Kirsty McKechnie describes some early examples of problems with the operation of the ‘full service’ of universal credit, as reported to CPAG in Scotland’s Early Warning System.
Universal credit (UC) is now available for new claimants in all areas of Great Britain. Increasing numbers of UC areas are becoming full service areas, where most people wishing to make a new claim for a means-tested benefit must make a claim for UC. Since postcodes covered by Musselburgh Jobcentre and Inverness Jobcentre became UC full service areas in March and July respectively, CPAG in Scotland’s Early Warning System has been gathering anonymous case evidence about what this means in practice.
Lack of support
Perhaps most worrying of the emerging issues has been the apparent lack of support for vulnerable people trying to claim UC. In one case, a mentally impaired client had his claim closed by the DWP because he was unable to maintain his claim, despite assistance having been requested because he did not have a bank account, email address or access to the internet. Another client was sanctioned for non-compliance despite it being noted in his journal that he would have difficulty complying due to his mental health problems and that he could be a suicide risk. We understand that in response to pressure from the local authority and third sector organisations, the DWP has now deployed visiting officers in East Lothian to assist vulnerable clients with their claims.
Inconsistent approaches by work coaches
There have been strikingly different approaches from work coaches in relation to clients’ claimant commitments while they are waiting for a work capability assessment. In one full service area, work coaches appear to be satisfied with regular contact with the client, reducing the claimant commitment accordingly. However in the other full service area, work coaches expect clients to comply with full work search conditionality despite submitting medical certificates stating that they are unfit for work. The DWP advised that work coaches should be using their discretion and adjusting claimant commitments where appropriate.
Migration by the back door
You cannot be paid employment and support allowance (ESA) while you are waiting for the outcome of a mandatory reconsideration. If you wish to claim a means-tested benefit in a full service area in the meantime, you must claim UC. The effect of claiming UC during this period is that even if the outcome of the mandatory reconsideration, or subsequent appeal, is successful, you will remain on (become ‘migrated’ to) UC rather than income-related ESA, with the relevant limited capability for work/work-related activity element included in your award. If you do not claim UC pending the outcome of the mandatory reconsideration, ESA should be paid if the outcome is successful or pending an appeal.
We have received a number of case studies highlighting:
- conflicting information from DWP staffbabout who can return to income-related ESA, with one client told that he must claim UC following a successful mandatory reconsideration, despite not having claimed UC during the mandatory reconsideration. Note: the DWP now acknowledges that if no new claim for either UC or jobseeker's allowance (JSA) is made, income-related ESA can be re-awarded (see News in brief, p2);
- a client who had claimed UC who did not have the limited capability for work-related activity element added to his award after the decision was overturned at mandatory reconsideration because DWP staff ‘didn’t know how to do this’;
- one local authority’s housing benefit staff advising clients that they must claim UC pending mandatory reconsideration without discussing the implications of this;
- clients who are successful at mandatory reconsideration finding themselves considerably worse off on UC, in some cases by almost £80 a week, than they would have been if they had been awarded income-related ESA, because there are no disability premiums included in a UC award.
Difficulty claiming new-style contributory benefits
While income-related ESA and income-based JSA are being replaced by UC, it should be possible to claim the contributory versions of both benefits. However, in practice this is proving to be very difficult, with clients either being told that JSA and ESA no longer existor, in one case, ‘just to claim UC as it is the same amount of money anyway,’ not taking into account that any income would be deducted from a UC award. For those who do know that the contributory benefits still exist, making an application has proved very difficult, with approaches varying from calling the UC helpline or making a claim for UC online noting that they really wished to make a claim for a contributory benefit, to downloading paper claim forms for the contributory benefits. We have had some reports of people using the form ESA1 (UC) 04/13, but even this proved to be problematic on one occasion.
Offenders and ex-offenders
We have received reports of a number of prisoners having difficulty making claims for UC on their liberation because they do not have valid ID and are therefore not able to open bank accounts. The DWP suggested that they use fake bank account numbers but the UC system will not accept these. Ex-offenders are making numerous claims for Scottish Welfare Fund crisis grants, but are awarded less than they would have been through UC, and these do not help towards housing costs. There has also been a query about how offenders who are not permitted to use the internet as a condition imposed by the courts, can make and maintain a claim for UC. CPAG in Scotland has raised this with the DWP and is awaiting a response.
Difficulty paying for temporary accommodation
We are starting to see people struggling to pay for temporary homeless accommodation because the housing element of UC is capped at the local housing allowance rate, which is usually much lower than the high costs associated with temporary accomodation. In one case, the client had been receiving housing benefit (HB) and his claim could have continued into a temporary accommodation had there not been a delay between his accommodation ending and temporary accommodation being provided, during which time the client stayed with a friend, stopping the claim for HB and triggering a claim for UC.
It would appear that some of the issues are teething problems that could be ironed out: difficulties claiming contributory benefits, problems for ex-offenders and inconsistent approaches by work coaches. It would appear that the lack of support for vulnerable clients has been remedied, although we will be monitoring this closely. However other emerging issues (eg, migration to UC pending ESA mandatory reconsideration and shortfalls paying for temporary accommodation) are built into the UC system and will become more apparent as more full service areas emerge.
CPAG is now collecting UC cases in the Early Warning System across Great Britain. If you are interested in submitting UC case studies to the Early Warning System, please contact Kirsty McKechnie (firstname.lastname@example.org) in relation to cases from Scotland – or, in relation to cases from the rest of the UK, visit www.cpag.org.uk/universal-credit