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Impact of Universal Credit in North East England: a qualitative study of claimants and support staff
  1. Mandy Cheetham1,2,
  2. Suzanne Moffatt2,3,
  3. Michelle Addison2,4,
  4. Alice Wiseman5
  1. 1 School of Health and Social Care, Centre for Public Health Research, Teesside University, Middlesbrough, UK
  2. 2 Fuse, The Centre for Translational Research in Public Health, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK
  3. 3 Institute of Health and Society, Newcastle University, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK
  4. 4 Department of Social Sciences, Northumbria University, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK
  5. 5 Public Health Department, Gateshead Council, Gateshead, UK
  1. Correspondence to Dr Mandy Cheetham; m.cheetham{at}


Objectives To understand the impact of the roll-out of Universal Credit (UC) from the perspectives of claimants and staff supporting them in North East England.

Design Qualitative study comprising interviews and focus groups.

Setting Gateshead and Newcastle, two localities in North East England characterised by high levels of socioeconomic deprivation, where the roll-out of UC started in 2017 as a new way to deliver welfare benefits for the UK working age population.

Participants 33 UC claimants with complex needs, disabilities and health conditions and 37 staff from local government, housing, voluntary and community sector organisations.

Results Participants’ accounts of the UC claims process and the consequences of managing on UC are reported; UC negatively impacts on material wellbeing, physical and mental health, social and family lives. UC claimants described the digital claims process as complicated, disorientating, impersonal, hostile and demeaning. Claimants reported being pushed into debt, rent arrears, housing insecurity, fuel and food poverty through UC. System failures, indifference and delays in receipt of UC entitlements exacerbated the difficulties of managing on a low income. The threat of punitive sanctions for failing to meet the enhanced conditionality requirements under UC added to claimant’s vulnerabilities and distress. Staff reported concerns for claimants and additional pressures on health services, local government and voluntary and community sector organisations as a result of UC.

Conclusions The findings add considerable detail to emerging evidence of the deleterious effects of UC on vulnerable claimants’ health and wellbeing. Our evidence suggests that UC is undermining vulnerable claimants’ mental health, increasing the risk of poverty, hardship, destitution and suicidality. Major, evidence-informed revisions are required to improve the design and implementation of UC to prevent further adverse effects before large numbers of people move on to UC, as planned by the UK government.

  • mental health
  • public health
  • qualitative research

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  • Contributors MC, AW and SM designed the study. MC, MA and SM undertook data collection. MC and SM undertook data analysis and interpretation. MC and SM drafted the manuscript. All authors subsequently commented on the draft manuscript, revising the content, and approved the final version for publication.

  • Funding The study was commissioned by Gateshead Council Public Health Team. Additional support from Fuse, the Centre for Translational Research in Public Health and Newcastle University Social Determinants Health theme is gratefully acknowledged. MC, SM and MA are members of Fuse, the Centre for Translational Research in Public Health ( Fuse is a collaboration between Durham, Newcastle, Northumbria, Teesside andSunderland Universities . Funding for Fuse comes from the National Institute for Public Health Research (NIHR) School for Public Health Research ( The views expressed in this paper do not necessarily represent those of the funders. These funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.

  • Competing interests Co-author AW is Director of Public Health at Gateshead Council and contributed to discussions about the study design and research questions, but did not undertake data collection, analysis or interpretation of the data or report writing. Members of the research advisory group included AW and representatives from Teesside University and Citizens Advice Gateshead, who contributed to discussions about the implications of the findings, and the decision to submit the paper for publication.

  • Ethics approval This study was approved by Teesside University Health and Social Care Ethics and Research Governance Committee (ref.009/18) and Newcastle University (ref. 1487/3928). R&D approval was granted from Gateshead Council.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • Data sharing statement No additional data are available.

  • Patient consent for publication Not required.