'Breaking point' - How Universal Credit is affecting people in Sheffield
The letter landed and on masthead paper complete with the signature of work and pensions secretary Amber Rudd to boot.
It was an invitation to visit one of Sheffield’s Jobcentres following the rollout of Universal Credit in the city.
Ms Rudd stated that it was The Star’s chance to give readers ‘a broad look into how the benefit is working in practice’ and that she ‘passionately believed that UC was a force for good’.
The invite was followed up with a number of calls by Ms Rudd’s team so we arranged a visit to the West Street site.
Universal Credit was brought in with the aim of saving money and simplifying the welfare system by replacing six benefits for unemployed people or those on low incomes with one monthly payment.
But it has faced repeated criticism for leaving claimants worse off than under legacy benefits and for an error-prone system that can drive some to the brink of destitution.
Ms Rudd’s invite and the visit were welcome but the reality of this benefit is far from anything we were told during our visit.
Yes, there are examples where the system has been beneficial to claimants, such as Julie Elwell’s story who said she’d had ‘no problem’ transferring onto UC from carer’s allowance as she sat and waited for an appointment.
But the very fact that the Department for Work and Pensions took out an advertising wrap in the national newspaper Metro, which according to leaked memos, it wanted to look like a piece of ‘investigative journalism’ tells its own story.
And less than five miles away from the West Street Jobcentre, a food bank in Parson Cross says it’s nearing ‘breaking point’ following a surge in demand since the universal credit roll out began.
The project operates through voluntary donations, of both food and money.
But Nick Waterfield, who helps run the Parson Cross Initiative Food Bank said they have had to part-fund themselves to keep shelves stocked.
He said before UC was introduced, the spend from September to December, 2018, was an average of £379 per month.
Following the new system roll out, from March to June this year, they spent an average of £652.
Mr Waterfield said: “It’s not sustainable and it feels like nobody is listening to how people on the streets are affected. The powers-that-be seem obsessed with flagship issues such as Brexit while the plight of ordinary people who can’t buy a tin of beans goes unnoticed.
“I spoke to a woman who had worked for the NHS for 40 years then retired due to ill health. She isn’t able to support herself. People want to be independent but there are all kinds of reasons why they struggle.
“Currently even people in full time work can find it hard to manage.
“It puts it into perspective when I say that in the whole of 2011 we had 88 people needing support. Now it’s 150 a week.
“We are near breaking point.”
It’s not just Parson Cross where Sheffielders are feeling the effects of UC.
The DWP’s own figures have revealed that claimants of UC in the city have been sanctioned more than 1,500 times since 2015.
The new benefit was first rolled out in Sheffield in August 2015 and as of May 2019, a total of 11,090 people in the city received it.
Sanctions can be imposed for up to three years if claimants fail to meet DWP conditions, such as being late to a Jobcentre meeting, failing to attend a training course or turning down a job offer.
In Sheffield, sanctions reached a peak in March 2018 when 363 people – 15 per cent of sanctionable Universal Credit claimants – had their payments reduced in a single month.
In Louise Haigh’s Sheffield Heeley constituency, the figure for that month was a staggering 18 per cent – three times higher than the corresponding national figure of 6 per cent.
Ms Haigh said: “As soon as UC started to roll out I was receiving complaints from constituents that they had received sanctions and they were’t getting their money, were being forced to foodbanks and pushed into debt.
“The Government has tweaked the system but it’s still got the risk of pushing people into debt and as it rolled out further, the number of complaints I received increased.”
Ms Haigh said food banks had also reported an increase in demand since UC was introduced.
She added: “It has faults built into the system – the delay at the beginning before anyone receives their money means automatically they are pushed into debt.
“The 35-hour job search every week is just, in the vast majority of cases, completely unnecessary and force people to undertake tasks for the sake of it.
“It has these sanctions and measures built into it that are deliberately designed to hurt people.”
Speaking on our visit, Nigel Coleman, of Jobcentre Plus, said the second phase of UC – moving over three million people on ‘legacy benefits’ - is being trialled in Harrogate, North Yorkshire.
He said: “The key thing with Universal Credit is the Government is able to learn from it. So if they identify a problem they will change it around.
“I think they have learnt some lessons as they have gone along and have realised that some things haven’t worked how they hoped they would.
“They’re aware that it’s going to be quite frightening for some people who have not had any contact with us but, equally, they are missing out on so much help that's available.”
We thank Ms Rudd for her invite, which clearly stated ‘it is only right that the work of my department is reported on and scrutinised’ and that it would give readers a look ‘into how the benefit is working in practice’.
We also thank the DWP staff – Mr Coleman and Jillian Goodison, deputy manager at the centre – for hosting us but Ms Rudd asked us to report on her department’s work and scrutinise it. This is the situation it has created in our city.