Universal credit: problems and solutions

Issue 256 (February 2017)

The roll out of the live and now full universal credit (UC) services has highlighted a number of problems. In some cases, these are caused primarily by interpretation of legislation and, in others, by DWP policies and systems. Henri Krishna summarises some of the main problems CPAG has encountered and shares solutions where we have them.

ESA pending appeal

In live service (ie, gateway) areas, someone who has requested a mandatory reconsideration or lodged an appeal against an employment and support allowance (ESA) decision should not meet the gateway condition for UC.1However, CPAG has seen cases where claimants are advised by the DWP to claim UC in these circumstances. This leads to either a stalemate between ESA and UC or even UC being awarded. In such cases, the matter should be escalated with local partnership managers in the DWP service centre dealing with the claim.2 Where UC has been awarded, the award can be surrendered (with caution) and ‘legacy benefits’ reclaimed.3

In full service areas, any new claim for a ‘legacy benefit’ triggers migration to UC. ESA pending appeal is not a new claim but a new award.4 As such, provided no new claim is made during the reconsideration period, ESA pending appeal can be awarded and migration is not triggered. The DWP has confirm this to CPAG in an email and advised that internal guidance should be available to decision makers. However, we continue to hear of cases where ESA pending appeal is refused. Such cases should be escalated urgently via the DWP’s Incident Management Team to the appropriate UC service centre. Advisers might also try speaking with an alternative DWP member of staff. Unless certain they will be better off, claimants should not feel pressurised into making a new claim as that will trigger migration to UC.

Claiming contributory benefits

In full service areas, no digital system is in place to claim contributory ESA or contribution-based jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) under the UC system. There have been frequent reports that DWP staff deny these benefits still exist under the UC system. Potential claimants were directed to claim UC, with the DWP relying on work coaches then taking clerical claims. For some claimants, this is inappropriate as they do not want, or are not entitled, to claim UC.

Pending a digital solution, the DWP has put in place interim measures whereby potential claimants make a telephone call and request a claim form is emailed to them. Different telephone numbers are given for live service and full service areas, but otherwise the process is similar. Initial reports were that calls were taking a long time to be answered and some staff were unaware of the arrangement. The information is now available on gov.uk.5

Implicit consent

The ‘Working with Representatives’ document gives DWP staff guidance on using implicit consent when speaking with advisers without a mandate or the claimant present.6 It has been an essential tool in circumstances such as claimants not being able to reach an adviser’s office or being unable to make a call themselves. The DWP has decided that implicit consent should not apply under the UC full service.7 This is because claimants will have direct digital contact with the DWP and access to all relevant information about their awards via their online accounts and can share that information if they need to. It also cites it as too great a risk to claimants’ personal data. If necessary, claimants can give explicit consent in person, by three-way phone call or via their online accounts, although normally for specific time-limited issues only. The DWP says that where claimants are unable to manage their own affairs, appointeeship is still available.

Appointees

UC uses the rules which allow appointees and some other legally recognised representatives to act on a claimant’s behalf.8 However, the online system in full service areas does not have the capacity to allow appointees to make new claims for UC. When approached, local job centres have been unable to provide information about how to work around this problem.

On making enquiries with the DWP, guidance says where an appointee is not already registered, an application for appointeeship must be made in writing.9 Following this, the DWP visiting team will normally see the proposed appointee and claimant within 10 days. If accepted, the appointee is then added onto the system by the DWP, allowing a claim to be made. If the claimant is incapable of accepting a claimant commitment then that requirement can be lifted as an appointee cannot accept it for her/him. Presumably, the DWP should also accept backdating of the new UC claim for up to a month in these circumstances.

Discretionary housing payments

In December, the DWP circulated advice to local authorities that discretionary housing payments (DHPs) could not be made to those with Managed Payments to Landlords (MPTLs) – ie, where payments are made direct to a landlord under the alternative payment arrangements. The DWP’s rationale was that the claimant is no longer in need of financial assistance to meet housing costs and so not eligible for a DHP. DWP advice was thatthe MPTL must be removed, at least in part, at the claimant’s request and then a DHP could be awarded.

CPAG believed that this was misconceived and said as much in a letter to the DWP. Those with a MPTL are receiving help to budget their housing costs but the MPTL does not itself remove the need for financial assistance. Claimants requiring DHPs will frequently be in arrears, and be subject to the bedroom tax or benefit cap. Removing an existing MPTL may put their tenancies at risk.

The DWP initially rejected CPAG’s argument and claimed a legislative basis for its position. Following a written question in the House of Lords, the DWP’s position changed and revised guidance has now been issued.10 The DWP has conceded that there is no legislative basis for this policy and advised that DHPs can be made to those with MPTLs, although an award is still at the local authority’s discretion.

Other problems

CPAG is aware of a variety of other problems faced by UC claimants including:11

  • whether a change in circumstances for housing benefit triggers UC migration;
  • lack of localised support to make full service claims;
  • assessment of entitlement to the carer’s element;
  • length of UC sanctions;
  • conditionality pending assessment of limited capability for work;
  • access to bank accounts;
  • onerous identity verification.

CPAG encourages advisers to contact us with further examples and submit case studies via our early warning systems (for cases from England and Wales, www.cpag.org.uk/universal-credit; for cases from Scotland email kmckechnie@cpagscotland.org.uk). Advice in specific cases can be provided via our advice lines and advisers should also refer to the Ask CPAG pages on the CPAG website.


Please be aware that welfare rights law and guidance change frequently. Older Bulletin articles may be out of date. Use keywords or the search function to find more recent material on this topic.