A desperate Universal Credit claimant said he would rather be in prison for Christmas – as he would be more likely to enjoy a festive meal there.
A mum from Leicester, who also relies on the social security payment, will be depending on her local food bank to supply her dinner this year.
And another woman from the same area, who recently lost her flat, admits she is likely to be sofa surfing over the festive period.
Leicester Live reports it has been six months since Universal Credit was rolled out to 20,000 people who claim the payment in the city.
The social security payment was brought in by the Government to replace six other benefits in a bid, it was claimed, to simplify the system.
The payment replaced housing benefit, income-related employment and support allowance (ESA), income-based jobseeker’s allowance (JSA), child tax credit, working tax credit and income support.
Whitehall said the change would make benefit payments operate more like a salary, and encourage people back into work.
But the benefit is paid monthly in arrears, leaving applicants waiting up to five weeks for the first payment to hit their accounts.
The delays cause some people get into debt, and then struggle to get back on top of things when the payments eventually start.
Leicester Live asked some of the people who claim it what they think of universal credit.
What is Universal Credit?
A single system replacing six benefits: Child and Working Tax Credits, Housing Benefits, Income Support, Jobseekers’ Allowance, and Employment and Support Allowance.
It was launched in 2013 as the pet project of Tory Iain Duncan Smith supposedly to make work pay.
Who claims it?
Low earners, those out of work and the sick or disabled. Already 610,000 people are on UC – 8% of benefit claimants.
It is being rolled out to individual Jobcentres including 52 in October 2017.
What are the problems?
Debt-ridden claimants must wait six weeks (five from early 2018) for their first payment, with 19% waiting longer than that and 4% waiting ten weeks in late 2017.
Research also suggests overall, UC leaves many working families worse off than the old system.
That is because payments taper away at 63p for every £1 claimants earn.
The timetable has also been put back nine times since 2013 after a string of glitches and will only be fully complete in late 2022.
‘I’d rather be in prison’
“Who here is on Universal Credit?” asks city councillor Sue Waddington. We are at a food bank in Beaumont Leys, Leicester, where she has been a ward councillor for many years.
An unenthusiastic moan spreads around a crowd of people waiting for the E2 Food Hub to open.
"What do you all think of it?" she asks. "Would anyone like to talk about their experiences?"
Some robust but unreportable comments are shouted out, before one man takes centre stage and starts talking about his situation.
"The only way I’ll get a Christmas dinner is if I go out and rob the stuff for it," he says.
A ripple of nervous laughter erupts before he explains the logic behind his plan.
"If I don’t get caught I’ve got the stuff to make one, and if I do get caught and put in prison I’ll get one there.
"I’d rather be in prison some days than living like this."
Nods of agreement spread around the precinct where people have gathered, waiting to pick up their weekly food supply.
"I’ve been there before and people might think I deserve to go back there talking like that," says the man, who is in his late 30s.
"But at least you got a meal in there, and it was warm.
"I don’t have either of those things now.
"When I was in prison I wanted to be out. I thought things would be better. But they’re not."
The man, who does not want to be named, says he cannot make his universal credit payment stretch far enough to buy food.
He said: "If I don’t pay my gas, electric, rent or loans and other bills, then someone turns up knocking on the door demanding money. I’m in trouble then.
"If I don’t buy food I’m hungry, but I’m not in debt, so no one comes knocking."
He says he receives £301 a month.
Before switching to Universal Credit he received several different benefits amounting, he says, to much more.
"Fifty four pound is deducted by the tax man straight off. That’s from money they say I owe from when I was on the wrong tax code when I was working.
"If I was working now and only earning this much, I wouldn’t be being charged tax. It doesn’t make sense.
"When you only start off with £300, to take £50 away is a big chunk.
"By the time I’ve paid my bills and loans off, some towards my rent and then bus fare, there’s nothing left."
The man’s rent is subsidised, so he only pays a relatively small amount towards it.
Speaking of his attendance at the food bank, the man says: "I don’t want to be seen here, but I need food, so I have to come.
"I want to be able to provide for myself, but I don’t have enough money to do that.
"I’ve worked before. I’m not working at the moment, but I did work."
He adds: "The main thing for me is rent now. That used to be taken care of and paid straight to the landlord. Now I have to sort that.
"My rent’s gone up. I’m already paying more now than I was before and I’m getting less. It doesn’t add up but I’ve got no choice. I need to live somewhere."
