Universal credit is failing military veterans, study finds

Veterans with complex needs report overwhelmingly negative experiences of benefits system

Ex-service personnel with physical and mental health issues have described how they felt ignored and let down by their country after falling foul of a social security system that failed to offer adequate support when they fell on hard times.

Research has found that many armed forces veterans with complex needs report overwhelmingly negative experiences of universal credit, fit-for-work tests used to gauge eligibility for disability benefits, and benefit sanctions.

Veterans found it difficult to navigate what some described as a bewildering social security system, with universal credit adding an extra layer of complexity, the study commissioned by the Forces in Mind Trust charity said.

Many reported that they were reluctant to claim benefits in the first place – seeing it as a sign of failure – but after they signed on they found social security officials often did not understand or account for their experiences, needs, or health conditions.

In one extreme case an interviewee with post-traumatic stress disorder reported a fit-for-work test where the assessor refused his request for a five minute break if he began to feel unwell. “He said: ‘To be honest, all you veterans that say you’ve got PTSD and everything, it’s just a crock of shit.’”

Another underwent a fit-for-work test where he was not asked a single question about his PTSD, even though that was the main reason he was on benefits. “They were asking me about how far I could walk and could I move my arms and legs, and pretty much that was it. There was nothing at all about mental health.”

The study concluded that benefit sanctions should be scrapped for veterans who left the service with physical or mental impairments. It found sanctions were ineffective in moving jobless veterans into work, although they could often push claimants into poverty and ill health.

One veteran described how he was was plunged into severe hardship after being sanctioned – when benefits are stopped for supposed rule breaches – while on universal credit: “I was in food banks, I was in skips, I was behind Greggs in the bins,” he told interviewers.

He said he felt he had played by the rules but had been let down by his country at a time when he had been in desperate need of support. “I am shocked and absolutely so let down and so deflated … After 39 years working, paying national insurance contributions, first time in my life, aged 54, need some help … no money, no food, no nothing. Is this country for me, is this country for you?”

Almost a third of the first wave of 68 interviewees reported being sanctioned. One said he was sanctioned for spending 27 hours job searching, rather than the mandated 35 hours. Another was sanctioned after he attended a job interview rather than a meeting at the jobcentre.Lisa Scullion, associate director of the Sustainable Housing and Urban Studies Unit at the University of Salford, who led the research, said: “We found people who desperately did not want to claim benefits and only did so as a last resort, but who found the system baffling and had been given little preparation for dealing with it.”

The research conducted 120 in-depth interviews with 68 veterans claiming social security benefits and their families, in two phases between 2017 and 2019. The sample ranged in age from 18 to 65 and the majority had served in the army. Most were men, and most had mental or physical disabilities.

The DWP said: “This research recognises that the majority of people are able to make a successful transition to life outside the armed forces, with 82% of veterans employed within six months after leaving.

“We deeply value the service of our armed forces and we are pleased the report takes into account the series of adjustments made to Jobcentre Plus and other DWP services – including through our Armed Forces Champions – to better support current and ex-personnel and their families. Working with MoD Career Transition Partnership and providers giving specialist support, such as the Royal British Legion, is just part of this.”

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Patrick Butler Social policy editor

The GuardianTramp

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