What we learnt about life on benefits in Coventry
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What we learnt about life on benefits in Coventry

Six months ago a controversial new benefits system was rolled out across Coventry. We took a look at how families have been coping on Universal Credit.

Families across Coventry are facing Christmas Day hungry, homeless and on the edge.

Universal Credit is being rolled out across the country, and it’s claimed it is leaving a trail of poverty as it goes.

With a minimum of five weeks before an initial payment and a system prone to errors and delays, the controversial new benefit has received criticism from numerous politicians and charities as well as the very people left struggling on it.

Claimants in Coventry have told us heart-wrenching stories of their life on benefits including one from a man who was evicted after a rent payment error and another from a woman who has been left with so little to live on she won’t be able to see her children this Christmas.

This is the devastating reality for families suffering as a result of a system which has been slated for lacking compassion and funding, for being overly complex and user-unfriendly and plagued with issues since its conception.

You can read our Universal Credit live blog here.

What is Universal Credit and why is it so controversial?

Universal Credit replaces six legacy benefits – income support, income-based jobseeker’s allowance, income-related employment and support allowance, housing benefit, child tax credit and working tax credit – and rolls them into one monthly payment.

Watch below: What is Universal Credit?

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In July this year the new system was introduced for all new claimants in Coventry, and anyone already claiming benefits that had a change in their circumstances.

Claimants are told to wait five weeks before their first payment but many are left without payment for much longer due to administration errors or verification issues.

This leaves many families struggling with rent payments and turning to food banks.

Robert’s story: Evicted and forced to leave my city

Robert* is schizophrenic. Having previously claimed Employment and Support Allowance, he had to apply for Universal Credit when he moved in with his partner and their son.

He was told his rent would be paid directly to his landlord, due to his disability – “I was happy that was something I didn’t have to worry about,” he said.

Robert and his partner were invited to a budgeting appointment but, with no confirmation of how much they would actually be receiving, it proved to be useless.

“When the payment did finally arrive, we quickly realised that it’s almost impossible to stretch the money for more than a couple of weeks, but believing rent was being paid directly we made do the best we could with help from our local food bank,” he said.

Robert eventually found out that only one rent payment had ever made it to the landlord. He hadn’t been able to check his Universal Credit account because he had sold his computer to put food on the table.

Robert and his family were evicted.

He is now being looked after by Emmaus, in Sheffield. He has stopped claiming Universal Credit and lives in temporary accommodation. His partner and son are living in Derby.

“It’s not ideal,” Robert said. “But the charity is very generous – they provide my meals, clothing, heating, every basic need is taken care of here.

“But I have had to leave my city in order to get help.”

The government has been accused of under-funding the system, which can leave families with much less than they would get on legacy benefits.

In May this year, The Guardian reported that one in five Universal Credit applicants were being turned down for the benefit for failing to comply with the application process, which is all done online.

Services stretched

In Coventry, the introduction of Universal Credit has had a worrying impact.

Last month, Coventry Foodbank saw a huge surge in users claiming they couldn’t afford food due to changes with their benefits.

Hugh McNeil, project manager, told CoventryLive: “There are so many other people who are struggling financially, but we are finding that the biggest majority at the moment are coming to us because of Universal Credit.

“It seems that every second person we talk to has come here because of the change, so obviously we are concerned.

“Last year we saw a 30 per cent rise in usage and this year we are expecting to see that creeping up again. It’s a real worry.”

Lucy’s story: Penniless until Christmas Eve

Lucy* is 36 and suffers from a borderline personality disorder and severe anxiety.

She told CoventryLive that until July of this year, she had been homeless. Upon getting housing she signed up for Universal Credit and was told that her fortnightly ESA payment of £346 inc a severe disability premium would be replaced by a monthly Universal Credit payment of £215 with no child tax credits for her son, who lives with his gran.

After asking since August, she was eventually granted fortnightly payments from November 24.

“I spent the amount I was given believing it was my fortnightly pay and expected the other half fourteen days later but it hadn’t been set up properly and now I have been left penniless until December 24.”

