Universal Credit (UC) is a means-tested benefit for everyone of working age – those who are unemployed, those who are unable to work, and those who are in work but not earning much. It is replacing means-tested Jobseeker’s Allowance, Employment and Support Allowance, Income Support, Housing Benefit, Working Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit. (Contribution-based JSA and ESA continue as before.) It was heralded as a simplification, but – as has been demonstrated time and again – it is making life far from simple for thousands of families. This is partly due to deliberate cuts and rule changes, and partly to a criminal level of administrative chaos. Major additional cuts include less help for people in work and no more disability premiums. IT failures, unclear rules, understaffing, and undertraining have left a trail of mistakes and delays.
Once you are on Universal Credit, you stay on Universal Credit when moving in and out of work unless you earn over a fixed limit. Although the UK Government claims that UC ‘makes work pay’, if you get a bit of extra work you will still lose 63p for every pound earned.
UC is being introduced in stages – which is taking much longer than originally planned. The first people signed onto the benefit were single jobseekers making new claims, who stayed on UC even if their work or family situation changed. Currently, more and more areas are requiring all relevant new claims to be sent down the Universal Credit route. You can check the situation where you live here. This move to Universal Credit rarely benefits the claimant, so if your area is not yet fully converted it is worth checking if you are in one of the earlier qualifying groups as the DWP can make mistakes and you may be able to avoid it: check here – it’s complicated. The Government announced in the 2017 Autumn budget that from January 2018 there will be no new Universal Credit claims in areas that have not yet had the full roll, so if you are in one of these groups but can hold off applying till then it could be worth it.
UNDERSTANDING THE SYSTEM – KNOWING YOUR RIGHTS
You can’t rely on the DWP knowing their own rules, or acting promptly on information given them, so you need to be aware of your rights and make double sure they receive all necessary information.
What does the Universal Credit roll-out mean?
When an area changes to the UC Full Digital Service, then everyone who makes a new claim for a means-tested working-age benefit will have to apply for UC instead. If you are already on one of the earlier benefits you will not be moved to UC for now – and you should not have to move for a simple change of circumstances, such as moving address, as demonstrated in this legal case.
All claims have to be made and managed on line
The DWP wants to make everyone manage their benefits on line. Outwith UC you should be able to use other means of communication, but if you are on UC in a Full Service area you will need a good reason why you can’t use or access a computer, e.g. you are dyslexic or illiterate, or you don’t have access to the internet. (Councils are providing computers at libraries and community centres, so you would have to live somewhere fairly isolated.) You will need to give an email address (which needn’t be the same as you use for other things).
Everything is managed via your online account. The DWP will use your online account to tell you things to do, so you need to check it regularly to avoid getting sanctioned. You are also expected to use it to contact them, but experience has shown that they don’t check it regularly, so if you need something urgently you may have to use the helpline as well, or get help from a welfare advisor. (There may be things that don’t legally have to be communicated online, but arguing the point could cost you a delay in your benefits. Similarly, you may think that data they are requesting is not relevant to your eligibility, but any dispute could leave you in moneyless limbo. If you object strongly to this you could put in a complaint afterwards.)
You need to put in your claim as soon as you are eligible as there is no scope for backdating.
If you can’t claim on line, ring the UC helpline: 0345 600 0723. Keep a written record of all your calls in case of any dispute.
Universal Jobmatch (UJM)
Unless you can’t use a computer, you will be expected to sign up to the DWP’s much criticised jobsearch website. However, data protection law states that you can never be made to allow the DWP access to check and spy on your UJM account. Even if you have already set up an account you can un-tick the boxes that let them see it. You can, though, be asked to provide a screenshot to prove that you have used your UJM account. You can never be made to sign up to UJM on your own computer or phone.
The initial wait
Even if all goes smoothly, you will have to wait a minimum of 5-6 weeks for the first payment. There is no money for the first week (another Tory cut), and the benefit is then paid a month in arrears. Often, bureaucratic inefficiencies make the wait much longer. You can ask the jobcentre for a Benefit Advance. This will probably be for about half as much as you would get in benefits and is a loan that has to be paid off from future payments, which are generally reduced by 40% until the loan is repaid. The UK Government seem impervious to the hardship this is causing – but they were persuaded to try and divert their critics with some small concessions in the Autumn 2017 budget. From January 2018, you will be able to get an advance equal to the full payment, which will be paid off by reductions in future benefits over 12 months rather than 6. From February 2018, the first unpaid week will be removed. And from April 2018, if you are already receiving Housing Benefit when you apply for Universal Credit you will be able to continue receiving this for the first two weeks of your claim.
If you can’t cope you can ask your local council for a Scottish Welfare Fund emergency grant, but they will expect you to have exhausted the advance loan first. If you are having trouble (e.g. in paying the rent), contact local advice services before the problems get even worse and harder to deal with. (This will help them keep a record of what is happening too.)
To receive UC you need to have a bank or building society account. In Scotland, new claimants will be asked via their online account if they want to have the portion for rent paid directly to their landlord or to have their money paid twice a month rather than monthly. This is done by delaying the second half of the second and subsequent payments, so is not as helpful as it should be. (The Scottish Government also has powers to allow people to choose to be paid singly and not as a couple, but this is proving even more difficult to arrange so can’t be offered yet.)
HB is included in UC. This means that in a UC Full Service area it is no longer possible for someone on no or low income to make a new claim for HB on its own. (You still need to go to the council for Discretionary Housing Payments – e.g. to cover the bedroom tax – and to arrange for a Council Tax Reduction.) If you are in work and your Universal Credit is reduced because of your earnings, a sanction will still cut your benefit by the equivalent of the Personal Allowance (£73.10 for a single adult over 25). This means that part of the sanction will be taken from the elements that have replaced child tax credits, housing benefit etc. If someone in part time work is sanctioned they could therefore be left without enough money to pay the rent.
Looking for work
The jobcentre will make you sign a Claimant Commitment listing what you must do. This is supposed to be ‘reasonable’, but you have limited room to negotiate – without signing you won’t get paid. (If you are unhappy with what you are being made to agree to do, and make a formal request for a second opinion that doesn’t go in your favour, your claim will be stopped and you have to start again.) You will be made to search for work 35 hours a week, unless you have particular issues such as childcare or poor health, when you should only be expected to look for part-time work. We can help you explain your situation, and you could try and suggest your own choice of voluntary work or courses.
Check whether any activities you are asked to do outwith your Claimant Commitment are mandatory. Mandatory activities – termed requirements – are supposed to be reasonable in your particular circumstances and the DWP must follow strict procedures; if not you have grounds for complaint. If you’re 18-21, and have been on UC and unemployed for more than 6 months, you’ll be sent for training or a work placement. If you chose to do an activity that is not mandatory, you should check whether you are also free to leave when you wish. If you are sent on a mandatory work placement you can still refuse to sign the documents that are needed for them to process it, so long as you show willing to do everything else. (Ring us, or see scottishunemployedworkers.net/the-work-programme-a-survival-guide.)
If you want to avoid hassle it helps to be able to give a good account of your ‘35 hours’ jobsearch’. Knowing what they are looking for makes this easier – so here is some advice given to ‘Work Coaches’ – courtesy of Ipswich Unemployed Action:
(Unless you tick the box allowing the DWP access to your UJM account they have no way of checking up when you are using it.)
The sanction regime is similar to before, with sanctions increased for repeat ‘offences’. If you miss an appointment or activity – explain why asap. If you are sanctioned – challenge the decision. The first step in challenging any DWP decision is to ask for a Mandatory Reconsideration. It will then be looked at again by another person within the DWP. In light of DWP inefficiency and intransigence you could do this by letter (keep a copy) as well as on line. Explain why you should not have been sanctioned. If the Mandatory Reconsideration doesn’t work you can take your case to appeal. It will then be heard by a tribunal independent of the DWP. Many people give up at the first stage, but if you stick with it you have a good chance of success. Check if the DWP have followed procedure, and note that the law only requires you to ‘take all reasonable action for the purpose of obtaining paid work’, even if that takes less than the stipulated number of hours and you have not followed your Claimant Commitment to the letter (The Universal Credit Regulations 2013, p51 clause 95).
The Child Poverty Action Group has lots of good advice on avoiding and fighting sanctions here.
If you challenge your sanction, they may think twice about sanctioning you again; and if they do, and your challenge of the first sanction was successful, the second sanction won’t be as long as it would have been.
You can ask for Hardship Payments, but, like the advance, Hardship Payments under UC are loans that have to be paid back, so you are on reduced rates for 2 ½ times the length of your actual sanction. You have to reapply for Hardship Payments each month. They are discretionary, so you may not be given them if they think you can get help elsewhere.
You can ask your local council for a Scottish Welfare Fund grant to cover any gaps, but they will expect you to apply for any Hardship Payments you are entitled to first.
When sanctioned, you still need to keep signing on and doing the tasks set or you’ll be sanctioned further (with the new sanction added on the end of the current one), and even if you have secured a job you will have to keep up with your required tasks to the last minute.
If you get ill
Universal Credit incorporates means-tested ESA. Once you have been on doctor’s notes as unfit to look for work for four weeks, the DWP should send you a UC35 form to apply for being treated as unfit for work long-term. If you haven’t received the form when you should have done, then ask for it as delays are not uncommon. This form will eventually lead to a detailed medical form and a Work Capability Assessment, as with ESA. Get help from a welfare advisor when you fill the medical form, and get a friend to come with you to the assessment. If you are on UC and waiting for an assessment you will still be expected to look for work and carry out other activities. To avoid these you will need to argue – with the help of your GP if possible – that there would be substantial risk to your health if you were treated as fit to look for work or made to do certain things, and it is not reasonable to expect you to do these.
If you applied for ESA before the change to UC but have been found fit for work.
