August 3, 2017 : David McNeill

I’ve lost my job and found myself on Universal Credit

Through a series of unfortunate events, I’ve found myself suddenly unemployed.
I don’t have any savings and I’ve built up some credit card debt. This was manageable when I had a job, but now I’m worried how I’m going to be able to pay the bills.
I’m a single parent and determined that this situation shouldn’t affect my daughter.

This was the scenario that was in my head as I went through the Universal Credit full service application process last week. We had arranged a demonstration as part of our work to tackle digital exclusion. We wanted to better understand the new fully online benefits system and explore the implications for claimants without basic digital skills.

By way of background, Universal Credit rolls six existing benefits (housing benefit, income support, jobseekers allowance, employment and support allowance, child tax credits and working tax credits) into one to “simplify the system and ensure people are better off in work”. The ‘full service’ is going through a staged roll-out, with Glasgow being the final area in Scotland to make the transition in September 2018. 

Applying online

Claimants are expected to apply for Universal Credit online, although there are vague promises of assistance or the option of paid-for telephone applications for those who are not able to go online.

If you’ve used any of the new GOV.UK digital services, such as checking your driving license details to hire a car, you’d instantly be familiar with the look and feel of the Universal Credit application form.

The Government Digital Service have assessed the complexity of the online application process, giving it a rating of 7 out of 9 (with 9 being the most complex). This means that users must have basic digital skills in order to use the system effectively.

Screenshot of Universal Credit applicationWe know 79% of people in Scotland have basic digital skills and will be comfortable with creating an account, clicking buttons, choosing from drop-down menus and entering text. The site is well-designed for smartphones, although given the process takes 30-40 minutes on a computer, it may take longer and not be particularly comfortable on the fingers! The most complex task for a regular user will be copying and pasting activation codes between an email and the website.

However, while these tasks may seem simple to those who use the internet regularly, we know one-in-five people are likely to experience difficulties as they do not have basic digital skills. These people are more likely to be older, on low-incomes and/or have a disability; people who are more likely to need to apply for Universal Credit in the first place. Many don’t have an email address – and that’s the first requirement of the application process.

In addition to the lack of email addresses, Citizens Advice Bureaux, where full service Universal Credit has been in operation over the past year, have reported that people not having a bank account, or identification to open an account, have also been significant issues their staff and volunteers have had to support people with.

Coping with uncertainty

I have an email address, bank account and identification so successfully completed my Universal Credit application on 26th July. However, I was shocked to find that I would expect to receive my first payment around the 8th of September. How much would I get? I don’t know. I would find out in September, because my circumstances might change during that time or the new ‘real time’ PAYE tax system would report some unexpected income.

In my simple scenario, I was left wondering about how I would manage for six weeks with existing commitments, no income and uncertainty about what financial support I would be receiving.

I can therefore understand the reasons why Citizens Advice Scotland are calling to halt the Universal Credit roll out, given the reported increase in rent arrears and crisis grants issued.

Want to explore these issues further?

Further reading

  • To see what the Universal Credit full service application process is like, DWP have prepared a video walk through of the online application process.
  • For more information on how to navigate Universal Credit, check out Citizen’s Advice Scotland detailed guide.
  • Read the feedback received by the Scottish Parliament Social Security Committee from claimants in Musselburgh, the first area to have trialled Universal Credit in Scotland.
Important: Opinions expressed by bloggers are their own and don't represent those of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations.

by David McNeill