Universal Credit (UC) represents the most radical reform of the British welfare system since the time of Beveridge. It was legislated for in the Welfare Reform Act of 2012 and since then has been slowly rolled out across the country. Its founding principle was to re-design the welfare system to ensure that people are always better off in work than they are on benefits. It was intended to simplify the system which had become incredibly complex over the years, combining six benefits (income-based Jobseekers Allowance, income-based Employment Support Allowance, Income Support, Working Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit, and Housing Benefit) into one with a single point of application. Eventually around 7 million families will receive this benefit and over half of those households will be in work.
When the roll-out started here in West Berkshire, I visited the Jobcentre in Newbury, meeting the staff and talking to the work coaches who support UC claimants to develop their skills, move into work and progress in their careers. There were challenges as with any new system but the feedback was that this was a positive move, one that allowed the Jobcentre to encourage claimants to develop rather than seeing them trapped on welfare.
Since then, several changes have been made to iron out aspects of the new benefit that were causing hardship. Just recently the Minister announced that the ‘migration’ of people already in receipt of benefits on to UC will be restricted to a pilot of 10,000 people so that the change-over can be carefully monitored before being extended to all. This is a responsible way to proceed, with the aim of protecting the most vulnerable in our society. The Newbury area is not included in the pilot.
At the beginning of this year I hosted a roundtable discussion in my office in Newbury with some of the agencies involved in supporting people on UC in this area. The Jobcentre, West Berkshire Council, Sovereign Housing, Citizens Advice West Berkshire and Mencap were all present and, together with input from Two Saints hostel and from the Foodbank, several issues were identified which I have now passed on to the Minister. These included waiting times, although this has been mitigated by the option of advance payments; understanding of what is required to claim and how people, especially those who might be digitally excluded due to age or disability, can be helped to manage better; the level of deductions that can be taken back from UC for overpayments of benefits; and the issue of dovetailing weekly-based pay with a benefit that is paid monthly. The Minister’s response can be seen here.
I continue to be available and willing to try and help constituents who are having issues with UC. You can email me on firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contact details for other agencies who can provide help and support include:
Newbury Jobcentre Plus
The first port of call for anyone looking to apply for UC, the Jobcentre Plus also offers additional help. New claimants can book a ‘biographical’ appointment to help with verification of their identity; this can be done immediately after a claim has been started. There is free wifi and use of a computer at the Jobcentre and digital courses are available, once or twice a month depending on the need. Help can also be accessed here from the National Careers Service. The De-Frazzle Café, which takes place quarterly at the Jobcentre from 10am to 1pm, is an opportunity for claimants to find out more about agencies in the Newbury area that can offer additional support such as Citizens Advice West Berkshire, the Volunteer Centre, Eight Bells and Swanswell. For some claimants seeking work, there are grants available, at a work coach’s discretion, from the DWP Flexible Support Fund to help with verification or interview costs.
West Berkshire Council
The Council has been helping people submit and maintain a UC and providing budgeting support. You find more information here.
Sovereign residents who are moving on to UC or who are already receiving UC and are struggling with the process or need advice, can access help from two Sovereign tenancy support advisors, based in Berkshire House, Newbury, as well as an Employment & Training Officer who can help residents move into work or into better jobs. There is also a laptop available in the reception of Berkshire House for the use of Sovereign residents to make UC claims, access online journals or job search. You can find more information here.
Citizens Advice West Berkshire
CAWB offers face to face, telephone and online advice on UC and other issues. From April 1st, new claimants can access Citizens Advice Help to Claim service by calling the free national Help to Claim phone line 0800 144 8 444, or by dropping in to the Newbury office, address below, or via Newbury Jobcentre Plus. Help to Claim appointments will be available on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. You can also access online advice and webchat at https://citizensadvicewestberkshire.org.uk/getting-advice/do-you-need-help-to-make-a-new-universal-credit-claim/.
Drop-in sessions (Broadway House, 4 – 8 The Broadway, Newbury RG14 1BA) Monday 9.30–11.30am and Wednesday 9.30–11.30am and 12.30–3.00 pm; contact point at West Berkshire Council offices ( Market Street, Newbury RG14 5LD) every Wednesday; appointments in Thatcham and Hungerford, call 01635 516605 to book; telephone advice on 0300 222 5941 on Monday 9.30-12.00 and 12.30-3.30pm, Tuesday 9.30-12.00, Wednesday 9.30-12.00 and 12.30-3.30pm.
Mencap West Berkshire
Mencap’s Family Advisor Service can help people with a learning disability and their parents/ carers and families to apply for benefits.
The Salvation Army
The Salvation Army offers Employment Plus Services every Thursday, 9.30am to 4pm (Northcroft Lane, Newbury RG14 1BU), helping people become job-ready, to get a job and to stay in work, as well as benefits advice and support.
Newbury Library is open six days a week and has 27 computers with internet access available for use free of charge, plus free wifi.
For anyone facing a crisis, due to delays in benefit payments or any other circumstances, the West Berkshire Foodbank offers emergency food and support from its centres in Newbury, Thatcham, Hungerford, Lambourn Valley and Burghfield and Mortimer. This can be accessed via vouchers issued by agencies including Citizens Advice West Berkshire, housing support officers, children’s centres, health visitors, social services and some local charities. More information is available here.