Universal credit: the Lancashire claimants 'too fearful of debt' to take an advance - and those who use it 'for the wrong things'

A Lancashire county councillor has called on the government to end the six-week wait for the first payment someone receives after making a claim for universal credit.

By Paul Faulkner
Monday, 7th February 2022, 10:12 pm
Updated Monday, 7th February 2022, 10:32 pm

At a recent meeting of the authority’s external scrutiny committee, the deputy Labour opposition group leader, Lorraine Beavers, told a local Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) official to take her message to “the big boys in London”.

However, committee members heard that a DWP “advance” was on offer for claimants to help them with essential bills in the gap between submitting an application and their regular money starting to come through. The bulk of the six-week wait is made up of the time spent assessing the claim.

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An advance is available to help people pay their rent during the six-week wait for a first universal credit payment

Shane Byrne, a partnership manager for the DWP in the North West, said that the advance was available from “day one” - and that the department would “never leave anybody…without an offer of financial support” after they make their application.

However, he told the committee that there was sometimes a reluctance amongst people to accept that offer, because it is “perceived to be debt”.

The Local Democracy Reporting Service understands that no interest is charged on the loan and it can be repaid over as long as two years.

The meeting heard that the money is intended to ensure that anybody under threat of eviction can afford their rent.

However, Mr. Byrne added: “We know part of the issue is that when we give customers an advance at day one, do they use it for the right things? They have often got other priorities and other things that they need to manage, particularly if they have got young families.

“But the intent behind the advance is to make sure they have got food on the table and…that the rent is covered. That's its purpose and when it doesn't get used for that - which is often the case, because lives are complex and difficult and challenging - it’s [about] how we then work holistically with other organisations to make sure that [the] individual…manages until, their first assessment period ends,” said Mr. Byrne, who praised the work done by food banks.

However, County Cllr Beavers said that the system was flawed as it was currently designed and said that anybody using their universal credit advance for purposes other than which it was intended would be very much in the minority.

“[For] most people, the main aim is keeping a roof over their head and looking after their children. There is a small percentage of people who haven't got the same priorities, but the majority of people - 80 percent of the population - have got the same priorities as you and I have.”

She added: “I know what it's like to be hard up, I know what it’s like not to have the money to buy two children…shoes and deciding which kid gets those shoes this week and which kid gets the shoes the next week. I've lived that life - so six weeks is a very long time.

“Also, being working class, we have a fear of debt. My mother [said] if I couldn't afford [something as a child], I wasn't allowed to have it. It’s an inbred working class fear of debt.

“I think that is something which is fundamentally wrong with this benefit,” said the Fleetwood East representative.