Call for change in Universal Credit rules for couples

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Call for change in Universal Credit rules for couples

The way Universal Credit is designed does not fit the way modern couples and families live their lives, according to researchers.

A report by Universities of Bath and Oxford, entitled Uncharted Territory: Universal Credit, Couples and Money, says that some couples experience issues with the system.

In the study – believed to be the first independent research to focus on couples claiming the benefit – interviews were conducted with 53 households.

A person claiming Universal Credit in a couple may not realise that how much benefit they receive, or whether they receive any at all, depends on both partners’ income and needs, it found.

Some claimants inherited debts from their partner – sometimes from long before the couple had met – with repayments automatically deducted from the couple’s payments.

The research also found that couples struggled with Universal Credit payments varying from month to month, particularly for those with two wages paid at different times.

Universal Credit is a single payment between the partners in a couple, which some of those interviewed found difficult.

Fran Bennett, from the Department of Social Policy and Intervention at the University of Oxford, said: “With an unprecedented number of additional Universal Credit claims brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic, policy makers need urgently to learn from these findings so others do not find themselves in the same boat as our participants.

“We are calling on the Government to give more priority to reconsidering how couples are treated in the Universal Credit system.

“In the first instance, giving access to some income for both partners would be safer and fairer.

“The Government needs to create more security for claimants by tackling the reimbursement of childcare costs in arrears, and the unpredictability of Universal Credit payments, which can affect two-earner families the most.

“Policy changes more widely should ensure some financial independence for both partners as the best basis for modern relationships and how families live their lives today.”

The research found women in particular were not keen on joint accounts and the amalgamation of different benefits into one could upset the balance of both partners having some income of their own.

Some women had suffered from financial coercion and control in previous relationships, the study found.

Paying the whole monthly lump sum to the woman was not a solution either, as they were already more likely to take on the burden of managing the entire household budget, researchers said.

Dr Rita Griffiths, from the Institute for Policy Research at the University of Bath, said: “Having to decide who should get the Universal Credit and how the money should be distributed and managed was particularly hard for couples who had no other source of income.

“It sometimes obliged one partner to go ‘cap in hand’ to the other to ask for a share of the money. It could also allow one partner to take control of the household’s entire monthly income.

“Because most of the couples we interviewed were in committed relationships and trusted each other, this generally didn’t happen.

“However, many felt that a single payment harked back to a bygone era of male breadwinners, and was out of step with modern relationships in which both partners go out to work, manage their own money and contribute to the household finances.”

In the study, interviews were conducted with 53 households, with Universal Credit the main source of income for 31.

Of the 41 couples interviewed, 10 were dual-earner, 13 were one-earner and 18 had no earners.

Twelve were married and the rest were cohabiting.

A spokesman for the Department of Work and Pensions said: “This study is based on a tiny sample size and it would be hugely misleading to draw widespread conclusions from it.

“It is normal to expect a household to share debts and costs, such as rent, utilities or mortgage payments, and Universal Credit mirrors this.

“Most couples can and want to manage their finances jointly but split payments are available for the small minority who may benefit from them.”

A recent survey of claimants found 80% were satisfied with the support they have received, he said.

The Uncharted Territory report, which will be launched at an online event on Monday, is the first stage in a three-year research project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

Participants will be interviewed again in autumn 2020 to find out what changes there have been, including how couples with children make decisions about work and care.

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