The episode took place in bolton which has unusually high levels of unemployment for people aged between 18 and 25. Around 500 people move onto universal credit every month in the city, many of whom come from previously existing benefit schemes. Moving onto universal credit can be problematic for new claimants as there can be a gap of five weeks between applying and receiving the first payment. Universal Credit is also paid in arrears, meaning it can be very hard for people to effectively budget or plan ahead.
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These issues were illustrated through Paula’s situation.
Paula is 34 and has a young daughter, under her previous benefit payments she received around £164 every two weeks.
She met with Loraine, a work coach, to discuss her case and next steps.
Paula clearly has misgivings over the universal credit system, as she explained: “We’ve seen on telly how it messes a lot of people up and we don’t want that to happen to us.”
Loraine detailed that her first payment will not be coming in for a while and she mentioned that as it’s so far out she can get an advanced payment.
Paula appeared relieved as she was told about this, highlighting that she has a daughter who needs a new school uniform.
Loraine, with utmost professionalism and clarity, detailed that the amount she can give to Paula as an advance is £1,200 but this amount must be paid back.
She clarified this repeatedly and asked Paula if she is still happy to receive this amount. Paula came across almost excited by the news as she quickly replied: “It probably would be best if I did take it”. In regards to the repayments she added that “it’s independence, it’s common sense, it’s using your brain really”.
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Three weeks then pass and it is revealed that Paula received another advance, totalling her debt to £1,725.
She detailed that it’s all been spent and it is here where red flags start emerging. She detailed that while some of the payment was used for her daughter, a lot of it has been used for, as she puts it: “fun stuff really”.
She goes on to detail that the money has been used for a new phone, new footwear, clothes, hair treatments and nice food.
The documentary team ask her if she regrets spending the money on those items, to which she explains she does not regret it as it’s worth treating yourself.
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The problems emerge down the line as Paula’s first payment comes through.
It’s revealed that while she was supposed to receive just over £1,100, the actual amount she receives is around half that amount.
It’s here she realises just how much the repayments will hinder her:“My stress levels are through the roof. I wish they hadn’t offered me it. I’ve made a mistake and it’s a mistake I will never do again.
“I got too tempted and too giddy, I went too wild. Lesson learned.”
As she heads back to the Jobcentre we can see just how drastically these circumstances have affected her. As she explained to the work coach: “I’ve had a few ups and downs recently.
“Universal Credit, messed up big time, they’ve took like 600 quid. Wasn’t expecting it so my stress levels have been up here. I don’t feel very well, I’m not very well I’ve got another sick note. It’s just stressed, I’m nowhere near ready for work me. I’m just wondering what the best thing for me to do?”
Thankfully, the work coach provided effective support. The next debt deduction is delayed for some relief. However, the debt is still on Paula’s account and it will have to be paid off eventually.
This debt will need to be repaid even if Paula comes off universal credit entirely and the DWP can take steps to take repayment directly from earnings if need be. As she left her work coach broke down how her payments can be split on a weekly basis to the film crew. She acknowledged that it’s a tiny amount, one that she herself would unlikely be able to live off.
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