Universal Credit will be rolled out across England and Wales next year, moving claimants’ existing benefits to a single monthly payment which must be applied for online.
Charities and organisations have expressed concern that the most vulnerable of people will be left out of pocket if more support is not given – so where does this leave disabled claimants?
The National Audit Office carried out a report on Universal credit, which was published in July, and said there was no practical alternative to continuing with Universal Credit as proceedings had already begun. It studied some areas included in a pilot scheme.
The NAO added, “Throughout the introduction of Universal Credit local and national organisations that represent and support claimants have raised a number of issues about the way Universal Credit works in practice.
“The Department for Work & Pensions (DWP) has responded to simple ideas to improve the digital system but defended itself from those that it viewed as being opposed to the policy in principle.
“It does not accept that Universal Credit has caused hardship among claimants, because it makes advances available, and believes that if claimants take up these opportunities hardship should not occur.
“This has led it to often dismiss evidence of claimants’ difficulties and hardship instead of working with these bodies to establish an evidence base for what is actually happening. The result has been a dialogue of claim and counter-claim and gives the unhelpful impression of a Department that is unsympathetic to claimants.”
The NAO found that the DWP “has now got a better grip of the programme”, adding, “However, we cannot judge the value for money on the current state of programme management alone. Both we, and the DWP, doubt it will ever be possible for the DWP to measure whether the economic goal of increasing employment has been achieved.
“This, the extended timescales and the cost of running Universal Credit compared to the benefits it replaces cause us to conclude that the project is not value for money now, and that its future value for money is unproven.”
Meanwhile, mental health charity Mind urged the Government to delay the changes, amid fears that most vulnerable members of society will struggle to cope with the changes.
Sophie Corlett, Director of External Relations, said, “We are hugely concerned about the ramifications of these proposals, which leave open the real possibility that many people with mental health problems could see their benefits stopped entirely while they struggle with the process of applying for Universal Credit. These are people who have already been through a rigorous and stressful assessment process and declared eligible for benefits because they are disabled or unwell.
“Already, far too many people are losing out because they can’t navigate the online system for Universal Credit or fill out complex forms when they’re unwell. The safeguards the Government has proposed simply do not address the concern that people will slip through the net and be left without a source of income.
“This ill-advised, short-sighted, cost-cutting measure should be scrapped. It’s completely unfair to place all the responsibility on severely unwell people to have to reapply for a new benefit and risk losing their income in the process. If the Government really is determined to move people over to this much-criticised new benefit, they should take responsibility for moving people onto it smoothly and safely while protecting their income and their health.”
Universal Credit replaces six benefits:
• Child Tax Credit
• Housing Benefit
• Income Support
• Income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA)
• Income-related Employment and Support Allowance (ESA)
• Working Tax Credit
The worry that vulnerable people who are struggling with the process of transferring benefits will be left without an income has been dismissed by the Government, who insist top-up payments will be made to ensure people are no worse off under the new system.
But The Smith Institute reported late last year, during the trials, that people struggled to manage their new financial arrangement and that 36% of the total rent owed by claimants was not paid after the scheme was introduced in Southwark and Croydon.
Poverty charity the Joseph Rowntree Foundation said, ““There are major design flaws in the rollout of Universal Credit which have been left unfixed. Delays and sanctions leave people without enough to live on, and they struggle to pay off debt from advance payments. That’s not right. This system needs an urgent overhaul so that people’s essential needs are met without trapping them in long-term poverty.”
And Citizens Advice issued findings that people with unstable finances five times more likely to turn to high-cost credit. It said UK households struggling on volatile incomes are five times more likely to turn to high-cost credit products such as rent to own and doorstep lending.
People in insecure work are particularly at risk, it said, and last year almost half of UK adults (48%) experienced at least one monthly drop in their income. One in five (21%) people with a volatile income said they went without food or other essentials in order to pay their bills last year.
Gillian Guy, Chief Executive of Citizens Advice, said, “Borrowing can help people manage their budgets, but evidence shows high cost credit products can leave people trapped in unmanageable debt.”
Be prepared: advice from the experts
Ask for help
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation warned that one claimant had to make five trips to her library to fill in her application, and that there was confusion of the receipt for childcare which needed to be produced. The charity added, “Some clearer guidance and – in some cases – someone to sit with them and help complete the form would make a difference.”
Check online that you’ve been through all the steps needed to apply – including setting up an online account and arranging an interview with the Job Centre – otherwise you might not get your Universal Credit payment. And if you live with your partner, you’ll usually need to apply together to make a ‘joint claim’.
You’ll need access to the internet, as you can only claim Universal Credit online – there’s no paper form.
Citizen’s Advice add, “If you aren’t confident using the internet, ask your local council about help getting online. You might be able to apply by phone or in person instead of online.”
Disability charity Scope advises that the six-week waiting period should be considered and it explains the process: “This includes a 7-day waiting period, one calendar month assessment period and one week to process the payment. The month’s payment is due a week after the end of the assessment period. Your entitlement for the month is based on your situation and your income in the assessment period. The 7-day waiting period will not apply to new claims from February 2018.”
Don’t fall into the trap of high-cost borrowing. Citizens Advice say, “You can ask for an advance payment of Universal Credit to help you get by while you're waiting for your first payment. You should ask for an advance payment if you don’t think you’ll have enough money to live on between when you apply and when you get your first payment.” But it urges caution as, “The advance payment is a loan – you’ll have to pay it back, but you won’t need to pay any interest.”
See Citizensadvice.org.uk for more information on Universal Credit.
Mencap lobbies Parliament for disability changes: https://www.ucan2magazine.co.uk/content/mencap-lobbies-parliament
NINE IN TEN DISABLED PEOPLE ON LOW INCOMES SEEING NO SIGN OF IMPROVING FINANCES: https://www.ucan2magazine.co.uk/node/5897
Burning Issues with Jenni Meredith: https://www.ucan2magazine.co.uk/blog/jenni-meredith