A recent phone query revealed yet another serious problem with Universal Credit. Frank rang us on behalf of his daughter, Jen, who suffers from anxiety and panic attacks. Jen is on Universal Credit and was caught by the last throws of the Work Programme, so she can look forward to two years of being given useless things to do. However, going to the Work Programme provider was making her conditions worse – especially when they shut her in the computer room – so she has had to ask her doctor for help. When Frank contacted us Jen had just handed in her second six-week ‘fit note’, and was worried about being sanctioned if she didn’t go to her Work Programme appointment.
As we told Frank, what is supposed to happen when someone on Universal Credit gets ill for more than four weeks is that they automatically receive a UC35 form to apply for being treated as long-term unfit for work, and so eligible for the additional elements of Universal Credit that are the equivalent of ESA. However, as a bit of Google research showed, this automatic referral can’t be relied on, and getting the application form can prove a major hurdle. Jen had to go into the jobcentre the next week so she took the opportunity to ask for the form. In line with our Google research, she was told that she couldn’t expect it for a further few weeks as there was a major backlog. We know there are long delays in getting a date for a Work Capability Assessment, but this was an additional delay before Jen could even get into the queue. That means more time when she is expected to cope with a ‘jobsearch’ routine that makes her condition worse, and a longer wait before she receives any extra money she might qualify for.
When you apply for ESA, you are treated as unfit for work during the waiting period between putting in your application and getting the result of the Assessment. Under Universal Credit you are treated as fit for work and for sanctionable ‘jobsearch’ and ‘job preparation’ tasks. Meanwhile, all you can do is argue, with the help of your GP, that there would be substantial risk to your mental health if you were found fit for work or made to do work-related activities, and it is not reasonable to expect you to do these.
After we had discussed the situation, Frank rang the Work Programme provider and explained that Jen wouldn’t be able to come and do their tasks. They told him – despite the ‘fit notes’! – that they were unaware of her situation and offered a phone appointment instead, which they promptly failed to keep. But Jen managed to ring them. We also suggested getting the MP involved to try and speed production of the form, but this has proved unnecessary as a copy actually arrived soon after Jen put in her request.
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Another phone call that same week came from a man whose benefit money had been stolen by a friend. He was able to get a Scottish Welfare Fund grant (once he had a police crime number), but that was hardly going to last the month until his next payment, so we suggested he ask for a Short Term Benefit Advance. This he did, but was told firmly ‘no’; and so he is having to rely on the support of his mother. Which raises the question, if you don’t have friends or relations to help, or you live in part of the UK without the Scottish Welfare Fund or any Local Authority grants, what are you supposed to do in these circumstances?