Lucy says she has since had to “run around getting sick notes”, which is a hard task for her. “Going out my front door at times is too scary for me when I’m having a bad day,” she said.

Lucy says “systematic errors” and “false information” have caused her misery and she has had to pawn her TV for cash and has received letters from bailiffs demanding payment.

“I live in fear and dread waking up,” she said.

Lucy is unable to work as she is undergoing behavioural therapy.

“Thoughts of suicide have increased but are usually met by comments of ‘learn to budget’, or I have to prove my illness as if it is akin to a viral infection,” she said.

“It makes my day to day living extremely difficult to bear.”

Lucy says some days she can’t even get out of bed, let alone visit a foodbank or the local authority. Her 79-year-old mum often has to help her out with money.

“I truly cannot continue in this hellish existence. I often have to miss therapy or my appointments because I can’t afford to get a bus or a taxi – the severe disability premium I was getting before was to assist me getting to my essential therapies.”

“I truly feel that I have been mistreated and left to rot.”

Coventry Citizens Advice has also seen an alarming rise in the number of people seeking help because of the changeover to Universal Credit.

Many claimants are struggling with how to budget a monthly payment and some lack the IT knowledge needed to use the online system.

An 18-year-old starting work today will earn £1m before they hit 50

Seemingly minor problems can cause a huge amount of stress for claimants, and even slight delays can push people further into poverty.

Chief executive Kate Algate said: “We are not only seeing an exponential rise in UC enquiries through our services we are also seeing a parallel rise in related issues such as multiple debt, homelessness and food poverty.”

Concerning numbers

City councillor Ed Ruane, cabinet member for housing and communities, has branded the new system a “vehicle for cuts”.

He said almost a third of new claims are never actually completed due to the system’s complex application process, and almost half of claimants cannot get through the process without seeking assistance.

Those who are successful only have an 80 per cent chance of being paid on time, according to DWP figures – leaving one in five people waiting more than five weeks to be paid.

Helen’s story: Universal Credit lacks the compassion needed to judge everyone’s situation

Helen* says the change to the new system has been good for her.

She told CoventryLive she left school with two Ds and went on to do odd jobs like bar and restaurant work. After becoming pregnant and having to leave her partner, she began claiming income support.

“Time passed, and I had another child thinking things would be different this time,” she said. “But the child’s father disappeared. By this time I had been claiming benefits for seven years, no job, no ambition and no success in life.

“I was falling deeper and deeper in debt, still claiming benefits.”

Helen decided she wanted to go back to school, so she could get a job that would support her family, but she was unsuccessful – “maybe because my ambition in life had been crushed,” she said.

After a total of 10 years on benefits, and with two children, Helen then moved to Tile Hill, where she spotted advertisements in the local library for free adult education classes.

After joining up, she eventually made it to college and got herself a diploma in health and social care.

After 13 years on benefits, Universal Credit was being introduced, which would replace the Jobseekers allowance she was receiving.

Helen knew the benefits change was coming to Coventry, so tried harder and harder to find work.

“I put myself onto Universal Credit in the hope of learning how to manage my finances before I got a job,” she said. Within two months of claiming the new benefit, Helen had found a job that suited her family.

“I feel Universal Credit was a good thing for me,” Helen said.

“I had built myself up thanks to other services, such as adult education, my local library and Sure Start, but many people wouldn’t know where to start, or don’t have the mental energy to even care.”

Speaking about the monthly payments Helen admitted that she thinks some would struggle with money management.

“I feel paying certain people’s rent for a few months would be a better option instead of getting everything in one, it’s way too much to deal with,” she said.

“I think Universal Credit is a great idea yet it lacks the heart or compassion that’s needed to judge everyone’s situation.”

Coventry South MP Jim Cunningham has blasted the government for under-funding the system.

In the autumn budget more than £1 billion was set aside over five years to fund top-up payments from those who have been moved onto Universal Credit from other benefits.

Jim Cunningham MP said the top-up would make a difference “but not much to those losing out”.

