Universal Credit and victims of modern slavery

Universal Credit is the new system to help with living costs of people on low or nil-income in the UK and is gradually being rolled out nationally to replace the current legacy benefit scheme. This will affect most people we work with who seek government-funded support while recovering from trauma and becoming ready for work.

Hope for Justice’s Advocacy team has been taking time to train to see how we can support people we work with to get the most out of Universal Credit. There are some potential benefits to the new system, especially in creating incentives for people in work and minimising penalties suffered by those in irregular employment, who make up a significant proportion of those we work with.

The training also uncovered areas where vulnerabilities common to people we work with are likely to place them at a disadvantage when claiming Universal Credit. Specifically, the new system makes assumptions about claimants’ circumstances which do not apply to many survivors of modern slavery.

Need for competencies in English and IT

The new online-based coaching system appears to be based on the assumption that claimants 1) speak English and 2) are IT literate.

Most survivors we work with have limited English and IT skills, especially in the early stages of recovery.

Our experience so far is that survivors transitioning to Universal Credit have required extra support to make sure their claim is set up correctly.

Applying for short-term benefit advances

It has been well documented that there can be long delays at the beginning of a claim for Universal Credit. Short-term benefit advances can be applied for to make sure claimants are able to survive this initial period without payment. The people we support do not have friends and family to turn to, and so are at risk of re-exploitation when they have no income.

However, payments are discretionary and if not granted, people could face months without payments, affecting their ability to keep up with bills and rent. Survivors of modern slavery, with limited literacy skills, will need to depend on support workers and advocates to put together a compelling application. If an application is unsuccessful, there is no right of appeal, potentially placing survivors at a high risk of destitution.

Hope for Justice’s experience with Jobseekers’ Allowance has been that applications are often initially unsuccessful and full circumstances are only considered on appeal. Without the option of an appeals process, there is an increased onus on advocates to create a strong case from the outset.

Demonstrating previous work

Hope for Justice Independent Modern Slavery Advocates assisting a survivor (identity blurred)

Hope for Justice Independent Modern Slavery Advocates assisting a survivor (identity blurred)

Most survivors we work with are EEA (European Economic Area) nationals. With legacy benefits, EEA nationals residing in UK for three months or more are able to claim Jobseekers’ Allowance for an initial 91 days without having to prove previous work.

To claim Universal Credit, claimants have to demonstrate that they have been working in the UK even if they are already receiving Jobseekers’ Allowance and Housing Benefit.

Although most survivors of modern slavery have been engaging in exploitative work – as a domestic servant, in forced labour, sexual services, etc – it is very difficult to provide evidence of work without payslips.

So far, Hope for Justice has needed to advocate to demonstrate eligibility on behalf of people transitioning to Universal Credit, even if they were considered eligible under the old system. Unless they have alternative rights, survivors receiving Jobseekers’ Allowance risk losing financial support when transitioning to Universal Credit without the right advocacy in place.

Bank accounts

Hope for Justice’s experience so far has been that Universal Credit payments need to be made into a bank account. With Jobseekers’ Allowance there were alternative arrangements that could be made.

Survivors of modern slavery routinely face challenges setting up bank accounts, especially if their identity has been used by their traffickers to engage in fraudulent activity. Setting up a bank account in such circumstances can take several months, even with advocacy. If payments are dependent on claimants having access to a bank, survivors may suffer disproportionate delays in receiving payments to which they are entitled.

The future of Universal Credit for survivors of modern slavery

Universal Credit is a relatively new scheme which is being rolled out gradually across the country. Although Universal Credit aims to increase personal responsibility, dues to the specific vulnerabilities of survivors of modern slavery it may have the opposite effect, increasing dependency on advocacy support and hindering the recovery process.

Hope for Justice are optimistic that Universal Credit has the potential to help encourage people we work with to engage in work through creating clear incentives and advantages for people in employment. However, it is important that specific vulnerabilities are considered, as the scheme develops, in order to offer survivors of modern slavery equal opportunities of success.