Universal Credit calculated using 'flawed algorithm' that pushes people into hunger and debt, watchdog warns

AN algorithm used to automatically calculate Universal Credit payments is "flawed" pushing vulnerable households into hunger and debt, an international watchdog has warned.

The one-size-fits-all calculation works out how much people are entitled to but its actually leaving many worse off, the Human Rights Watch (HRW) found.

The algorithm is supposed to adjust payments monthly based on changes to a claimant's income but in reality it only takes into account wages received in the same calendar month.

It doesn't make allowances for those who are paid multiple times in a month, such as weekly, fortnightly or every four weeks, which can leave households out of pocket.

The fault is estimated to affect 85,000 claimants who are sometimes paid twice in the same assessment period, for example, because payday would normally fall on a weekend or bank holiday.

The flaw in the system can make it look like someone is paid twice in one month and none in others, leaving families without cash.

What to do if you have problems claiming Universal Credit

IF you’re experiencing trouble applying for your Universal Credit, or the payments just don’t cover costs, here are your options:

  • Apply for an advance – Claimants are able to get some cash within five days rather than waiting weeks for their first payment. But it's a loan which means the repayments will be automatically deducted from your future Universal Credit payout.
  • Alternative Payment Arrangements – If you're falling behind on rent, you or your landlord may be able to apply for an APA which will get your payment sent directly to your landlord. You might also be able to change your payments to get them more frequently, or you can split the payments if you're part of a couple.
  • Budgeting Advance – You may be able to get help from the Government for emergency household costs of up to £348 if you're single, £464 if you're part of a couple or £812 if you have children. These are only in cases like your cooker breaking down or for help getting a job. You'll have to repay the advance through your regular Universal Credit payments. You'll still have to repay the loan, even if you stop claiming for Universal Credit.
  • Cut your Council Tax – You might be able to get a discount on your Council Tax or be entitled to Discretionary Housing Payments if your existing ones aren't enough to cover your rent.
  • Foodbanks – If you're really hard up and struggling to buy food and toiletries, you can find your local foodbank who will provide you with help for free. You can find your nearest one on the Trussell Trust website.

In June, three judges ruled that the flaw was "irrational and unfair" after it pushed four single mums into poverty.

While the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) accepts the ruling, it is still working on ways to fix the issue.

In the meantime, struggling families are left shortchanged and unable to pay for household bills.

The report by the HRW slammed the system for "causing hardship" and denying Brits the "rights to social security and a decent standard of living".

As well as rolling six benefits into one, Universal Credit, which was first introduced in 2013, is "predominantly digital".

On top of the automated calculations, payments are managed through an online journal, where claimants can contact work coaches without the need to visit the Jobcentre.

The report by the international watchdog found that the system pushes those with poor digital skills or who can't afford reliable online access further into poverty.

The HRW added that even though the government had increased funding to charities to help guide claimants through the management process, it's not enough while cuts to local authority budgets continue.

The austerity measures have caused councils to close community centres and libraries, which many rely on to access the internet.

It also found that the five week wait for the first payment – needed while the algorithm works out how much a person is entitled to – is forcing people to "borrow money to cope and skimping on their basic needs."

The Sun wants to Make Universal Credit Work

UNIVERSAL Credit replaces six benefits with a single monthly payment.

By the time the system is fully rolled out in 2023, nearly 7million will be on it.

But there are big problems with the flagship system – it takes five 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% of their childcare costs, they must find the money to pay for childcare upfront – we’ve heard of families waiting up to six 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:

  1. Get paid faster: The government must slash the time Brits wait for their first Universal Credit payments from five to two weeks, helping stop millions from being pushed into debt.
  2. 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 4million families.
  3. Don’t get punished for having a family: Parents should get the 85% 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 [email protected] to share your story.

The Sun's Make Universal Credit Work campaign is calling on the government to slash the wait time to two weeks as it pushes millions of families into debt.

The HRW argues that while the government works to fix the algorithm as per court orders, the government should "implement urgently needed measures" such as one off grants to help them through the wait period.

Currently, claimants can take out an "advance payment" while they wait, but it's actually a loan and with repayments deducted from the first benefit pay out.

The research was based on interviews with Universal Credit claimants and experts, official data and court filings.

Amos Toh, senior artificial intelligence and human rights researcher at HRW said: "The government’s bid to automate the benefits system – no matter the human cost – is pushing people to the brink of poverty."

He added: "Making sure the benefits system protects people’s rights is ultimately a job for humans, not an algorithm.

"Benefits are designed to help people, not kick them when they’re down.

"A human-centred approach to benefits automation will ensure the UK government is helping the people who need it most."

A DWP spokesperson told The Sun: "Universal Credit was designed to mirror the world of work, where the majority of employees receive wages monthly, and to help people get back into employment as soon as possible.

"The monthly assessment and adjustment period reflects this, and ensures that if a claimant’s income falls, they won’t have to wait several months for a rise in their Universal Credit.

"Urgent advances are available for those who need them, and we have taken steps to make debt repayments easier."

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