“Some 3.2 million families will lose £48 a week on average; the new funding means an extra £1.20 a week,” he said.

“Higher work allowances reduce losses for some, but the Government must fund universal credit properly or abandon it.”

Watch below: Amber Rudd hails Universal Credit as a force for good

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Readers have been reacting to our look at Universal Credit throughout the week.

Many have shared their own stories of the transition from legacy benefits to Universal Credit and others have voiced their anxieties over making the change in the future.

Rachel on Twitter said: “I’m absolutely terrified that when my redundancy notice finishes I may be forced to apply.

“The application process alone is enough to make me ill, forget about the unrealistic expectations placed on the applicant.”

Lisa Bazeley said: “I’m about to go on it in January and I’m so confused by it all. I have no idea when to apply and how much I will get. I’m just so worried about ending up in more debt when I’m trying so hard to get out of it.”

Beverley Steel told us she waited 10 months for her first payment. “It took from January to November with not a single penny,” she said. “I almost lost my home and sanity.”

Dawn’s story: I cant afford to see my kids or even buy them a Christmas card

Dawn*, a 44-year-old from Coventry, explained how she has been coping on the new benefit.

Dawn suffers from emotionally unstable personality disorder and anxiety and her struggles with her mental health have resulted in her kids going into care.

She told CoventryLive: “I have struggled for the last year but it is worse now I’m on UC.”

Dawn says she has been told she will receive £508 a month on Universal Credit, which includes her housing benefit, but the additional cost of the bedroom tax has left her with just £79 a month to live on.

The risk of losing her house, and therefore not being able to have her children come home, has affected her mental health even further and Dawn says she has had suicidal thoughts as a result.

Dawn told CoventryLive: “At the minute, I have even stopped contact with my kids, which is killing me but I can’t afford to see them or buy them anything for Christmas, not even a card.

“I spend most of my time locked away in my house. I’m too ill to work.

“I’ve started using food banks and spend most days without gas as I have to focus on electricity.”

Dawn’s mental health has suffered as a result of the transition to Universal Credit, and she is one of many falling further into poverty under the new system.

She said: “I’m lucky I have people that care about me but because of my personality disorder I find it hard to understand that if they weren’t in my life I would not be here.

“I believe the government has no care. I’m very close to giving up.”

When Universal Credit was first introduced, Ian Duncan Smith described it as a way to ‘make work pay’, but Sherrie Edgar disagrees that it encourages those on it to work.

She said: “It’s a taper earning system to keep me earning low wages. It’s not good for the gig economy as I can’t take on extra causal work.

“Every £1 I earn, 63p of Universal Credit is taken away from me, I can not earn more than £995 a month. My rent is £600.

“It’s pushing me into poverty, even my child could get free school meals now, why is DWP making me rely on hand outs?”

Seek help

Despite these concerns, Coventry is lucky to have a number of charities and organisations working to make the lives of those in need a little bit easier.

Hugh McNeill, project manager of Coventry Foodbank, has thanked the people of Coventry for being so generous with donations, and Universal Credit claimants have been supplied with Christmas hampers, toiletries, clothing and more by volunteers from the Coventry Comfort Carers.

Project manager Hugh McNeill and warehouse manager Mitch Brooke

Citizens Advice suggests that anyone struggling with their benefits should seek help.

Kate Algate said: “Universal Credit is not like any other benefit. It presents challenges to claimants whom have not faced before and many are finding it difficult to cope with.

“The primary material consequences of failed applications, delayed payments or unsustainable deductions from benefits for debt repayments have been threatened or actual homelessness, food poverty and multiple debt.

“Impact on physical and mental health for adults and their dependants can also be added to the list of consequences.”

“However, there is advice support out there to help applicants and claimants whatever their issues. A multi-agency forum – the welfare reform working together group – is constantly reviewing how key stakeholders can work together to identify and address emerging issues around UC.

“We strongly encourage anyone who is facing problems while in receipt of UC, or transitioning into UC, to research their rights and responsibilities under UC and seek help and support before they reach crisis point.”

*Names have been changed

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