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.