over to universal credit.
Managed migration is expected to begin next summer.
Revie said: “At the moment we are not managing to target and provide the right support to the right people, to prevent them facing having no food.
“We need to try and fix this before we get to managed migration where it might be too difficult to pull it back.”
Alison Greenhill, director of finance for Leicester City Council, said her local authority was already dealing with two eviction notices from landlords, just three weeks after “full service” began in the city.
She said: “It was a shock to me how private landlords were nervous about the impact of universal credit, particularly on the delay in rent payments.”
Tony Kirkham, director of resources for Newcastle City Council – which has been coping with universal credit full service for about 18 months – said: “Landlords are basically saying they will not accept people on universal credit.”
He said the level of rent arrears among people with a rent account with the council who were now on universal credit had more than doubled from £1 million to £2.1 million since its introduction.
And he said his council was dealing with people on universal credit who were being left with just £12 a week to feed themselves.
In a separate evidence session, DWP’s permanent secretary, Peter Schofield, told the committee that he did not know why the number of people using foodbanks was increasing in areas with “full service” universal credit but he said it was a “very complex situation”.
He added: “I would much rather that we were in a situation where people did not need to go to food banks.”
He said he had talked to a “very good food bank in Hastings”, which had a good relationship with the local jobcentre.
Schofield said: “As far as I know, at no point has the food bank said to the jobcentre that there are issues with universal credit that are causing an increase in take-up at the food bank.”
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