If you have been turned down for ESA because you didn’t get enough points from your Work Capability Assessment you can ask for a Mandatory Reconsideration. While this is looked at, the only way you can receive any benefits is by signing onto UC as though you are actually fit for work. Once you have signed on you can ask your doctor for a note to say that the pressures from the jobcentre are making your health worse and you are not able to work – what DWP logic now calls a ‘fit note’. If the Mandatory Reconsideration doesn’t work (most don’t) get a Welfare Rights worker to help with your appeal. Appeals have a good rate of success. Signing onto Universal Credit means that instead of means-tested ESA you will get an additional element on your UC. Please get advice from a welfare advisor before applying for UC if you can, as you could be worse off (e.g. under UC there are no disability premiums.
Universal Credit for people in work
UC is replacing tax credits for people in work. To get Working Tax Credit you have to work over a fixed number of hours a week (30 if you are single with no kids). You will get Universal Credit however many hours you work (so long as you are not earning above the limit), but if you are earning less than the equivalent of 35 hours at the minimum wage you will be under similar pressures to find more or better paid work as people who are unemployed. This means that low paid part-time workers can be sanctioned too.
And because you stay on Universal Credit any way, if you are unemployed and offered a part time job or zero hour contract you will be required to accept it.
Irregular pay and self- employment
UC is calculated independently each month. If you earn a lot one month and receive little UC, you can’t make up for this the next month even if your earnings are tiny, so irregular pay can result in loss of benefit and considerable hardship. Try and arrange for earnings to be staggered if you can.
UC makes it harder to be self-employed in other ways too. You are expected to produce mountains of paperwork each month, and the highest rate of UC you can receive after the first 12 months assumes you are earning the equivalent of 35 hours on the minimum wage, even if you actually get much less. If you are earning less, you will be forced to look for and take other work. You could check out the implications of this with a welfare advisor before making the decision to become self-employed.
Unlike JSA, Universal Credit has no allowance at all for holidays, including for people getting UC to top up income from work.
GENERAL ADVICE FOR CLAIMANTS
Bring a friend
You can bring someone with you to any jobcentre or DWP interview. This is your legal right, and we recommend you use it. Your friend may speak to support your case, including asking questions. We would be happy to come with you to your interview – just contact us through phone, email or facebook – and try not to leave it till the last minute.
Make your own record of your meetings and keep copies of everything
You may need to know and be able to prove everything you have or have not been told, or have done, especially if you are sanctioned as a result of a mistake that is not of your making. Most things will be in your online record, but you should keep screenshots of key exchanges, as if your claim is shut down you need access to this material to make the case for them to rethink their decision. You can also ask your advisor to write down everything they are telling you to do. You, or your accompanying friend, are allowed to take notes of meetings, which you don’t have to show the jobcentre. You can also make an audio recording. You are entitled to make a recording for your own use, but the DWP can be obstructive, and it is generally easier to do this covertly. Lots of documents get ‘lost in the system’ resulting in delays in benefits, and even in sanctions. So keep a copy of everything you send the DWP.
Ask for the extra help you need
When the DWP has left you destitute you can still get help. Charities provide cooked meals most days, and welfare advisors can refer you to food-banks for basic supplies. They may also be able to get you help with fuel charges, e.g. an advance from your supplier.
You can ask your local council for help from the Scottish Welfare Fund. This gives crisis grants, generally in the form of supermarket vouchers.
You may also be able to get a Budgeting Advance for one-off essential items from the DWP, paid back off future benefits. Ask the Jobcentre for a form, or apply on line.
When you ask for help this doesn’t just help you and your family. It creates a record of what UK government policies are doing and provides important evidence in the campaign against their attack on welfare.
MPs and MSPs are a good last resort.
ALWAYS REMEMBER THAT YOU ARE NOT ALONE
Please talk to our activists, and pick up our list of advice agencies in your area. The rules are complicated and always changing, so ask for the advice you need – and get someone who knows the system to help you with any ESA or PIP medical assessment forms or appeals as this can make a big difference to your chances of success.
CALCULATING THE AMOUNT OF UNIVERSAL CREDIT YOU WILL RECEIVE
The basic principles of the calculation are set out below. (For fuller details and an online calculator, try Turn2us.)
Work out the MAXIMUM that would be received if there was no other income by adding:
the STANDARD ALLOWANCE – which, as now, depends on if you are single or a couple and if you are over 25
PLUS ELEMENTS FOR PARTICULAR CIRCUMSTANCES – which were formerly covered by other benefits (for: children, children on DLA, limited capability for work, limited capability for work related activity, being a full-time carer, 85% of childcare for working parents, rent (or mortgage if no earned income))
unearned income (but not disabled benefits or child benefit)
AND 63% of earned income above the Work Allowance
(The Work Allowance – the amount you are allowed to earn before it affects the benefit – depends on your household type and if you are receiving the housing element. It has already been heavily cut.)
The calculations are based on the actual situation each month
This avoids the current problems with Working Tax Credits overpayments, but creates lots of anomalies for people with irregular earnings, where a lot depends on the dates when money is actually received.
Written 7 November 2017, updated 12 November 2017 and 5 December 2017