No shame in claiming Universal Credit during coronavirus crisis

David Thomson May 17, 2020
No shame in claiming Universal Credit during coronavirus crisis

It has been two months since the UK entered lock-down to tackle coronavirus. The nation faces an economic crisis and vast numbers having to claim Universal Credit.

Unless you work in a key industry, many businesses have closed temporarily or gone bust. Employees who can’t get to their place of work have been allowed to work from home or placed on furlough.

Those losing their jobs will have to apply for Universal Credit. Many will face little or no prospect of finding a job as the labour market has collapsed.

This was highlighted last week when former Scottish Labour MP Paul Sweeney admitted he had applied for Universal Credit. This came only five months after he lost his seat in the general election.

Young people hardest hit

Sweeney is in his early 30s and the consequences for many young people could be harmful. Following the 2008 financial crash, young people with GCSEs were the hardest hit, with more than 32 per cent unemployed. That compared with 13 per cent for those who had a Masters degree.

People not only face loss of income during unemployment, they also have to deal with the stigma of claiming benefits. That stigma has increased during the past ten years as successive governments used it as a way to incentivise work.

The press then created a negative culture in which those claiming Universal Credit were branded “benefits cheats” or scroungers.

MP mocked for claiming Universal Credit

While there’s sympathy for the former Glasgow North East MP, Sweeney has been mocked on Twitter. Some abuse was aimed at making Sweeney feel ashamed for claiming benefits as a former MP.

One-third of respondents to a London School of Economics (LSE) survey in 2016 said people should “feel ashamed” for claiming benefits.

That prompted Ben Baumberg Geiger, a senior lecturer in sociology and social policy at the University of Kent, to brand it emmer MP “stigmatisation”.

Sweeney has said there should be “no shame” in resorting to social security while trying to find a job. However, the former MP may find he’s not treated with the respect he deserves when he goes through the Universal Credit claims process.


In the LSE survey, almost three-fifths (58 per cent) of respondents disagreed people were “generally treated with respect when they claim benefits”.

“Claims stigma” was highlighted in the Ken Loach film I, Daniel Blake. In the movie, Blake is denied benefits and told to return to work despite his doctor confirming he is unable to work following a heart attack.

As the UK is currently under a ‘new normal’ as a result of coronavirus, the economic crisis the country faces will be around for the foreseeable future.

Therefore, ending “stigmatisation” and “claims stigma” in the benefits system would stop people feeling ashamed and treat them with the respect everyone deserves.

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