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Researchers from Ulster University and the University of York worked closely with a group of Universal Credit claimants in NI to produce the first claimant-led Guide to Universal Credit. The online guide contains all the essential information about Universal Credit in an engaging format, highlighting problems the participants encountered in their real-life experience and how to avoid or respond to them.

As the coronavirus jobs retention scheme comes to an end this week it is hoped this guide will support new Universal Credit claimants through the complicated application process and will continue to be a valuable resource as work begins to move claimants from legacy benefits to Universal Credit. It is also hoped the guide will remind people struggling to get by this winter that they are not alone and that there is help and support available for them.

The idea for the guide came from a participatory research project looking at the experiences of Universal Credit in Northern Ireland led by Ruth Patrick from the University of York and Mark Simpson from Ulster University. Through this project, UC: Us was established, a group of universal credit claimants living in Northern Ireland. Working closely with researchers, the group met up in a series of workshops to share their experiences of the new benefit, and to develop recommendations for change.

One key finding from research project was that participants found UC confusing and did not know where they could find accessible information that answered their questions about application and claim management.

The guide draws on real life experiences and takes claimants through the applying for universal credit, managing the claim and accessing add on support; helping applicants and claimants recognize when expert advice is required.

As well as the research team, the UC:Us members also worked with welfare rights specialists at Law Centre NI and Housing Rights, making sure that they drew on specialist, expert advice.

“If I had known…”

For those involved in UC: Us, the research project was an opportunity to help others going through a similar situation but also to remind other claimants that they are not alone, and that there are many others out there also claiming social security support.

Belfast woman Deirdre was part of the first cohort to try Universal Credit in 2018. A former teacher, due to personal circumstances Deirdre found herself unemployed and a single parent to two children. During the switch to Universal credit Deirdre was left for 9 weeks without any support and was consequently pushed into debt. Deirdre is now determined to share her experience with others and ensure that they receive the support that she needed at the time. She explained:

“Before going on benefits I was a social butterfly, the world was my oyster, but life experience and personal situation catapulted me onto Universal credit as I struggled to support my two kids as a single parent. It wasn’t a life choice, it wasn’t a decision I wanted to make and it was a very stressful time.

“Being involved in the UC:Us project helped me realise that there are other people out there in the same situation and that I am in a position to help. If I had known what I know now about Universal Credit I doubt I would have the mental health issues and anxiety and stress that I have now. This guide is basically the bible for Universal Credit. It is the go-to, and I don’t want anyone else to experience what I went through and instead have everything at the flip of a fingertip.”

“You will get there, we have”

UC:Us member Caroline shared some words of encouragement for anyone trying to navigate the system.

“Being part of the development of this Guide has been hugely important. It has not been designed by academics, it has been designed by US, the Uc:Us participants – with lived experiences of many areas of the benefit system.  I hope this guide supports others to navigate a system that can at times feel overwhelming and scary, but you have got this. You will get there, we have. Yes it has not been easy at times but knowing we are not on our own gets us through and there is always light at the end of every tunnel. Speak to your work coach, let them know your fears and worries, ask for help and assistance that is what they are there for, alongside this fabulous Guide of course.”

Ruth Patrick, University of York, said:

“As furlough ends, there will inevitably be a rising number of people applying to Universal Credit, some for the first time. This looks set to coincide with the £20 cut to universal credit, against a context of rising energy and food prices; making for a difficult winter for many. This new guide to Universal Credit is the first in the UK to have been developed by claimants themselves, working as part of the pioneering Northern Ireland based group, UC:Us. Our hope for the guide is that it will help people apply for the social security support to which they are entitled, with key lessons from people with direct experiences of Universal Credit.”

Mark Simpson, Lecturer in Law, Ulster University commented:

“Universal credit is an essential source of support to people who are unable to work for a period, or who are in low paid work. It can only play this role if people know how to start their claim and show they continue to meet the requirements. Our research with UC:Us has shown how people can struggle to find the basic information they need in an accessible format and often don’t know where to get expert advice when they have a problem. The guide is UC:Us members’ way of helping others avoid problems they have experienced. Social security is a right and we are determined that lack of knowledge should not stop people benefiting from it.”

The guide is available on the UC:US website.