‘I can’t buy anyone a present and there’ll be no one buying me one’
A woman at the food bank who is initially reluctant to tell her story admits she is sofa surfing.
She says: “I’ve got nowhere to live. I lost my flat a while ago and haven’t been able to get another one sorted."
Describing her situation with humbling stoicism, she says: “It’s alright.
“I’ve got a few mates that are OK with me staying at their places. I get a shower and some food.
“I’ve not had to sleep rough yet, but I suppose that could change if anyone says to me that they don’t want me staying there any more.
“I don’t get much [Universal Credit] and what I do get I use to get around on buses, and I give some to whoever’s house it is I’m staying at.”
The woman, who is in her mid-30s, did not want to say how much her monthly payment is.
When it comes to Christmas, the woman says she does not have much – relative to other people – to look forward to.
"One of my friends and his partner have said I can go there," she says. "I’ve given him a fiver towards Christmas dinner.
"I can’t buy anyone a present and there’ll be no one buying me a present.
"I’m just glad that I’ve got somewhere to go.
"It will be just like another day really, but I don’t fancy just kicking about in town on my own.”
The woman says she is at the food bank to fill her rucksack up for the week ahead.
"I don’t like to turn up places empty handed," she says. "At least coming here I can get enough food to feed myself so my mates don’t have to do that as well.
"I always try and give a bit of money to whoever’s house I’m at for water and electric."
‘People are struggling’
Councillor Waddington says the number of people seeking help at her weekly ward surgeries has increased since the Universal Credit roll-out.
She holds the drop-in sessions at the same time as the food bank opening hours, so that people can come and talk to her if they need to.
"It’s been six months now since the roll-out, and people are still coming to me with the same problems," she says.
"People are struggling when changing over from one system to the next and it means they’re having to go without any payments.
"We asked for the roll-out to be paused for that reason, but it still went ahead.
"Because of the delays, people are getting into debt and not being able to get out of it even when the payments do start.
"Some are offered a loan that they have the option of paying back when their Universal Credit is up and running, but most rather go without.
"They know they won’t receive a lot and don’t want to commit to paying out when they do eventually get it sorted.
"That means that issues with Universal Credit are leading to issues in other areas too.
"The number of people coming to the food bank is up, and they’re coming for longer as well.
"There are also issues around budgeting and managing money. A lot of these people are being asked to pay their rent themselves, when before their housing benefit was paid directly to the council or their landlord.
"We are helping people as much as we can, and one of the ways we are doing that is providing the food bank service."
Staff do not turn people away
People who visit the food bank pick up a basket at the door and fill it up from the shelves, as they would do in a shop.
When they have collected their food for the week – there are no limits on what they can have – they head over to the desk where it is recorded and packed.
When a resident has visited the food bank six times in a row, staff there start talking to them about training and job opportunities, and about help and support available if there are longer term underlying issues.
Staff do not turn people away, but say it is important to show people that there are ways they can change their situation.
There are also support workers based at the centre so that those accessing the food bank can drop in for help to apply for benefits or track their applications.
‘It’s nice to see her looking happy’
“The kids love these,” says one woman, also a Universal Credit claimant, as she is packing snack bars into her shopping trolley.
“They’ll be gone as soon as I get back.”
Asked about how the food bank has helped her, she says: “If it wasn’t for this place my family wouldn’t have eaten properly for the past couple of weeks. We just can’t afford it.”
As she wheels her shopping trolley out of the store, Coun Waddington says she has recently helped the woman with a housing issue, and with help for one of her sons who has behavioural problems.
“It’s nice to see her looking happy," says Coun Waddington. "She’s had a tough few weeks.
"This food bank does make a big difference to people. It’s one less worry for them.”
What the department for Work and Pensions says
A Department for Work and Pensions spokeswoman said: “The reasons for people using food banks are complex.
“Universal Credit is a force for good for the vast majority. We are listening to people’s concerns and investing a £4.5 billion boost to the system.
“We continue to make changes where needed. This includes offering 100 per cent advance payments from day one, and paying two weeks of extra housing support for people moving onto Universal Credit from housing benefit.”
The "advance payments" the DWP refers to in its comment are called Universal Credit Advances.
They are available for ‘eligible’ claimants only, and are applied for by claimants via their online Universal Credit account, according to the Government website.
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