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Blog, Campaign | 15 September 2021

Fighting for a better benefits system

In our last blog, we introduced Changemakers, Working Chance’s flagship policy group of women with convictions driving the change they want to see. Together, they are reimagining the benefits system so that all women with convictions can afford to rebuild their lives.

Why Universal Credit?

Universal Credit is a benefit system for those on low incomes as well as people seeking work. Since claiming Universal Credit is an experience many women with convictions share, and inadequate social security puts women at risk of reoffending, Changemakers are advocating for a system that works for women.

The problems with Universal Credit are wide-ranging, but here are some main issues that need urgent attention.

It’s impossible to look for work if you’re scrambling to keep your head above water.

1. Universal Credit doesn’t pull people out of poverty

The main problem most women on Universal Credit face is that the monthly payments don’t provide adequate money to live a dignified life. Helen, a former claimant, makes this clear: 'Universal Credit is simply not enough money, whether you have children or not.'

Yet the government plans to cut Universal Credit by £20 a week later this year, the biggest overnight cut to social security since World War Two. Many working families will be impacted by the cut, which will inevitably lead to an increase in-work poverty, which has already been rising after a decade of austerity.

Changemakers are calling on the government to #KeepTheLifeline, to protect everyone claiming Universal Credit. Social security should be strong enough to pull people out of poverty.

The five-week wait practically guarantees that people will fall into poverty or debt straight away.

2. Women are plunged into debt as soon as they leave prison

Every person making a new claim for Universal Credit must wait five weeks for the first payment to arrive. This wait was designed into the system – waiting a month and being paid in arrears was meant to replicate how a salary is paid. But this ignores the basic reality that most people making a claim do so because they are already in crisis and don’t have enough money to live on.

Women in prison are unable to make a claim for Universal Credit before their release, meaning the five-week wait for their first payment is unavoidable. Released with only a one-off subsistence payment of £76, this practically guarantees that they will fall into poverty or debt straight away. What makes it worse is that applying for Universal Credit is much more complicated for those women, since they are less likely to have the documentation needed to make a claim.

Those who can’t survive the wait can apply for an advance on future payments, but this must be paid back later. The Department of Work and Pensions can claim back up to 25% of the already meagre Universal Credit payment to retrieve an advance.

The solution is simple: provide a non-repayable grant for anyone starting a Universal Credit claim who can’t afford to see through the first five weeks. This would give everyone claiming Universal Credit a strong start.

The deductions system means women can’t always predict how much money they’ll receive, making it very hard to manage their finances.

3. Payments are unpredictable and hard to manage

Aside from the advance repayments, there are many other reasons why the monthly Universal Credit payment are reduced. This means women can’t always predict how much money they’ll receive, making it very hard to manage their finances. Around 41% of recipients don’t get their full Universal Credit allocation because they’re paying back some sort of debt.

The amount of money a woman receives might be deducted by up to 25% depending on fluctuations in her income (if she is in work) or changes in circumstances. For example, if someone is not paid once a month on the same date and is instead paid 4-weekly then Universal Credit payments can suddenly drop to nothing without warning because of the way the automated system works.

Another reason payments might be deducted is if a bedroom in a woman’s house becomes vacant, for instance, if their child leaves the family home. The reduction can leave women unable to get by, and facing the difficult decision to move out of their home.

Again, the solution is clear. The maximum deduction to a monthly payment should be reduced, so that women aren’t forced into dire straits.

Many women claiming Universal Credit speak about the lack of support, and lack of trust, they are faced with at the jobcentre.

4. Lack of support means lack of progression

Receiving a conviction can upend a woman’s life, and will usually mean that she is faced with challenges she isn’t prepared for. Sonja, a member of Changemakers, says: 'Leaving prison and getting a conviction mean a whole new way of life. We need time to get used to it – to resettle, retrain, or access therapy.’

But many women claiming Universal Credit speak about the lack of support, and lack of trust, they are faced with at the jobcentre. ‘At the moment, it's more about ticking boxes than looking at people as individuals,’ says Sonja.

At the jobcentre, Work Coaches manage people’s benefits claims and have responsibility for supporting claimants into employment. But they also have the power to sanction claimants, effectively punishing them, meaning that women don’t always trust them.

While Work Coaches are meant to be supportive, they also have the power to sanction women, and cut their benefits. ‘People claiming Universal Credit need to be heard,’ says River, a member of Changemakers. ‘Simplifying our problems into “complex needs” doesn't help you understand my day-to-day life. We need communication, and empathy.'

That’s why jobcentre staff should be trained to support women with convictions, and should be well-connected with local support services. Sonja advocates for a more personal approach to benefits support. 'You need a champion who understands the difficulties you face,’ she says. ‘Both as an individual and as someone looking for a job.'

‘After prison, it’s like you’re meant to be robotic and just go out there and earn money. But those factors that make us human mean we need support in order to get a job.’ Catherine, Changemaker

As it stands, Universal Credit is not designed to accommodate women with convictions.

Designing a better benefits system

As it stands, the system is not designed to accommodate women with convictions. It certainly doesn’t help them achieve the stability they need to find work. While work is a source of financial stability and purpose, unemployment can lead to debt or even reoffending.

Our benefits system should reflect the complexity of our population, and should provide security for every woman who needs to claim, whatever their circumstances.

An effective benefits system is possible. If Universal Credit was available when women were most in need, provided enough money to get by, and was accompanied by support services, then every woman could count on it to keep them in a strong enough position to look for and find a job.

If you want to collaborate with Changemakers, or find out more about the group, get in touch with our Policy and Research Officer, Olivia at olivia@workingchance.org or call 07985 475 493.

The Changemakers project is made possible through the kind contribution of the Lloyds Bank Foundation.