By Kimberly Bond
Visit from the Stork CIC is joining The Trussell Trust, Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Citizens Advice in asking for the government to reduce the 5 week wait for Universal Credit, or to make the Advance payment a grant rather than a loan.
Over the past 11 weeks we have been running our Stork Support project; delivering baby essentials to families in hardship all across Greater Manchester. To date we have delivered just under 600 parcels to parents who are really, really struggling in the current Covid-19 crisis.
It’s only in the last couple of weeks I’ve really sat down and analysed what our clients and their referrers have been telling us about their situations. We’ve delivered to families in every situation imaginable; from asylum seekers living on £30 a week vouchers, mums living on just maternity pay with rising bills, parents who have been made redundant or are living on much reduced furlough pay due to their unstable contracted hours. But one thing that has struck me again and again is that clients who got made redundant or laid off or were self employed at the start of lockdown are having to apply for Universal credit – and wait five weeks for their money.
Obviously this is not a new thing – the 5 week wait has been a long hated idea by claimants and support agencies alike since Universal Credit first rolled out. But data shows that 3 million people have started to claim the benefit since the beginning of lockdown on March 23rd, leaving them with a 5 week wait during an unprecedented time of hardship for everyone in the country.
I know of many, many families that had to access our service because they had to choose whether to pay their bills with the little money they had, or put nappies and clothes on their kids and feed them dinner. A large proportion of them were waiting for their Universal credit claims to begin at the start of the pandemic.
Now it is 12 weeks in you say, so surely there won’t be a problem, and the system would be working fine? Unfortunately not the case. Out of the clients who chose to pay their bills, many of them did so with a Universal credit advance, a system which the DWP claims is making sure claimants have their money fast; you can ask for up to 100% of the amount you may be entitled to depending on your circumstances. This is all well and good if you take an advance payment out…but you have to pay it back when your benefits claim starts!
As you can imagine, it has now started a vicious cycle of debt for our families – with the loan amount being taken off the monthly payments, leaving them with even less to manage on, forcing them to come back to food banks and use our service for their baby essentials. We have supported over 30 clients for 6 weeks or more – that’s 50% of the time we’ve been in this mess, and it’s not about to stop any time soon.
This is why we are today joining two campaigns and promoting the work of The Trussell Trust and Citizens Advice, to carry on lobbying the government to either reduce the wait time of Universal Credit through the #5weekstoolong campaign or to change the advance payment into a non-repayable grant. Either of these moves would save lives and prevent thousands more children being forced deeper into poverty.
Of course, the Government has already responded with a resounding ‘no’ to these requests early on in the crisis, but that won’t stop these charities (and us) carry on shouting.
You can learn more about the Lockdown Lifeline report and campaign by Citizens Advice, including wider recommendations to the government here.