THE WAIT for first Universal Credit payments can be as long as 12 weeks and can send people into “severe hardship” and feeling suicidal, an expert has warned.
Dr Mandy Cheetham, of Teesside University, has warned people waiting for UC claims are having to choose between heating their homes and putting food on the table.
She told the Work and Pensions Select Committee today: “A lack of savings pushed (people) into debt and severe hardship.
“They were unable to pay their essential bills, rent arrears increased, and people talked with alarm of increased risk of homelessness and eviction.”
A study done by Dr Cheetham with Northumbria University looked at the experiences of 33 UC claimants in the North-East of England and 37 staff working in organisations supporting those people.
She said: “The five week wait was rarely five weeks for the claimants we spoke to.
“For a lot of them, particularly those who were struggling with computer access or digital literacy issues, for about half our sample the wait for a Universal Credit was longer than five weeks.”
The average wait time for the first payment was around 7 and a half weeks, and stretched up to 12 weeks.
For some who had to wait 12 weeks for their first payments, they were still waiting for full payments even after that.
Dr Cheetham told MPs: “Some were faced with the very difficult decision between eating and heating – food and fuel poverty was a feature of their accounts.”
She said one devastating example of this was a diabetic person who had to skip meals because they could not afford to buy food.
Some were forced to borrow money off friends and family and many struggled to cope with the shame and stigma of admitting they couldn’t make ends meet.
“The impact on mental and physical health was extreme, people talks about self harm, they talked about anxiety and depression, and six participants said they felt so low they considered suicide.”
As many as 21,000 people in a study of 64,000 people who experienced psychological problems as a result of waiting for the first UC payment hit clinical levels of anxiety and depression, the MPs were told.
According to new statistics from Office of National Statistics more than 3.2 million people have now claimed Universal Credit since the start of the lockdown.
HOAR launched the Make Universal Credit Work campaign to slash wait times for first payments so people aren’t forced to sell their belongings or take out loans to survive – and to make it easier for people to get back to work.
Dr Sophie Wickham, a research fellow at the Wellcome Trust, told the Committee that although the main aim of Universal Credit was to get people back into work there was “no evidence” that benefits helped people move back into the workforce.