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Ask 1: Universal Credit is making us hungry – end the five-week wait

SFHA, together with its sister UK housing federations in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, is calling for six changes to be made to Universal Credit in order to improve the whole system for tenants and housing associations. SFHA has invited six guest bloggers to write about one of the #SixAsks. Today, Polly Jones, Project Manager at A Menu for Change, explains why the five-week wait for payment must end.

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It’s scandalous that a fifth of single adults and single parents are skipping meals and worrying where their next meal will come from because they can’t afford to eat.

Earlier this month, A Menu for Change, the project I manage, released new data showing that double the number of food parcels have been given out in Scotland than previously thought – a staggering half a million food parcels in the last 18 months.

Universal Credit has made things worse. Where Universal Credit has been rolled out for 12 months or more, local food banks have seen a 52% increase in people driven there to feed themselves and their families.

Everyone who applies must wait at least five weeks for their first payment, and many people are left waiting longer. Without any money coming in, there is simply no way to cover the cost of essentials, including food.

People with the lowest income are often the best at budgeting – managing to make their money stretch as far as possible. But the mandatory five-week wait for Universal Credit is leaving people with nothing. Skipping meals, borrowing from friends, relying on extortionate pay day loans, and building up rent arrears are just some of the ways people try and cope.

Universal Credit was designed with the five-week wait for payment to mirror a working pattern that pays on a monthly cycle. It makes you wonder how familiar its designers were with the daily lives of many of the people who were to receive it? Many jobs are not paid on a monthly cycle and short-term, insecure work, such as zero-hours contracts, is on the rise across the UK. According to the TUC, 40% of the growth in employment between 2011 and 2016 came from exactly this kind of insecure work.

The five-week wait for Universal Credit fails the fundamental standard for any social security system. Our social security system should be a safety net to catch any of us when we need it. It’s there to prevent destitution and poverty, and, at the very least, ensure that no-one goes hungry. Even Amber Rudd, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, now admits the roll-out of Universal Credit has driven people to food banks. It is time to end the five-week wait.

Polly Jones is currently Project Manager at A Menu for Change but will be joining the SFHA as Head of Membership and Policy at the end of April.

Six Asks:

1. End to the five-week wait for payment. Claimants should be able to get a payment in the middle of this period and there should be greater flexibility on payment frequency for all

2. More data sharing between DWP and social landlords and the restoration of implicit consent (when a claimant allows a person or organisation to help with their Universal Credit claim) will mean landlords can better support tenants and prevent problems. This is key to the success of managed migration.

3. Where benefit is paid direct to the landlord, we need a system that is fit for purpose, with the landlord receiving the payment on the same cycle as the tenant

4. Increased funding for support and advice to make sure people do not miss out on entitlement, including allowing backdating for more claims

5. Making sure that work pays for everyone by matching monthly assessments to earnings within that period, improving work allowances and reducing the taper

6. Restore inflation linked uprating to working age benefits from April 2020