Universal credit: Surge in families begging for money online as benefit plunges households into destitution

Exclusive: Number of people crowdfunding for donations to help them afford housing, bills and other basic necessities on universal credit rises five-fold in a year

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Sunday 30 December 2018 22:27
Esther McVey announces £1bn support for Universal Credit

Hundreds of families have been forced into begging for money online as universal credit plunges them into destitution, figures show.

There has been a surge in crowdfunding campaigns set up by individuals who say the flagship welfare reform has left them struggling to survive due to delays in benefit payments or cuts to their income.

Charities have warned that gaps in financial support through universal credit were leaving responsible people struggling to make ends meet or find a house deposit so as not to leave their families homeless.

Data released to The Independent by GoFundMe, one of the world’s biggest crowdfunding platforms, shows there are currently 905 campaigns by people appealing for donations to help them survive on universal credit, marking a five-fold rise on the previous year.

The number of households on universal credit increased by 108 per cent over the same period, from 635,033 in October 2017 to 1,317,985 a year later, indicating that the number of people appealing for help is rising faster than the rollout as gaps in financial support caused by the new system take their toll.

James Taylor, of disability equality charity Scope, said: “Disabled people and their families should not be left at their wits’ end, faced with the prospect of losing their home because of serious issues with the benefits system.

“We regularly hear from disabled people who have difficulty making a claim, and we know that gaps in financial support through universal credit can have disastrous effects on the lives of disabled people.”

GoFundMe guarantees all campaigns are vetted and protected using state-of-the-art fraud prevention technologies, and a team of dedicated specialists ensures donations are used as originally intended.

Lorraine Robinson-Moseley, 45, from West Lothian in Scotland, was forced to look for a new home for her and her disabled son in the private rented sector after their landlord decided to sell their house of nine years.

But the former mental health nurse, who now cares for her son full-time, found that “every single” landlord in the area said they would not take tenants on benefits.

She eventually managed to find a property in a different area, close to the border, where the landlord would take them. But it was an area where universal credit is rolled out, and on applying for the new benefit, she was told that it would take more than a month for it to come through.

Lorraine Robinson-Moseley set up a crowdfunding page after being forced to look for a new home for herself and her disabled son

Ms Robinson-Mosely said she set up the crowdfunding page “with a heavy heart” in the hope of raising enough money for a deposit – which she said was in the region of £3,000-£4,000.

“The landlord was going to allow us to just pay one month ahead before we moved in, and then when our first rent came in through universal credit, that would pay the first month,“ she told The Independent.

“But universal credit told me there were backlogs, the turnaround time was really long and they were finding hiccups on people’s cases, so you were looking at a minimum turnaround of the end of January.

“That meant the property I thought we had secured fell through, leaving us back in the situation of not having anywhere to go to when our time was up here.

“I’ve never thought about doing this type of thing before, but it’s got to the point where I thought I can’t have myself and my son homeless.

“I set it up because I felt like I didn’t have any other option. How was I supposed to raise £3,000-£4,000 because I don’t have a guarantor? It’s just not something I can feasibly do. I don’t have any way of doing it.”

Another universal credit claimant who set up a crowdfunding campaign, Paul Azrael Phoenix, who has Asperger syndrome and suffers from anxiety and depression, said that after covering his rent his first universal credit payment left him with £5.61 to pay the rest of his bills.

Mr Phoenix, who recently split from his partner, said he had lost three jobs in three months due to his mental health, and has subsequently been signed off by the GP and had to rely on the benefit system. But he said he was finding the system “somewhat lacking”.

“I really wish I didn’t have to do this but the system seems unable to help me,” he wrote on the page.

“After applying for al credit, I thought I would be more secure financially which would alleviate some of the feelings of stress and anxiety. However, I have just received my first payment and have £5.61, after making my rent payment, to pay for the rest of my normal bills.

“I have applied for everything I can in the hopes I can get by somehow, I just can’t see a way forward.

“I’m not asking for this for presents, given the time of year. I don’t want to be thought bad of, I know things are tight for most people. I just need to be able to keep myself warm and fed so I can spend quality time with my daughter, as she’s what matters to me most.”

Introduced in 2013 with the intention of bringing “fairness and simplicity” to Britain’s social security system, universal credit rolls six major working-age benefits, including jobseeker’s allowance, tax credit and – crucially – housing benefit, into one payment.

But the welfare reform has come under fire in recent months after it emerged people with disabilities and other vulnerabilities have been driven to severe hardship and anxiety after it docked their support.

Criticism deepened when The Independent revealed last month that more than half of people denied universal credit are found to be entitled to it when there cases were investigated on appeal, suggesting people are being wrongly deprived of support.

Responding to the GoFundMe data, shadow work and pensions secretary Margaret Greenwood said it was “shocking” that people claiming universal credit were being left in such desperate need that they are forced to appeal for help online.

She added: “Universal credit was supposed to protect people from poverty, but instead people are being pushed into severe hardship and are turning to food banks and funding campaigns to survive.”

Garry Lemon, director of policy and research at the Trussell Trust, Britain’s largest food bank charity, said: “That people are giving to these crowdfunders shows we’re a nation who believe in justice and compassion. But these values must be lived out in the structures we have in place to anchor people from being swept into poverty – it’s vital universal credit is ready to do this.

“Support currently in place isn’t enough for everyone, and foodbanks are meeting people waiting weeks for a first universal credit payment.”

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A DWP spokesperson said: “Universal credit replaces an out-of-date, complex benefits system and provides a safety net for those who need it.

“It is designed to help people get off benefits and into work, because work is the best route out of poverty and the best way to improve your life chances.”

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