Trigger warning: domestic violence, suicide
In October 2021, our Changemakers group was invited to provide evidence to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Universal Credit. This was a valuable opportunity for members of the group to directly speak to policymakers – not only on the issues they face, but to share their recommendations for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) on solutions that work.
Here are excerpts from their statements:
We want to be able to be out there, hold our heads up high, give back to society. We have first-hand experience, we know what it’s like so we can show that empathy and we can be that positivity for others.
I’m telling my story because it has affected my life and my children. I had to flee horrific domestic violence. After a very extensive court hearing, the court ruled that my children should live with our abuser. That was soul-destroying to the entire family.
At the time, I was on a number of benefits. I couldn’t have a job whilst I was living in domestic violence refuges. Within weeks of my children going to live with their father, I was being evicted. I was waiting for my next payment from income support and was told I had to make a new claim for Universal Credit. But Universal Credit said I couldn’t make a claim because I was homeless.
I was living in my car. My mental health seriously deteriorated and I was genuinely suicidal. I was homeless, I’ve lost my children, and I’ve lost my income within months. I’m not sure how you’re meant to cope with that. Anybody I went to couldn’t help me. I was getting harassed by the police so much because I was living in my car and I ended up in prison for 12 weeks. I never thought I’d end up in prison.
All it takes is for some people to have some empathy and compassion and humanity towards people in this situation. I dream of a day when people with lived experience have a say in decisions that the DWP make. I think there should be non-repayable crisis grants. I believe that DWP staff need to be much more trauma trained and informed, especially where women and children are concerned.
I was homeless, I’d lost my children, and I’d lost my income within months. I’m not sure how you’re meant to cope with that.
I had to make a claim for Universal Credit as my job came to an end. Being the main earner and carer for my husband, I needed to make a benefit claim. The five-week wait caused me serious anxiety. I was worried about paying my rent, my bills, and council tax. I had to cut back on food, buy cheaper brands of products, and reduced all activities that involved travel. This had a knock-on effect on my mental health.
This led me to seek help from charities, my local council, and food banks, which made me feel worthless because of the stigma. It was a very stressful time. I felt l like I was on a conveyor belt, being pushed through the system: ‘get in, get out, next person’.
When I claimed Universal Credit, they wanted to take £150 a month out of a £460 a month claim to pay back a hardship loan I had taken out three years ago. I wasn't fully informed about the hardship loan. £150 a month is a lot of money regardless, let alone when you’re only getting £460. Meanwhile gas, electric, and the prices of everything have gone up. It left me again feeling worthless. I went back to university, I got a part-time job, I’m doing 50 million things just to make ends meet.
Universal Credit advance payments should be replaced with a non-repayable grant. That would help out and relieve some stress and anxiety during the five-week wait for me and a lot of other families out there.
Advisors at the JobCentre should either have lived experience or be trained in trauma-informed practice so they can show empathy and understanding of the challenges faced by women who are released from prison, have a conviction, or have to apply for jobs with a conviction. Partnerships with other agencies is another big thing for the DWP to take on board.
All of the recommendations will help empower individuals, especially women with convictions, to feel confident with their lives, regardless of their past. We want to be able to be out there, hold our heads up high, give back to society. We have first-hand experience, we know what it’s like so we can show that empathy and we can be that positivity for others.
I'm doing 50 million things just to make ends meet
I applied for Universal Credit after I was released from prison. Information about benefits on release are not widely available within prison. Some prisons offer a Jobcentre Plus service, which is how I was able to book my first appointment, but this critical service is currently generally unavailable from inside prison. Fortunately, I had the support of my friends and family. Had this not been the case, I would have felt isolated as I was not offered information tailored to my needs.
Much of the problem for me emanates from a combination of services designed to support me but failing to do so. The National Probation Service, through human error, made me homeless. Having not long been released from prison, I had no money to afford the rent so I was forced to turn to Universal Credit for support in a time of absolute crisis.
My first work coach happened to be an ex-prison officer, so he understood my needs and knew which third-party support services to signpost me to. Unfortunately, I have not received the same level of support from my other work coaches. My case is being poorly managed by those who are insufficiently trained and have the potential to cause quite serious harm. Recounting my circumstances to numerous strangers only exacerbates my trauma; my needs are left unmet and I then have to deal with the emotional fallout.
I recently asked my current work coach about the training that she received regarding the multiple intersectional disadvantages faced by women with lived experience of the criminal justice system: homelessness, substance misuse, and domestic violence. She replied that the issues were briefly touched on during her first month in post but she had received no specific training since.
There should be an emergency contingency fund made available for individuals in exceptional circumstances. My housing situation was not of my own making and compounded my trauma, leading me to attempt to take my own life. This was wholly avoidable and financial support could have eased the pressure. I am desperate to find work but having an unspent criminal conviction is seemingly an insurmountable barrier.
I don’t want to be dependent on the system – systems have only let me down so far. I want to be in work, self-sufficient, and contributing to greater society. But until something gives, I am reluctantly in this position and need to be able to afford to survive.
I don’t want to be dependent on the system – systems have only let me down so far. I want to be in work, self-sufficient, and contributing to greater society.