Universal Credit UK: ‘Flaws’ in benefit system for couples exposed by new report

Universal Credit is designed to replace a number of legacy benefits Britons may be more familiar with. These are: Child Tax Credit, Housing Benefit, Income Support, income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA), income-related Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), and Working Tax Credit. At present, Universal Credit, much like other means-tested benefits, are jointly assessed for couples, with the benefit sum processed as a joint claim.


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However, as the number of new claims for Universal Credit continue to soar, a new study has revealed the complex issues many couples are forced to face. 

The research, undertaken by the University of Bath Institute for Policy Research, asserts the way in which the system is designed and delivered is not suitable for most modern couples and families.

The study questioned nearly 100 participants across more than 50 claimant households in England and Scotland to determine how people had adjusted to the system.

While some were slowly coming to terms with the new payment, others found it particularly difficult, saying it exacerbated financial strain and created complex difficulties.

One area highlighted as an issue was the five-week wait for new claimants to receive the benefit which the study found affected almost all couples negatively.

Many were also weary of accepting an advance – which provides almost instantaneous payment for those in difficult financial circumstances – as repayments would be deducted from the benefit later down the line. 

Indeed, once the payment was received, a high proportion still reported issues such as deductions being taken at source from the Universal Credit payment, as well as benefit cuts.

The report showed dual income families were generally worse off under Universal Credit than the legacy system of benefits, which appears to reflect the incentive under the universal scheme to encourage the first earner in a couple back into employment.

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The study also found couples often struggled with the unpredictable nature of Universal Credit, which could often vary significantly on a month by month basis, particularly for those who had wages paid at different times.

Monthly benefit payments, while supported by many, also brought up significant issues around money management.

Although most were found to be able to budget money well, the issue arose in the fact there was inadequate income to manage household finances once basic costs were covered.

For families with children, few were aware of, or using, the additional payments which are available for childcare costs, which are designed to help ease strain on parents.


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Overall, the Universal Credit system was criticised for its so-called “algorithmic decision making” and “automated assessment” process, which many disliked compared to the face to face methods more prevalent in legacy benefit claims. 

The system was also found to put additional strain on women, who, in most cases, found themselves responsible for monitoring household budgeting and the Universal Credit claim itself.

Commenting on the study, Dr Rita Griffiths, the report’s lead author from the IPR at the University of Bath said: “Having to decide who should get the Universal Credit and how the money should be distributed and managed was particularly hard for couples who had no other source of income. 

“It sometimes obliged one partner to go ‘cap in hand’ to the other to ask for a share of the money. It could also allow one partner to take control of the household’s entire monthly income.

“Because most of the couples we interviewed were in committed relationships and trusted each other, this generally didn’t happen. 

“However, many felt that a single payment harked back to a bygone era of male breadwinners, and was out of step with modern relationships in which both partners go out to work, manage their own money and contribute to the household finances.”

The authors of the report urged the government to give more priority to reconsidering their policy for couples on the Universal Credit system.

They wish to see more security for claimants, and a reassessing of the unpredictable nature of the payment structure. 

A DWP spokesperson told Express.co.uk: “This study is based on a tiny sample size and it would be hugely misleading to draw widespread conclusions from it. 

“It is normal to expect a household to share debts and costs, such as rent, utilities or mortgage payments, and Universal Credit mirrors this. Most couples can and want to manage their finances jointly but split payments are available for the small minority who may benefit from them.”

The DWP suggests claimants have their Universal Credit paid into the bank account of the main carer where possible, as this is likely to be in the best interest of children. 

A recent survey undertaken by the DWP showed eight out of ten claimants are satisfied with their Universal Credit support.

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