The excerpts below are from another interview I recorded last week at Oldham foodbank. I’ll post the full transcript when I’ve finished it.
The interview below was with an Oldham woman called Michelle, 38. Michelle had two daughters aged 13 and 17.
I post this to make the point again that Universal Credit is designed to start claimants off in debt and to keep them there. People are utterly powerless within that. They feel that they can’t fight or negotiate with the DWP.
Michelle applied for Universal Credit in October last year. She had to wait about ten weeks for her first payment (she’s also still waiting to hear the outcome of a Maximus medical assessment which she took at that time).
That long wait for Universal Credit had the usual devastating knock-on effects – the knock-on effects which push Universal Credit claimants into debt from the off.
First problem: while Michelle was waiting for a first UC payment, she went into rent arrears (she rents a place from First Choice Homes at £330 a month). She is now paying those arrears off at about £20 a month. That money comes out of her Universal Credit.
Second problem: because of the delay to the start of her Universal Credit, Michelle had to take out a Universal Credit advance loan to cover costs. She’s paying that back now at about £40 a month. She said she took out a second loan to cover costs as well.
Third problem: Michelle’s child tax credit claim was moved to Universal Credit and the DWP when she made her Universal Credit claim. Like a number of women I’ve interviewed now, Michelle was informed out of the blue that she had been overpaid child tax credits and would have to pay the money back. Without warning, the DWP started to deduct nearly £50 a month from her Universal Credit. There was no negotiation, or discussion with Michelle about these deductions, or about amounts she could realistically afford to pay while still supporting her two kids. The money was simply removed from Michelle’s Universal Credit.
I’ve heard that story time and time again. It’s obscene. These are people in financial hardship. They have children. They can’t make a case with anyone. They’re not even invited to make a case. Nobody wants to hear from them.
I’m making a simple point here, but I’ll make it again and again.
With its delays, loan culture (people in hardship must apply for advance loans while waiting for their first UC payments and then pay that money back) and these random, unexpected deductions for debts from people’s benefit accounts, Universal Credit is designed to ensure that people who have no money start their benefit claims in debt to the state and under real pressure. They are forced to take out advance loans, because their first payments are delayed for months. They are forced into rent arrears while they wait for their first Universal Credit housing costs payments. Money is deducted from their Universal Credit accounts without warning or discussion.
People’s powerlessness in this is disgusting, as I say. They have no choice but to follow the DWP’s line. Organisations such as the DWP have total authority in these scenarios. There is something very disturbing about this. We should all find it disturbing – a government department’s magisterial dismissing of and disinterest in those people who most rely on it.
I asked Michelle if she’d talked to the DWP about reducing some of the repayment amounts, or if anyone had talked to her about manageable amounts before actually taking the money from her.
“Oh, no, no, no. They just tell you. They don’t ask. They don’t discuss it with you. They just tell you,”
“Just don’t think it’d make a difference really [ringing the DWP to negotiate repayments]. It would just make me worry more…And I suffer from stress and anxiety and panic attacks so…it’s just hard,”
“I just can’t get used to it. It’s just so hard. They should tell you they’re going to do it [deduct money for debt repayments] but they didn’t… because a week before you get paid, you can go onto your [Universal Credit] journal and it tells you how much you’re getting that month. I went on that month and it just told me they were taking it out.”
I wonder why we allow this bullying. The world is run by sociopaths. This isn’t about deciding whether people are deserving or not deserving of support, or whatever the hell it is that policy thinks it is doing. It’s about the state declaring open season on people who claim benefits. They’re the acceptable targets. The normal rules of courtesy or even basic civil human interaction don’t apply.