Elaine Donnelly says she’s battle weary. Numb. Elaine isn’t a Universal Credit claimant nor is she a politician, she just tries to help the sick and the dying to navigate the complexities of their Universal Credit claims.
Elaine works with the Highland Macmillan Citizen’s Advice Bureau partnership and has been dealing with Universal Credit cases for people undergoing cancer treatment and for those who are terminally ill, and kindly spoke at the Universal Credit Summit that I recently hosted in Inverness.
During debates in Parliament, the UK government benches have often accused those who have flagged up the incidents of personal devastation, humiliation and desperation as “scaremongering”. So I invited the Prime Minister and all of the Tory MPs to the summit to hear from the people who are affected.
Not one attended.
However a range of agencies, local politicians, service providers, and claimants came together at the event to share their experiences of Universal Credit and the roll out, which is now stating to impact on other areas of the UK. The event was an opportunity to hear from the charities that have to pick up the pieces and try to find ways of helping people cope with the results of the systemic failures that we, locally, have witnessed since the pilot started in 2013.
It was the testimony from those brave constituents who attended that was most heart-breaking. By the conclusion of the meeting, the entire room felt emotionally exhausted. These were stories not just from the unemployed but from people in work, including working mums, the self-employed, the disabled and, shockingly, the dying.
The stories of people like Les, who had only 24p to last two weeks, or Natalie, a very pregnant mum of two who had to wait four months, over Christmas, to receive payments, are bad enough. But Elaine from Citizens Advice sees people who are dealing with the gravest trauma - losing their lives. She moves mountains to help them, enlisting my office and anybody else who can help but the conveyor belt of cases is relentless, and she is often left facing a brick wall.
She spoke of one constituent who was dealing with the diagnosed of cancer and a course of chemotherapy. Imagine facing the stress of not knowing the outcome of your treatment, while being told you will not be getting any support payment from Universal Credit for six weeks? Add to that the fact it is actually going to take three months, and when the payment eventually comes through, it is wrong. Worse still, a £500 deduction is taken to repay another benefit that you have never actually claimed or received. It is a cruel and unnecessary condition of Universal Credit that cancer patients have to wait for their entitlements.
These are not difficult things to sort. Hence why I have pleaded with the Prime Minister to act to end the heartache Universal Credit is causing, and to end the impact it is having on those who are terminally ill. Changes to Universal Credit now mean that there is a requirement for those claiming Universal Credit, to “self-certify” that they are dying to complete their claim.
This does not match up with reality. Many people ask their doctors to spare them the bad news, because they simply can’t face it. Others simply do not have the capacity to deal with their prognosis – nor should they have to. Yet changes implemented through Universal Credit mean regardless of all else, the terminally ill are expected to grapple with this devastating news personally. This must change – the government has no right to remove their rights is such a thoughtless way.
In the Autumn Budget 2017, the chancellor made one concession - reducing the waiting time by a week - but the government is yet to address the underlying problems. Stopping the wait for cancer patients and removing the self-certification requirements would not fix the manifest and numerous problems of Universal Credit, but it would make life more bearable for those in a desperate position. And it would be a bit of a respite for Elaine and those like her throughout the nations of the UK who are, or will be, picking up the pieces.
Drew Hendry is SNP MP for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey.