To the Work and Pensions Secretary in Westminster, Monday’s tentative launch of Universal Credit was the “start of a fundamental cultural shift of the welfare system”. To many of those in the vanguard of Iain Duncan Smith’s reforms in one small part of Greater Manchester, though, it was a confusing and worrying move into the unknown.
There was a steady stream of visitors to the Jobcentre Plus in Ashton-under-Lyne, a small town to the east of Manchester, chosen as the first place in the country to implement Universal Credit.
Most came and went in ones and twos, while G4S security staff stood at the door. One visitor said there were five security guards inside, perhaps in readiness for protests against the new system. Many said little had been explained to them about how they will claim the benefits to which they are entitled in future. They were also worried about the eventual shift to monthly payments and online claims.
“It is better to carry on receiving the money every two weeks because of the cash flow problems monthly payments will cause,” said Danielle Phythian, 20, who was claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance. Others agreed that, once they moved on to the new monthly system, they could struggle to meet their bills in the short term.
John Gartland, 55, said: “I think it is a con, it is another way of keeping the figures down; if someone can’t claim for whatever reason, it is another month until they can.” He wondered if the trial, in a Labour constituency, was “a bit of a north-south bias”. “We seem to get the brunt of it first then it will go down south if it works. I think it will work, it will be made to work because it is the system they want now.”
Much has been made of the Government’s increasing move to online service provision and the greater efficiency it can offer. But one resident, among those who said they could not afford a computer, said many people’s only way of accessing IT facilities was via the local library, which yesterday was closed because of cuts. “You can only really use the computers for an hour at a time anyway,” added John Lunga, 28, adding: “It’s OK if you have a friend who has a computer you can use.”
Not everyone who spoke to The Independent yesterday was that fortunate. Mr Gartland said of the online transition: “My old employer had a hell of a time online because she had 2,000-3,000 applications for a job that was 20 hours a week. I don’t think it works online because there are too many going for the same position. Jobs are better advertised locally.”
Few people were sure of whether they would be caught up in the Universal Credit changes and were worried by the lack of clear information. Very few are currently subject to the changes but more and more will come under the new system as it is gradually rolled out.
The fact that the Department for Work and Pensions has decided to only explain the changes to claimants when they are affected by them was causing some worry yesterday.
The DWP said that it would provide advice for people who struggled to make the transition from fortnightly to monthly payments, and could possibly arrange an advance.
But the assurance about advice did little to cheer up John Johnson, 23, who went in to sign on for Jobseeker’s Allowance after a period of employment. He said: “I have not been told anything about the changes. It was no different today than any other day. They should have explained the different system they are introducing to us a little bit more.”