LIKE so many mums, Gemma King is desperate to better herself and get off benefits so she can give her kids a better life.
But when the 25-year-old phoned the Universal Credit call centre to say she had a place on a university course, staff told her she was “crazy” to even consider studying to get a better job – warning that her benefits would be dramatically slashed.
Before having her daughters, five year old Isla and one year old Esme, Gemma worked as an estate agent near where she lives in, Llandudno, north Wales.
Now she wants to pursue a career in healthcare, so she can be a role model for her daughters and help them secure a better future.
She currently receives £935 a month in Universal Credit payments but has been told that if she takes a place on a course at Bangor University in September her benefits would be cut, leaving her with just £200 a month to live on.
Gemma is not the only Universal Credit claimant struggling with these issues, as The Sun’s Make Universal Credit Campaign has highlighted. We are calling for the waiting time for first payments to be cut, the harsh taper rate to be slashed and help with childcare to be paid upfront.
Hard-working Brits have 63p from every £1 they earn over the work allowance deducted from their UC payments.
For a single mum, this means any thing they earn over over £198 or £409, if they get help with housing benefit costs, is taxed.
The Sun wants the government to reduce the taper rate and raise the work allowance and crucially support those who want to go back to work.
The Sun wants to Make Universal Credit Work
Universal Credit replaces six benefits with a single monthly payment.
One million people are already receiving it and by the time the system is fully rolled out in 2023, nearly 7 million will be on it.
But there are big problems with the flagship new system – it takes 5 weeks to get the first payment and it could leave some families worse off by thousands of pounds a year.
And while working families can claim back up to 85 per cent of their childcare costs, they must find the money to pay for childcare upfront – we’ve heard of families waiting up to 6 months for the money.
Working parents across the country told us they’ve been unable to take on more hours – or have even turned down better paid jobs or more hours because of the amount they get their benefits cut.
It’s time to Make Universal Credit work. We want the government to:
- Get paid faster: The Government must slash the time Brits wait for their first Universal Credit payments from five to two weeks, helping stop 7 million from being pushed into debt.
- Keep more of what you earn: The work allowance should be increased and the taper rate should be slashed from from 63p to 50p, helping at least 4 million families.
- Don’t get punished for having a family: Parents should get the 85 per cent of the money they can claim for childcare upfront instead of being paid in arrears.
Together, these changes will help Make Universal Credit Work.
Join our Universal Credit Facebook group or email UniversalCredit@the-sun.co.uk to share your story.
Gemma is entitled to an £8,000 a year maintenance loan if she does take on the place but doesn’t want to be saddled with debt as she begins her new career. She already faces repaying £9,000 tuition fees and the extra burden would leave her with little spare cash.
While she does quality for a £6,800 a year grant to help with childcare and a parent learning allowance she would still be short on money after paying her rent and essential bills.
“I was really upset by the conversation I had with the call centre staff,” she told The Sun.
“He told me that even if I didn’t take the £8,000 a year maintenance loan the fact that I would be entitled to it meant it would be taken into account when calculating what Universal Credit I’d be given.
“He even said that I was crazy to think of going to university.”
“I am furious.”
“I’m in a Catch 22 situation. Either I go to university so I can get a job in the NHS, but am penalised by Universal Credit, or I spend the rest of my days on benefits. How is that right?
“If I go to university I will lose out on UC because I am entitled to a maintenance loan.”
If Gemma was to retrain and get a job as a health psychologist she could earn £31,000 a year, rising up to £60,000 as she gets more experience, but as an estate agent she would get £20,000 a year.
I want my children to be proud of me, I want to be their role model
Gemma said: “I am not a victim. I want my daughters, Esme and Isla to be proud of me, I want to be their role model.
“I’m thankful that I have a family to support me.
“I want to go to university to show the girls what can be achieved, despite the system’s worst efforts.”
Gemma also finds that because Universal Credit is calculated on her monthly income she never knows how much cash she’ll have from one week to the next.
She also finds it hard to buy her children new clothes because she has to plan everything in advance.
She said: “When I was working I could guarantee a monthly income.
“Now I can’t, and this can make some things really difficult. I mean, it’s my daughter’s birthday next month.
“I don’t have the money to just go out and buy her presents.”
She’s also worried about how she will afford childcare while studying at University.
On Universal Credit working parents are entitled to claim back 85 per cent of costs but these must be paid in advance.
But for Gemma this means she has to find a way to pay for her children to be looked after while she studies.
She adds: “Childcare is a worry.
“I’m quite lucky that we have such a large family and we all club in and watch the children between us – but the girls will miss out on socialising with other kids.
“Universal Credit is suppose to entice people to get into work but with childcare costs it can be almost impossible, even with the ‘free’ childcare, I still have to find money for food and bills.”
A DWP spokesperson said: “If people make a choice to move into education then it follows that they move across to the financial system students use, including maintenance grants and loans.
“We have reviewed Miss King’s call with DWP staff and we are happy that her queries were answered with the utmost professionalism.”