How my battle over universal credit could stop me becoming a social worker

A Step Up to Social Work trainee talks about how the benefit system is interfering with his ability to become a social worker

Photo: md3d/Fotolia

by Anonymous

I’m a father of three children. I have worked in various roles supporting children and young people for six years since graduating from university.

I have wanted to add social work study to my degree for many years, however with the rise in fees this wasn’t financially viable. Then I read about Step Up to Social Work and applied. My partner and I were overjoyed when I received my offer as the course is so hard to get on to.

Where I live was one of the first areas to trial universal credit full service.

As a family we were transferred from the tax credit system to universal credit last year, when my partner and I decided to live together. We have found the system difficult to use, the support lines unhelpful and the staff unable to answer basic questions.

The application process and wait times would have left us in financial difficulty if it wasn’t for a small amount of savings and us being financially responsible. We consider ourselves fairly intelligent and stable, but we have found the system hard.

At the start of this year I started Step Up to Social Work.


You can only inform the government of changes in circumstance the day they happen. I did this online and followed it with a phone call to explain, as there isn’t a ‘tick box’ for our circumstances.

The situation is that, while I am a ‘student’, the government website describes me as a trainee, learning on the job.

I receive a bursary, as a direct replacement for earnings, paid by the Department for Education, to encourage me to train as a social worker. I work as a student social worker/family support worker in a children’s centre for 32 hours per week and attend university for seven hours.

There is no ‘box’ online that describes my situation, so I ticked employed and phoned to explain. I was told not to worry. In February we received a massive overpayment from universal credit and so I called to check it was right.

After discussing the situation again, I was told the bursary had been counted as ‘other income ‘ and I was considered a full-time student.

We are now in debt to the DWP to the tune of £1212.20. Furthermore, our award had been cut from £588 per month to £80. We asked for a mandatory reconsideration based upon this bursary being a direct replacement for earnings and that I work on placement for the council for 32 hours per week. This appeal failed.

Pushing family into poverty

We are now left with these options: pushing our family into poverty to continue the course, me leaving my family to ensure they receive financial support, or leaving Step Up to Social Work. We were led to believe the point of universal credit was to encourage people to better themselves, however it seems in our case that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is discouraging social mobility.

There seems to be no joined up thinking, Step Up is a government initiative that describes itself as ‘Learning on the job, working for a local authority ‘ yet the DWP don’t recognise this.

It seems to be a matter of semantics and box ticking, if you don’t fit neatly in a box then the call advisors don’t know how to help. I have asked to speak to complaints managers, case managers, their press office, my work coach.

My serious complaints and concerns are always ignored, even when they regard system failures of what the DWP describe as a Beta test system. Universal credit recipients are being used as ‘test subjects’ to see how the system works, this is affecting people’s lives and several deaths have been related to welfare reform. The government work and pensions committee has previously warned over its impact. The charity Citizens Advice have said its failing too many people.

We aren’t looking for a hand out, just a hand up and what other working families are awarded. In 11 months’ time, when I graduate, our family will never again require welfare.

Further to this affecting us personally it has also spoken to my professional identity and values. I feel the system is failing the most vulnerable and is oppressive to those trying to better themselves.

The difficulty in using the system will affect so many with disabilities, mental health problems, cognitive difficulties, low earners and foreign nationals. The regulations and legislation surrounding welfare reform are complex and contradictory.

As fairly well-educated people with a small amount of savings we feel we are fighting a losing battle challenging this in tribunal, I can only imagine how less privileged people may feel.

We would like support for our personal situation but also bring attention to similar cases and challenge the toxic message that welfare recipients are underclass ‘scroungers’, which has been depicted in the media.

This piece was written anonymously.

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0 Responses to How my battle over universal credit could stop me becoming a social worker

  1. Aneta March 23, 2018 at 11:44 pm #

    Great explanation of ‘lobster pot’-UC. I’m in same situation-foreign national. Good luck to you and your family!

