Since the coalition government unveiled plans to introduce universal credit in 2010, the scheme has attracted widespread criticism. Announced by Iain Duncan Smith and implemented by the Conservative Party, the aim was to simplify the UK's complex welfare system by merging six benefits (including jobseeker's allowance, housing and child benefit) into one payment. But over the course of the decade, five-week delays and automatic sanctions have left many vulnerable people destitute, and have even been blamed for one man's death.
Jobcentres have been inundated with an unprecedented number of jobseekers who rely on benefits to survive as austerity pushes the UK's poorest households further into debt. Many people have turned to food banks to feed themselves and their families, while others are drowning in debt as their benefits don't cover the cost of living. It is now estimated that a staggering seven million people will rely on universal credit by 2023.
This is the subject of a harrowing three-part BBC documentary series which puts universal credit under a magnifying glass. Universal Credit: Inside The Welfare State focuses on Jobcentres in Peckham, Toxteth and Bolton. As well as senior civil servants and MPs, we hear from those directly affected by the most controversial change to the benefits system in a generation. Some of the most powerful stories involve women dealing with mental health issues, redundancy, raising their children alone and working under temporary contracts, all while adapting to universal credit. The documentary also revealed that the full rollout of universal credit, which was meant to be fully live by April 2017, is being delayed again and will be pushed back to September 2024.
The first episode follows Rachel as she works closely with her work coach to sort out her universal credit payments and ensure she has enough money to cover her outgoings. The 48-year-old single mother, who worked for the NHS for 27 years before leaving to care for her sick mother, is now unable to work due to anxiety and depression. She's struggling to navigate the new benefits system. "It's just all new to me. I've worked for 27 years and feel like I'm out of my comfort zone," she tells the BBC, fighting back tears.
On the old system, Rachel received fortnightly payments of income support, child tax and housing benefit but since switching over to universal credit, has had to wait five weeks for her first payment. To keep up with her bills and rent, she's had to apply for the universal credit advance, which she has been living on since. "They gave me the full amount – it was about £1,300 I think. So I've got to pay that back," she says. "So I'm kind of dreading opening up that message on the 29th in case I get a bit of a shock."
After I paid all my bills, I was left with £138 for the month. Two children. Both need more school uniform, but it's beyond not easy. It's beyond that.
When she receives the notification of the amount of universal credit she will receive and realises how much money she'll be left with after her bills, rent and loan is repaid, she breaks down. "After I paid all my bills, I was left with £138 for the month. Two children. Both need more school uniform, but it's beyond not easy. It's beyond that."
She adds: "It would be great to get a job in a school, but obviously not when I am suffering from depression. I am trying to get my happy back."
Karen works full-time at the Jobcentre, stacking shelves at her local supermarket after her eight-hour shift is over. A second job is necessary for her to get by in London on a low wage. She works tirelessly to support universal credit claimants but is frustrated because she believes many Jobcentre staff face the same difficulties. "You just feel like you're not doing enough, you just feel like you're pushing against the tide," she says. "I pay my bills and that's it, I can't do anything else. Even the cost of food is so expensive. Come the end of the month, I'm eating beans on toast to get me to the next payday. It's not unusual. You see it at the Jobcentre, towards the end of the month, a lot of people don't have any money for lunch. We are living from paycheque to paycheque."
Come the end of the month, I'm eating beans on toast to get me to the next payday. It's not unusual. You see it at the Jobcentre, towards the end of the month, a lot of people don't have any money for lunch.
Amber Rudd, the former secretary of state for work and pensions (the sixth person to hold the position since universal credit's rollout), said in an interview with the BBC: "I think having experienced [universal credit] on the ground, speaking to work coaches and claimants, that it is a force for good. And I'm determined to try and change people's views on it and at the same time, make some changes to it so I can actually demonstrate our commitment to make sure it's working for people." One of the women featured in the documentary says of Rudd: "People making the decisions haven't got a clue about reality."
The episode also follows Declan, who is seen collecting his food bank voucher and groceries. "It's embarrassing," he says, as he waits to collect his food. "It's like begging." He admits that when the food runs out, he has no option but to steal. "I'll have to go and nick it. If I have no choice, I'll have to go and nick it. So, there's nothing I can do about it, is there?"
Universal Credit: Inside The Welfare State airs at 9pm on 4th February on BBC Two.