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Humans · Economy

Does Universal Credit contribute to poverty in the UK?

July 29th, 2019
topics:Humans, Economy
by:Federica Tedeschi
located in:United Kingdom
tags:Leigh Day, poverty, United Kingdom UK, Universal Credit program

Over a fifth of the UK population (14 million people) live in poverty, according to a report published at the end of 2018 by the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner (OHCHR). Further data highlighted that 4 million people are over 50% below the poverty line, while 1.5 million are ‘unable to afford basic essentials’.

The report, which also takes into account housing and childcare costs, follows an inquiry launched by the United Nations to investigate the rising levels of poverty across the UK and explore the human consequences of the austerity measures introduced by the Conservative government, including cuts to the welfare system.

Those cuts and the subsequent introduction of the government’s flagship Universal Credit programme, have left an increasing number of families dependent on food aid from charities.

FairPlanet met Carolin Ott, a legal officer at the legal firm Leigh Day. The firm specialises in human rights and Ms. Ott is part of Tessa Gregory's team, which is at the forefront of challenges to Universal Credit.

FairPlanet: Do you think people in the UK are actually falling into poverty because of Universal Credit?

Carolin Ott: Absolutely. We have constant complaints from individuals on Universal Credit who tell us how much they're suffering and how much they've lost and how they now have to go to food banks because they just don't have enough support. If you look at various independent reports, including from the UN, that have come out, it’s clear that Universal Credit is having an adverse impact on the way people are able to live.

When did Leigh Day start representing Universal Credit applicants?

It was as soon as Universal Credit began to be rolled out. We started getting more and more inquiries from individuals affected by it and as our team specialises in judicial review, our aim is to find, within these various complaints, a pattern that's challengeable, and when we do, then we really start thinking about how to best frame a case. Our objective is to challenge difficulties affecting a wider group of people in order to then change the law underpinning the problem.

Could you give us an example of how Leigh Day has changed the law underpinning a problem?

For instance, we noticed issues with the way the Universal Credit assessment periods were set: if someone is paid at a certain point in the month, that can affect whether they get Universal Credit. And because of the way dates were falling for certain individuals during a specific month, their entitlement could be massively reduced because they were assumed to have been paid twice. It seems completely unreasonable that somebody should not be paid properly within a month just because of when their salary happened to be paid by the employer. We challenged the way the assessment periods were set and it was held to be unlawful. The Government are appealing the decision but, in the meantime, Universal Credit claimants who face those inconsistencies can point to that judgement in order to challenge the UC payments they are awarded.

How would you describe the case Leigh Day is most proud of?

Our TP & AR case had a positive judgement last summer. TP & AR are two severely disabled clients who cannot be named because there is an anonymity order in place. The case consists of a challenge in relation to the lack of transitional protection provided to individuals who lost their severe disability premium when they moved on to Universal Credit. We brought an initial challenge in relation to that which was decided on last year. The judgement was handed down on the 14th of June 2018.

As a result, we secured payment of damages for them both, as well as top up payments every month to increase the amount they were receiving. Our clients have been able to improve their quality of life, recover from the stress and anxiety they faced and continue to receive support.

And then there are also the wider implications of other individuals in similar situations, who have been stopped from having to move to Universal Credit without transitional payments.

We then also brought a follow-on judicial review challenge this year when the Secretary of State’s new arrangement tried to short-change severely disabled claimants and we were successful on that as well.

In light of the judgement that found the relevant regulations unlawful, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions now has to consider revising the system and we hope that the new structure will provide for cover payments for all of the people in similar situations to our clients. In the meantime, more than 13,000 severely disabled people remain without payment, so we are quite concerned about the delay.

Does Leigh Day liaise with any external organisations?

We have regularly worked with external, independent organisations. For example, we have been collaborating with Equity, a trade union that supports self-employed actors and theatre practitioners, as well as the Low Income Tax Reform Group and the Trade Union Congress in relation to the minimum income floor which affects self-employed individuals under Universal Credit.

What should the Government do to tackle these issues more efficiently?

What we find most frustrating is that some of the problems that we pointed to, are actually pretty straightforward to fix but the approach that the Government has taken is to fight back on everything that we raise rather than think about how it may be possible to fix it.

What does the future hold for Leigh Day and their Universal Credit claimants?

At the moment we are awaiting a hearing in the High Court on our challenge on the ‘minimum income floor’ affecting the self-employed which will be taking place this month. We are also investigating potential new challenges to other elements of Universal Credit with new clients. The longer Universal Credit has been around, the more issues with the system have been revealed.

Does Leigh Day offer any pro bono support to Universal Credit claimants?

Most individuals approaching Leigh Day with enquiries about Universal Credit are eligible for legal aid, and the discounted rate work the firm does is covered by legal aid contracts.

Another problematic aspect of Universal Credit is the fact that it is ‘digital by default’, as pointed out by the previously mentioned UN report from ‘extreme poverty and human rights’ Professor Philip Alston:

‘This means that an entitlement claim is made online and that the beneficiary then interacts with authorities mainly through an online portal. One wonders why some of the most vulnerable and those with poor digital literacy had to go first in what amounts to a nationwide digital experiment’.

Article written by:
Federica-Tedeschi
Federica Tedeschi
Author
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Embed from Getty Images
The United Nations to investigate into the rising levels of poverty across the UK and explore the human consequences.
Embed from Getty Images
We have constant complaints from individuals on Universal Credit who tell us how much they're suffering and how much they've lost and how they now have to get to food banks because they just don't have enough support.
Embed from Getty Images
What we find most frustrating is that some of the problems that we pointed to, are actually pretty straightforward to fix but the approach that the Government has taken is to fight back on everything that we raise rather than think about how it may be possible to fix it.

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