  2. Helen Webb March 24, 2018 at 9:53 am #

    Wow. Well written. Those on universal credit are at a real disadvantage in life. It is an ill thought out benefit designed only to reduce cost. It is also a tick box benefit. How many people do not fit into the prescribed boxes.
    This is an ignored section of society which is increasingly being punished for existing.
    It is the responsibility of those in social work to raise the awareness of the misery it can cause.

  3. Ticket Number 101 March 25, 2018 at 6:31 pm #

    This has nothing to do with Universal Credit but the benefit system as a whole. I did my access course back in 2006 and later after completing it, I was sent an overpayment letter. It turned out that I was prohibited from receiving benefits while a full time student. Although I repaid the sums, I remember thinking the system was designed to keep people in fixed in a certain social disadvantage. It does not reward aspiration. I am surprised that in 2018, after “we want to make work pay” nonsense, they still prevent people who want to develop from doing so. Anyway, the best you can do for now in my view is temporarily find a way to part with family as a strategic move. You can be together but not a household lest this will be the reason why you may continue to suffer. You have approached them sensibly but i’m sorry to say you may well have been speaking to a laptop in Mumbai. That you even have some savings is really not something they particularly like to hear as it denotes you are not suffering, relative to those who for example are living off food banks. Maybe my suggestion is extreme but if you carry on in that trajectory, something will have to give. Do you want your partner to inevitably have to leave or do you want to manage this? Do you want to finish what you have started and chart a more secure future? I wish you all the best.

  4. LJ March 25, 2018 at 8:18 pm #

    I am also a Step Up student, and whilst I am not experiencing exactly the same issue, the bursary has caused me issues with my childcare costs. This is because it is untaxed, and therefore, cannot be counted as income from employment, so I am not eligible for the 30 hours childcare for my 3 year old. This has been very difficult to manage, as I have taken a significant reduction in salary to go on the course, and now have a signifcantly higher childcare bill, as I am working full time and also have to pay for after school clubs for my older son. I hope you manage to continue with the course, as like you, I feel we are so lucky to have got onto it, as without the bursary I could never have studied to become a Social Worker. What you state is so true, its counter-intuitive, and an example of government departments not communicating and working together is poeple’s interests. Good luck to you!

  5. Bev March 28, 2018 at 3:54 pm #

    Please if you want to become a social worker you will find a way!
    I had 18 years of valuable experience but had to pay to train/no bursary a student loan and a job! I was a single parent, having contact issues and little support. It’s part of what enabled me to be resourceful and in control of my career. I have never been reliant on benefits as a single parent/had no maintenance and got on with it…
    After over 30 years of working inn Heath & social care i have paid off my student loan.
    I think I am a good role model for families.
    Life can be very unfair and we should fight for social justice but we also shouldn’t loose sight of resourcefulness.
    Good luck with which ever path you choose.

  6. MHM March 28, 2018 at 5:37 pm #

    Im experiencing the same problems. Please bring this up with Lyn Romeo (Chief School worker – Adults) and/or Liz Trowler (Chief Social Worker (Children’s) – they are at Department of Heath and also Department of Education. I have. Only thing is because I am disabled I have been advised by the DWP to stay on ESA. I qualify for help under ESA and help under Access to Work(AtW). Return to Social Work and Step Up are recognised by Central Government as equivalent to apprenticeship schemes and as such you should be able to still remain on benefit and attend the courses – your circumstances should not change as per other apprenticeships. However I can’t receive support from both I have to choose – this is based on incorrect information given and spouted out by people who work at the DWP. They have not been handed down policy or guidance from Central Government about how to administer these schemes – they have not heard about experienced social workers returning to their profession. . If I elect to receive help from AtW then I will need to sign off of ESA however I cannot do that in time in time because Im in the Support Group then I have to attend another assessment which will determine whether I am fit to work or not – fair enough – but there is a a likely 6/8 weeks waiting time. The objective of EsA is in its name Employment and Support Allowance whereby the DWP help me to return to and find appropriate supportive work. However it seems that I know at lot more than the staff at DWP – they appear to be sometimes lacking in knowledge in their job role – suppose we worked that way in social work. There is a Return to Practice Scheme for nurses and they are recognised as a profession so why not social workers. We need recognition from the Chief Social Workers – have a look on Twitter they are always on there tweeting.