Massive cuts to Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) staff have fuelled caseworker errors and further pushed Universal Credit claimants into debt.
Universal Credit, the controversial welfare reform introduced in 2013, combines six benefits payments, such as housing benefit, child tax credit and job seeker’s allowance, into one. It was meant to simplify the social security system but since its rollout, the system has been beset by delays and failures.
Now, government data reveals that over the last six years since Universal Credit was first introduced, nearly 20,000 DWP staff have been cut – a figure that accounts for a fifth of the entire workforce.
The Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union, which represents DWP staff, said untenable workloads fuelled by staff cuts have been “hugely detrimental” to workers’ ability to support claimants.
PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said, “Our members in social security are trying hard in difficult conditions to help universal credit claimants, benefit claimants and the disabled. What they need is a properly resourced department, not cuts and increased workloads.”
Last month, the National Audit Office (NAO) found that benefits claimants and pensioners lost out to £2bn in benefits they were entitled to after being underpaid. In other instances DWP staff accidentally overpaid claimants. When overpayment errors are discovered, these struggling claimants are forced to pay back the money – which plunges many into insurmountable debt.
The Independent spoke to a couple in Scotland, both mature students who had been overpaid when they signed for Universal Credit. When Gordon Dunlop and his wife Samantha reported a small increase in their rent, it was discovered they’d been overpaid for months – and now faced a £7000 debt bill.
For months they did not receive any Universal Credit payments because of the error. Two months later it was discovered they’d been underpaid by £1000 again because of a caseworker error.
“It was just chaos,” Dunlop told the Independent. “And it’s extremely stressful. The bills keep rolling in. We worried about how we were going to survive from day to day. And now we’re always fearful that it will happen again.”
‘There’s always cereal’
The latest news that DWP staff cuts are further contributing to the failure of Universal Credit comes just days after a parliamentary hearing highlighted the struggles parents on Universal Credit face during school holidays.
With the loss of free school meals over the summer holidays, family food bills increase significantly, MPs heard last Wednesday (July 3). Responding to a question from an MP about whether she had enough to fed herself after feeding her children, one parent on Universal Credit said, “There’s always cereal isn’t there?”
Working parents are also forced to contend with outrageous childcare costs over the school holidays since under Universal Credit, parents must pay for childcare before being reimbursed afterwards.
This has led to the situation where many parents are forced to choose between going to work or be plunged into debt to pay for childcare.
Commenting on last week’s Parliamentary hearing, Unite Community national co-ordinator Liane Groves said, “Heart-breaking testimony from struggling families on the frontline of the Universal Credit shambles illuminates just how cruel and dysfunctional the system is.”
“Particularly during the holidays, hunger is foisted onto innocent children whose parents are being plunged into debt, rent arrears and forced to turn to food banks. The flaws in the system are simply too huge to rectify. That’s why we at Unite Community are campaigning for Universal Credit to be scrapped entirely and replaced with a social security system that provides enough for people to live on and that treats people fairly and with dignity. We ask everyone to join our national day of action in August to send the message loud and clear.”
Find out more about Unite Community’s national campaign against Universal Credit, and how you can take part here.