Wales On Sunday
UNIVERSAL NIGHTMARE FOR THOSE LEFT IN NEED OF LIFELINE
“THERE were plenty of times [since 2020] where I’d have to go to a food bank and I felt like my options were running out. I had suicidal thoughts because I felt like there was no way out.”
These are the words of Lauren Daw, a first-year student from Cardiff who said her life had become a nightmare as she sought support through the Universal Credit (UC) system.
The 22-year-old said she had tried claiming UC since she started her degree as she was out of work due to mental health and struggling to make ends meet. However, she said she was still yet to receive a payment as she battled with “loopholes” within the system that she claimed prevented her from getting the money she is told she is eligible for.
Lauren said: “My mental health means I suffer with depression, anxiety and OCD which meant I wasn’t able to work, I would always end up having a relapse and then being on the sick,” she said. “I was rejected for UC when I first joined university and was on low student finance which I only got every few months.
“Then, during [the pandemic] my partner lost his job and my student finance adviser told me we could apply for it together.”
But, Lauren said, it didn’t feel as simple for them as signing up and getting the support they so desperately needed.
She explained: “I needed to contact the landlord for proof we lived together and that was hard because she’s away at the moment and doesn’t have much service. We’re still not sure what the situation is with it. We’re on it as far as we can log in online, but there are no payments coming in, despite being told we’re entitled to a certain amount.
“We got an advance out between us [to help with those struggling financially before the first UC payment comes in], which we have to pay back each month, but we haven’t had any payments. And I can’t work at the moment to pay it back that way.”
She said the situation had exacerbated her poor mental health and had contributed to her going back on anti-depressants.
“It just makes me feel so low,” she said. “My friends, family and GP have been amazing helping me, but the situation has made me so depressed. I can’t afford to get things for university and I’ve had to go hungry. My friend has been amazing and really helped us with food recently, but there have been times where I’ve hardly eaten proper food for two weeks at a time.”
UC was introduced in 2013 in an attempt to simplify the welfare system by bringing six means-tested benefits and tax credits into a single monthly payment.
Many people have praised the system, claiming the amount they receive serves as a vital lifeline, allowing them to support themselves and their families. However, the system has also been criticised in recent years, with some people calling it confusing and, in some cases, claiming it has left them worse off than they were on the previous system.
And with the coronavirus pandemic hitting the economy hard, many more people have had to turn to UC to support their families, some seeking support for the first time ever.
Figures showed there were 4.9 million households on UC in November, 2020. That was up by 2.2 million since March. More than a third (37.5%) are families with children.
Mum-of-two Lisa Jones, from Newtown in Mid Wales, claimed last month she was left with just 43p with eight days to go before her next payment. The 39-year-old said she had been working since she left school and started to claim UC when she was made redundant from her store manager job in August 2020. She said the contrast in her life made her feel “scared” and “worthless”.
“I’ve been on the edge a lot this year. I’m a single mum of a sevenyear-old and an 11-year-old and the last 12 months have been horrendous. Stuck at home trying to home school and not being able to get a job, it makes you feel worthless. You exist rather than live.”
University student Tiffany Player started claiming UC during lockdown after she and her housemate had been out of work for months. The 29-year-old, who lives in Cardiff Bay, claimed the inconsistencies in their payments had left them being unable to pay rent on a number of occasions.
When Wales on Sunday approached the DWP for a response, we were told they would not comment on individual cases unless given extensive personal details for each person included, along with consent from them for their case to be discussed. As we were speaking to so many people, many of whom did not want to be identified, this was not possible, but we did put the general concerns and issues they raised to the DWP.
A spokeswoman said: “(You) haven’t given us the information to be able to look into the cases they highlight to see if we could offer further help.
“UC has delivered during the pandemic, providing a safety net for six million people. More than 90% of claims are made correctly and on time, and nobody has to wait for money as advance payments are available from the start.”