CAS: Half of clients forced into debt when accessing Universal Credit

Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS) has repeated its call for the abolition of the five-week wait and the introduction of a non-repayable assessment period grant for everyone claiming Universal Credit to stop people from being swept into serious debt.

The recommendations come in a new report from the charity, including a first of its kind survey of CAB clients who had sought Universal Credit advice.

While some elements of Universal Credit’s design such as its conditionality and its ID verification requirements were “switched off” during the pandemic, other aspects remained in force.

The most significant for people claiming Universal Credit is the five-week wait for the first payment, a problem that was repeatedly singled out by survey respondents as causing stress and anxiety:

• Almost half (48%) said they had to borrow or take an advance to get through the five week wait.

• Among those that borrowed to get them through the five week waiting period until they got their first payment, the majority (65%) said they will find it difficult to repay the loan.

• Single people, homeless people, and people without a final wage were more likely to require loans during the five week wait, saddling them with debt before their UC payments have even begun.

• Single parent families were also more likely to borrow during the five week wait, meaning children in those families may face significant financial hardship before the first payment.

Citizens Advice Scotland said the five-week wait frequently forces CAB clients into debt, hardship, and serious arrears. For those who claimed an advanced payment from the DWP, this is recovered from their next 12 UC payments, meaning those already living on the breadline saw their incomes drop for a year as a result of the wait for first payment. This has only been multiplied by the pandemic, where people from higher-earning backgrounds will be claiming for the first time and will face a much sharper income shock than normal.

Nina Ballantyne, CAS social justice spokesperson, said: “CAS has long campaigned to end the five week wait for first payment, and today’s research shows the considerable detriment it continued to cause for people throughout the pandemic.

“The five week wait punishes the most vulnerable; those without savings and without family or friends to borrow from and those who are paid weekly who don’t have a final monthly salary payment to rely on. Many are also reluctant to take on additional debt. People we spoke to said they had no choice but to take on debt from an advance payment or struggle hand to mouth during the five week wait because they had nowhere else to turn.”

She added: “Social security is a right that all of us should be able to access when we need it, but the five week wait and advance payment system create delays and hardship instead.

“Abolishing the five week wait and replacing it with a non-repayable grant would level up Universal Credit to function as an immediate social security safety net. Instead of saddling people with debt and the struggle to keep food on the table, this would keep people out of absolute poverty, make it easier to find good work and ensure everyone is part of our recovery from the pandemic.”

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