How Universal Credit failed a nurse with cancer caring for terminally ill husband
I’m sure we have all had times when we have been proved right in an argument and really wished we hadn’t been. This week was one of those moments for me.
It’s not a party political argument. For me, this is an issue of responding to genuine need in a caring society. Surely that is something we all hold dear?
The Westminster government has been warned time and again that the roll-out of Universal Credit isn’t working. My constituent’s problem has proved it.
And this heart-breaking crisis faced by one family epitomises, for me, where we are going wrong.
This is a family who have worked hard until serious illness meant they needed support. They needed the system, which it’s often claimed gives out money too easily and too often, to provide help through the sort of crisis that can affect any of us.
It failed. And it failed on a fundamental principle of the welfare state. To get help to those who need it when they need it.
All the arguments myself – and others – have made for pausing and fixing the controversial roll-out of the new system of Universal Credit became a reality.
Time and time again over the past year, the government has been asked to pause the roll-out and fix Universal Credit. Not stop. Pause. Not abandon. Just fix a system whose original intention of simplifying benefits and helping people into work is widely welcomed.
If we want to make sure that help gets to the people that need it, when they need it, the system – whatever it is – has to be fit for purpose
But Mrs May hasn’t been listening. Each time the issue has been raised the Conservative government has refused. Each time they have outlined why they believe that it is working. And each time they’ve continued in their relentless pursuit of their single benefits goal.
And, for one of my constituents, the reality of that botched roll-out has meant a heart-breaking, stressful and utterly needless period of emotional and economic torture at the hands of the Department of Work and Pensions.
That may sound harsh, and possibly a little dramatic, but when you read the circumstances I think you’ll understand why I am so angry.
A few weeks ago, I was visited by a constituent who was struggling with a benefits system which told her to apply for Universal Credit, then inundated her with a barrage of contradictory letters and information about what she was due, and that she wasn’t due it.
Maybe she shouldn’t apply for Universal Credit? It’s not available in Edinburgh yet. No, she should because it is available in some post codes.
But is it available in her post code? The answer to those questions depended on which part of the Department of Work and Pensions was writing.
This is an intelligent woman who has worked hard for herself and her family. She was a nurse. But, in the recent past, she has had to give up work.
She is currently dealing with the fact that her husband and father of her two children has an incurable brain tumour. At the same time, she has been undergoing treatment for breast cancer.
She has two children to look after and has to keep a roof over their heads, but the system couldn’t sort out what she should be paid or how. So it left her to fend for herself.
When I got involved, it seemed as if two government departments were just passing it back and forward, wasting valuable time arguing between themselves about who was responsible. Eventually, after several letters and phone calls, we were able to get to someone who is going to sort it out.
I’m sure, in fact I know, that my constituent is not the only one who is struggling to fight their way through this morass.
Figures released to parliament showed that in areas of the East and South East of Scotland, where Universal Credit has been rolled out, there had been 274 complaints by October of last year. Many of those focus on issues such as people having to wait two, sometimes three months for initial payments – while rent arrears build up and stress increases, often for people already in stressful situations – and the lack of any clear understanding of the problems created for those depending on the benefit.
My constituent’s case also clearly illustrates that the authorities themselves are not yet on top of it. It was a government department’s genuine, but incorrect, advice which created the problem which, once it became mired in changing and unclear legislation and regulations, grew like Topsy.
I know the original intention of Universal Credit was to simplify the system, make it easier for those in genuine need to get the support they deserve, and help them get back into work. I applaud that motive.
But that isn’t what is happening. Too many of the people it was designed to help are being let down by it.
Before writing this, I spoke to my constituent about whether she was happy for me to discuss her case. “Please do,” she told me, “I wouldn’t want anyone else to have to go through what I’ve been through these past few weeks.” Neither do I.
Are you listening, Mrs May?