Computer says 'no!' - how good is information provision in universal credit?
“It’s a fundamental principle in a democracy that governmental bodies must have reasons for their decisions… that they should be able to explain what those reasons are… [and any] decision should be open to review or appeal.” So begins our latest report, Computer says ‘No!’ These words are from former Court of Appeal Judge Sir Stephen Sedley, who offers the benefit of his many years of legal experience to something that often gets overlooked as too technical, but which can affect the day-to-day lives of many people: what information claimants are given about decisions relating to their universal credit support, and what information they have about challenging any of those decisions.
Our new report exposes how people claiming universal credit are kept in the dark about what they are getting – the online statements do not explain in full how universal credit amounts are calculated. This means that people cannot easily check if they are getting what they should be getting, and find it harder to predict how their payment will change if their circumstances do. This matters not just because we know the government does get things wrong when calculating benefits, but also because there is a vital principle at stake. In our social security system, decisions are made all the time about what support people are entitled to (for example when they are awarded help with rent, deemed fit for work, or given a sanction). If people cannot clearly see what those decisions are, they cannot challenge them when errors are made.
To take just one example, let’s look at the case of a working mother who we’ll call Sarah. Sarah, who works two part-time jobs to support herself and her daughter, claimed universal credit when she couldn’t make ends meet. She was surprised to get much less support than she was expecting. She could see on her universal credit online account that she was getting the standard allowance and support for housing costs, as well as details of her earnings and how these affected her universal credit. Sarah couldn’t see anything wrong, but a welfare rights adviser spotted that there was no child element included for her daughter and the work allowance – which she was entitled to as a working parent – had also been missed. As a result Sarah and her daughter were about £400 worse off each month than they should have been.
Most people do not have easy access to a welfare rights adviser, and if people do not realise there is a problem they may never seek advice. The information given to people has to be provided in an upfront, comprehensive way to help them navigate the supposedly ‘simple’ universal credit system. This information should include a full breakdown of how their universal credit has been calculated, including noting where someone is not eligible for a particular component. If that had happened in Sarah’s case, she would have quickly seen that her daughter had not been taken into account.
Other areas where we see particular confusion are the calculation of housing and childcare costs, and the deductions made from people’s awards for debts. The ways in which these are calculated can be complicated, and are not explained in full making it difficult for errors to be detected.
The second problem our report reveals is that people don’t always know what they can do if they discover decisions they want to challenge. There is a process set out in law, but the information people are given about their appeal rights does not do enough to help claimants understand how to challenge a decision.
The online system makes it difficult for claimants to identify decisions as they are often hidden within a range of processes and communications. It’s only when a claimant can see how and when a decision has been made that they’re able to tell whether this decision was correct. And it’s only when a claimant knows how they can challenge an incorrect decision that they can go about getting it fixed. If the decision-making is murky you can’t begin to challenge it. If you don’t know how to challenge it then the chances of getting it fixed are slim to none. Our report sets out practical ways in which the DWP could improve the information it provides to people receiving universal credit, to make sure all decisions and appeal rights are clearly explained. As more and more people move on to universal credit and as we see the effect wrong decisions can have on people’s lives, we urge the DWP to act to fix these problems urgently.