Fife agencies play waiting game over Universal Credit impact

Pic: John Devlin
Pic: John Devlin

The initial roll out of Universal Credit is one issue facing local agencies - but the real deluge of problems could come early in the new year.

The new system assesses people month by month and reacts to any changes in their circumstances, and if they fail to comply with their ‘client commitment’ then sanctions kick-in.

And it’s only when they get their payments do they find their money has been cut.

That’s where the workload starts to mount for frontline agencies as they step in to help and advise.

‘‘No-one is looking forward to this,’’ said Richard Park, Citizens Advice and Rights Fife (CARF).

‘‘We are waiting to see what the impact will be.

‘‘I sense there is enough information available just now, and the big issues could surface after people have been on Universal Credit for a few months.

‘‘We are sign posting where we can to get the right help to clients.

‘‘We will do what we can to help.’’

CARF was one of the agencies involved in a recent round-the-table summit with the office of Lesley Laird MP plotting a route map to outline all the help available locally, and its experience of the changes were vital.

‘‘We have had Universal Credit for single work seekers and it has not been a huge issue,’’ said Richard, ‘‘but, from this week, anyone coming into the system new to claim will be assessed month to month.

‘‘One key issue is the extra work it will take dealing with new claimants

Universal Credit’s continual assessment of people’s needs means every slight change can impact – and some things are already out of any individual’s control.

A five-week month, for example, changes calculations – and it could mean the difference between being able to pay a standing order or not.

Richard said: ‘‘Tax credits were based on last year’s income.

‘‘Universal Credit is based on real time information from working people and it bases their needs from that

‘‘If someone is on a salary or a contract to work the same hours – whether that’s 30 or 20 per week – and if they get paid per calendar month, then nothing much should change.

‘‘But if they are paid four weekly or even weekly they will face disruption four times a year when there are five weeks in the month.’’

People already in work but on Universal Credit also face the challenge of perhaps having to work more hours or find a second job to ensure they meet their client commitment … or face the possibility of sanctions.

And when money is cut, the problems start to mount.

‘‘The biggest problem for CARF is sanctions and trying to explain when money is cut from month to month.

‘‘You only need to work one extra hour and next month’s Universal Credit will be cut.

‘‘And if someone is working 35 hours on a minimum wage there are conditions which mean you have to get your wage up to meet the Universal Credit threshold.

‘‘You will be expected to look to increase your hours or get more wages.

‘‘That might mean finding a second job.

‘‘We do not know how that will work out, but if you do not follow your client commitment then you face sanctions

‘’We have looked at as many ‘what if’ scenarios as we can so we can give people the help and advice they need. For someone who is brand new to the system, we will try to flag up the issues they could face, and can compare what they get on Universal Credit.

‘‘But sanctions are a huge problem.

‘‘If Universal Credit is cut then people won’t know until it happens. They will turn up and find themselves facing a zero payment.’’

The new system comes with a safety net of upfront payments, but they are in the form of loans which are then deducted from future payments … leaving people short of money once more.

Changes to cut the delay in making payments also won’t come into effect until early in 2018, leaving Fifers going on to Universal Credit with the real prospect of no money from now until after Christmas.

‘‘You can get a 50 per cent up front payment but it is a loan so it has to be paid back - so they will take it from your next Universal Credit,’’ said Richard.

‘‘That is where foodbanks will start to get used more as people see their money shrink.

‘‘There is scope to get emergency gas/electricity payments to people which also have to be repaid.

‘‘As soon as you repay the first payment, you are short and that will continue until the loan is collected.’’

‘‘I think the issues will emerge in the new year. The big problem will be when people are on Universal Credit for several months and haven’t jumped through one of the hoops and suddenly face sanctions.’’

>> Universal Credit

You need to apply online - www.gov.uk/universal-credit

You need: Your postcode, National Insurance Number, bak account, building society or credit union details; email address; details of the type of accommodation you live in; landlord’s name and address; how much you pay in rent; details of any rent-free weeks if you get them; how much you earn; information on any other income; details of any savings; details of any other benefits

>> CARF:

Visit their offices at New Volunteer House, 16 East Fergus Place, Kirkcaldy, KY1 1XT

CARF has a drop-in service for all advice needs. Appointments are not necessary.

Monday: 10.00 am - 4.00 pm; Tuesday 10.00 am - 1.00 pm & 1.30 pm - 4.30 pm; Thursday 1.00 pm - 4.00 pm; Friday: 10.00 am - 12.30 pm & 1.30 - 4.00 pm

For more information go here CARF

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