Imogen has done everything asked of her, yet administrative errors and built-in delays mean she resorted to taking out loans to live
“Universal credit has been a nightmare,” Imogen Groome says from her flat in Greenwich. “It’s like getting blood out of a stone to get money you’re entitled to.”
Groome – a 23-year-old graduate from Exeter looking for her first job as a reporter in London – found herself in need of unemployment benefits last month after work at a website fell through.
Because her postcode falls into a Department for Work and Pensions “trial area”, rather than being eligible for jobseeker’s allowance Groome was told she had to apply for universal credit – the Conservatives’ flagship benefit scheme, which officials last week admitted is five years behind schedule.
Listening to Groome’s experience with universal credit, the news that it will take until 2022 for the scheme to be rolled out nationwide appears to be not simply a sign of mass incompetence but, for thousands of people relying on benefits, a small mercy. It is now six weeks and counting since Groome tried to access her universal credit payments – and, in her own words, she has “been left to starve by the DWP”.
Groome first applied for universal credit on the 17 June. Five days later, she received a call saying her claim had been automatically closed. Despite the fact she’d given her new address in her application, the system had her old address on file – meaning it didn’t read her as being eligible for universal credit. She would need to go to her local jobcentre, fill in a change of address, wait for the system to process that, call up again, make a new claim, and wait for a call back with an appointment. “I asked if she was joking,” Groome tells me. “She said she wasn’t, and hung up.”
Over the next two weeks, Groome had back-to-back interviews across London but – in the irony of DWP bureaucracy – had to take time out from applying for work to get to the jobcentre. When she got there, she was told not to fill in any forms – she was meant to do it all online. The next two hours was chaos: explaining her situation repeatedly, misplaced papers, and an adviser who couldn’t find her on the system. “It took three members of staff to find a change of address form,” she says.
Assured an appointment would be sorted, she was told she’d receive a call to organise it within two working days. She waited four, and then called them. “‘I can’t find you on the system,’ he told me,” Groome says. Yet again – over a month after she first applied for universal credit – she was forced to make a new claim.
Left without her benefits – or even the appointment she needs to get them – she has had to take out a bank loan to pay her rent, and is now borrowing money from friends and going into her overdraft. She’s got into £1,500 of debt.
“It’s spiralling out of control and I can’t do anything about it,” she says. “But I know I’m lucky I got help from the bank. If I didn’t have that, I’d be on the streets by now.”
Last Friday, Groome finally received a call from the jobcentre giving her an appointment. But she was told, due to the way universal credit is designed – even when her claim is at last processed – that she’ll have to wait until September for her first payment.