Magherafelt man Kenny McKay has started an online petition calling for Universal Credit to be changed after going through “an horrendous time.”
On one occasion, after deductions for rent etc from his payment, he had just £18 left in his account to support himself, his wife, and son.
The 61-year-old painter was unable to work after falling ill two months ago and went seeking Working Tax Credit.
However, he says, he was “forced” to apply for Universal Credit. “I fell into this by accident,” he said. “But it is unjust and people have to stand up and say it is unjust.
“I have described it as a bit like being in an open prison and there is no chance of parole.”
Kenny, who has been a painter for 34 years, is hoping to get a job as a maintenance fitter as he sees this as the only way out of Universal Credit.
“The problem is it is only for 20 hours a week and that is not enough hours to bring in a living wage of between £350 and £500 a week,” he continued. “If I told them that they would tell me to go away and try and get another 15 hours.”
Kenny said Universal Credit had caused major stresses in his household, and he knows other people are suffering.
“The old system, with all its faults, was better in that you could plan to pay a bill. In this (Universal Credit) you don’t know whether you are going to get money or not. It’s demeaning and wrecks people’s lives.”
He claimed “faceless people” can stop payments at anytime “without so much as a phone call or any consultation.”
When he first signed on he had weekly trips to make to the social security office at Station Road to fill in a ‘journal’ even though he was in a pain for his ailment. Now he has to report on a monthly basis.
He said there doesn’t seem to be an allowance for sickness in Universal Credit , which is currently being rolled out in the Mid Ulster area.
“You have to be prepared or in a state of readiness for work,” he said. “Not easy if you are ill and providing sick notes to show that you are ill.”
Such was his frustation with the system that he started a petition on Change.org called ‘killuniversalcredit’
It’s received some support but Kenny believes if something is unjust then people should stand up and make their voices heard. “The more people shout they have to listen,” he said.
SDLP MLA Patsy McGlone said despite all the glossy PR, Universal Credit is “a Tory policy designed to cut back on benefits.”
Mr McGlone said: “While gradually being rolled out across the North, first time claimants can expect delayed payment as it’s done on a monthly assessment cycle.
“That monthly assessment creates problems for working people which they might not have experienced with Tax Credit - with monthly Universal Credit causing payments to fluctuate from acceptable to zero and making it impossible for people to budget properly from month to month. This creates difficulties for both employed and self-employed trying to feed families.
“As it replaces six means-tested benefits and Tax Credits: income based Jobseeker’s Allowance, Housing Benefit, Working Tax Credit, Child Tax Credit, income-based ESA and Income Support, many people will be affected in the switch over by July 2019.
“Anyone currently on any of these benefits and tempted to make a claim for Universal Credit now should take good advice beforehand in case they might wind up financially worse off through losing some of the existing benefit premium payments.”
A Department for Communities spokesperson said: “Universal Credit replaces Jobseeker’s Allowance (income based), Employment Support Allowance (income-related), Income Support, Housing Benefit (rental), Working Tax Credit and Child Tax Credits for people aged over 18 and under State Pension age.
“Universal Credit is initially only available for new claimants. Some claimants in receipt of the impacted benefits may move to Universal Credit earlier, where their circumstances have changed. Existing claimants of these benefits who do not have a change in their circumstances will transfer to Universal Credit between July 2019 and March 2023
“In Northern Ireland claimants receive twice monthly payments to help with budgeting and their housing costs are paid directly to the landlord to prevent potential issues with rent arrears. Universal Credit is assessed monthly and paid in arrears, all claimants are offered an Advance Payment if they need financial support during the wait for their first payment.
“As recommended by the Welfare Reform Working Group, the Department has also put in place a Universal Credit Contingency Fund to assist Universal Credit claimants who may experience hardship. The Department also offers a Discretionary Support Scheme to assist claimants who require short-term assistance in a crisis or emergency situation. Anyone who may be experiencing hardship should contact the Department for advice and to ensure that they are receiving all of the benefits that they may be entitled to.”