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Here’s five things we learned from Universal Credit: Inside the Welfare State

The insightful BBC documentary that peered behind the scenes at the DWP and the lives of claimants wrapped up its three-episode run yesterday
EPA/Andy Rain

To say that Universal Credit has had a troubled time would be putting it mildly. Originally announced by then-Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith a decade ago, the full roll-out of the controversial benefits system was originally supposed to be completed by 2017. Now the delayed date is set at September 2024.

In an unusual step, that deadline was revealed by the BBC as they kicked off their fly-on-the-wall documentary Universal Credit: Inside the Welfare State three weeks ago.

The three-part show wrapped up last night and made for an eye-opening watch – here are five things we’ve learned.

  1. The show wasn’t quite the propaganda that some people feared…

The programme arrived off the back of a newspaper advertising campaign that was ruled as “misleading” by the Advertising Standards Authority at the tail end of last year. And that sparked fears that the DWP letting in the BBC cameras when they are under such enormous pressure could be another attempt to wrestle control of the narrative.

Not so. The documentary showed the struggles of claimants and Jobcentre work coaches alike – even focusing on one work coach who had to claim Universal Credit and take a second job herself. From the woman in Liverpool who was held back because of proof of her father’s work history, to the Bolton woman on a zero-hours contract desperately trying to enter the world of work and keep herself afloat in the face of fluctuating payments, to the man rough sleeping in London after work dried up in the construction and pub sectors. Each story was a powerful portrayal of the struggles adapting to the system.

  1. …Until it was

On the whole, the Jobcentre staff’s trials and tribulations as they tried to manage an enormous workload came across. But with recruitment frozen, staff at the Liverpool Jobcentre that was the focus of the second episode were struggling to cope. Cue a meeting with bosses where they could express their concerns and fears. But the episode ended with the freeze lifting at that particular Jobcentre, meaning more staff could be employed. It was the one time where things seemed rather too convenient.

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  1. The DWP name their meeting rooms after dead celebrities

Did showing how rooms were named after Prince, George Michael and others show personality behind the often-dry appearance or the civil servants? Or did it come across as a bit crass? Especially when viewed in light of National Audit Office reports from earlier this month, that revealed the DWP had investigated 69 suicides linked to their handling of benefit claims in the last six years. You decide.

  1. The DWP letting the BBC announce the Universal Credit roll-out delay was an odd move

Candid footage of DWP meetings showed Universal Credit Director General Neil Couling being put through the ringer as he spoke to the UC board about a proposed delay from 2023 to September 2024. Previews for the BBC show broke this story in the press, bringing in the latest round of headlines slamming the benefits system. It seemed odd that the DWP wouldn’t announce this themselves ­and it did nothing to dispel the outside impression that Universal Credit is a struggle to manage.

  1. Advance payments are not working for people. The five-week wait needs to end

Campaigners and charities have continually called for the five-week wait for a first Universal Credit payment to be axed ­– the documentary showed why. In almost every claimant’s case on the show, the advance payment loan needed to help people reach that first payment came back to haunt them later.

In the third episode in Bolton, Paula was delighted when she received the £1,200 advance. The next time the cameras caught up with her, she was still waiting for her first payment, but the money had dried up. While Paula quite rightly said: “Everyone has a right to treat herself”, she spoke of how she had bought a number of treats including clothes, shoes, getting her hair done and so on. But when the first payment arrived, it was just £532 for her, her partner, her daughter and the family dog to live on, following deductions, including more than £100 deducted to pay off the advanced loan. That works out at £17-a-day. At no point was Paula given any financial education beyond that offered by the work coach – and the obvious, inevitable conclusion made for the show’s most striking bury-your-head-in-your-hands moment. The advance payment is failing people. The five-week wait is failing people. If Couling is right and UC can’t be stopped – these aspects need to be axed.

Image: EPA/Andy Rain