What’s the deal with Universal Credit?

Universal Credit has been rolled out across Haringey, but what does it mean for the people of Tottenham?

By Luchia Robinson

Paula Heffernan and Sylvia Long at Tottenham Job Centre

In light of what is the nation’s biggest reform to the benefits system, the staff at Tottenham Job Centre want to assure new claim- ants that they are here to assist them to make their claims and support them into employment.

By working closely with the Haringey Support Team and various other partners within the community, Paula Heffernan, Operations Manager for Haringey and Islington says that the Job Centre team are: “Trying to look at how we can support [people with] the upskilling to meet the demands of the jobs that will be there in the future. [Our partner] the Citizens Advice Bureau see all of our customers for budgeting and digital support, but also for any other queries that they may have.”

Universal Credit encourages people to get into work, supporting those who able to do so with continued payments. However, research finds that problems tend to arise during the initial period of making a claim and waiting for the first payment to come through, which can take a minimum of 5 weeks.

According to The Trussell Trust, in areas where Universal Credit has been in place for three months or less, the demand upon their food banks rises by 13%. This increases to a 52% rise in demand, on average, 12 months after rollout. The wait for the claimant’s first payment has been pinpointed as one of the main reasons for increased referrals to the food banks.

Paula said: “Everybody who claims Universal Credit will be offered the opportunity of an advanced payment and that’s usually within 5 days of making the claim. If we identify that somebody is vulnerable or may need an upfront payment to tide them over, then they can get up to 100% of what they would get at the end of the assessment period. They can have that upfront and then pay it back over a 12-month period.”

Regardless of this, research has found that people who have taken upfront payments have said the repayments are often unaffordable. 79% of people currently on Universal Credit have priority debts such as rent or council tax.

The team at Tottenham Job centre are clear that claimants should not fear the change.

“We are absolutely 100% commit- ted to making sure people get paid in full and on time, so that they can pay their rent, and that they can cope,” said Paula Heffernan.

“At the moment the system is still being designed, it’s still in a test and learn [stage]. It’s not a finished product and therefore it is going to be a slow rollout.”

Job Centre Plus, Tottenham High Road

The change to the benefits system may take some getting used to, for claimants and job centre staff alike. Sylvia Long, Work Services Manager at Tottenham Job Centre believes it’s important to have honest and open dialogue.

She said: “Sometimes what’s happening is that people are claiming, and they are hiding the fact that they’ve already got rent arrears. They don’t want other people to know and that will just compound things. If they’re honest with us and we have an engaged relationship, we can support people far better.”

Paula Heffernan added: “This isn’t about trying to prove anything, [it’s about] making this a much better journey for our customers because most of us have lived experience of being out of work or having circumstances [change]. I can give an absolute assurance that in Tottenham, we will do our best to put the customer at the heart of what we do.”

Universal Credit: In brief

By Kellie Dorrington, Citizens Advice Haringey

Universal Credit is a benefit replacing six other benefits. Initially, only those making a new claim or who have a change in circumstances will be expected to move onto Universal Credit.

Universal Credit includes a housing element to cover rent. However, some tenancies, such as temporary accommodation, still need to claim Housing Benefit separately.

You will wait at least 5 weeks for first payment, its paid monthly in arrears, so you may need to get help with budgeting – your local Job Centre can make a referral for help with budgeting with Citizens Advice Haringey.

You will need to claim at the local council for Council Tax reduction. Claims are online as standard, although if you have real difficulties, help can be given for you to make your claim.

Before making an application, claimants will need to have:

• an email address

• mobile number

• national insurance number

• bank or similar account details

• accommodation details and postcode

• details of savings

• income details

• details of childcare costs

• child benefit reference numbers

• photo ID (e.g. driving licence or passport)

• details of any other benefits

Claimants should be of working age, over 18 and under pension credit age and cannot be in full time education. Universal Credit is means tested, so claimants can’t have savings of over £16,000.