My experience of the hostile environment that is Universal Credit

I'm Carl, I'm 39, and I’ve been receiving UC for three years. Around the same time I started claiming UC I was diagnosed with degenerative disorder, a condition that affects the vertebrae and nerves in my back and gives me problems with chronic pain.

Z2K client and spokesperson Carl Hackshaw

I submitted an application online, and was given initial appointment with my work coach at the Jobcentre.  Rather than getting advice about finding work, I was told about the commitment rules, I had the sanction regime explained and was told I had to get a note from my doctor before they could process my application any further.

I took the note from my doctor down to the work coach who opened it up and immediately told me that he couldn’t accept it because it didn’t have a fit for work date in the correct format.  I tried to explain that the condition was long-term, and there wouldn’t really be an arbitrary date where it was going to get any better. It was going to restrict me from doing some kinds of work for ever.

My work coach explained that the DWP were not there to account for my poor life choices, and that if I didn’t want to be taking time off work with a bad back I should have chosen a different career.  He then told me that if I didn’t get another note from my doctor with a fit for work date in the correct format, my application would be cancelled.  Then he went on, and this is verbatim, “if you want money from us you will have to jump through the hoops.”  I ended the appointment abruptly, and left really unsure of where I stood, but knowing I was in a hostile environment.

I then began receiving the intimidating messages by text and email, demanding a fit note or reminders about sanctions for not fulfilling work commitments. So I replied to one of the messages in my journal saying really I would be glad if they cancelled my application and that I wasn’t very happy at being told I have to jump through hoops by Jobcentre staff.

I was then offered an appointment with another work coach and told that I had to start looking for work and applying for jobs, which I did.  Before then being assigned a different work coach a couple of weeks later who said that I wouldn’t have to look for work, but I still had to attend the Jobcentre every two weeks.

Eventually, after about six months, it was decided I had to get another note from my doctor with the arbitrary fit for work date, to start the Work Capability Assessment process. I was assessed as being fit for work in July 2018.  I challenged the decision, and with help from Z2K it was overturned at the tribunal. But my appeal wasn’t heard until August 2019.  So it had taken almost two years to establish what I’d told my first work coach within ten minutes.

All that time, effort and resources had been put in because the process automatically assumed I was being dishonest and trying to commit fraud.  I was not seen as someone who had contributed and could still contribute to society, and I certainly wasn’t treated with any degree of dignity.

I was placed in the Limited Capability for Work category. In this group you aren’t given any extra support, help or means to prepare for work in the future. It is recognised you have an impairment that limits your ability to work, but the impact of that impairment isn’t given any consideration, and there is no uplift that takes your impairment into account.

So, personally I can’t see how anyone, especially people with an impairment can be expected to improve their circumstances, or learn new skills, when they are trying to get through some months, and they can only eat discount bread or only have the heating on for a couple of hours at night.

I can’t help but make the connection here between that situation that people might find themselves in, and the attitude and stigma that exists in public opinion that most people claiming welfare don’t deserve luxuries like internet connection, because people consider you to be a scrounger or a scammer.

So because of what I have experienced going through the process, I feel UC in its current state is not capable of suitably supporting most people, especially those with complex health conditions and impairments.

Carl presenting at the launch of our ‘Blunt, bureaucratic and broken: how Universal Credit is failing people in vulnerable situations‘ report

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