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Posted on 15th June 2018

Improving Universal Credit by Listening to People Experiencing Hardship

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By: Rosie Oglesby, Feeding Britain National Director

Published: 15th June 2018

The National Audit Office today published a report on Universal Credit, highlighting flaws in the system, and the subsequent hardship faced by many claimants. The NAO concluded that it would be unfeasible and too costly not to go ahead with the roll out of the new benefit, but also identified several ways that the administration of Universal Credit could be improved to mitigate some of the challenges identified in the report.

Feeding Britain has been working with local community partners around the UK who provide emergency food aid and other assistance to people at risk of hunger. Many of these people experience a food crisis at least in part because of problems with their Universal Credit application or payments. The initial waiting period before a first payment, and the hardship created by sanctions, have been well documented. But there are many other things that our local partners have identified that could improve the way Universal Credit is rolled out.

  1. Resolve the issues for people paid on weekly or 4 weekly pay cycles. The Universal Credit system as currently set up, works on the basis of monthly payments. For claimants paid on four weekly or weekly pay cycles, in some calendar months they will receive more salary payments than others. This results in the system calculating that their monthly salary has increased, and thus reduces their Universal Credit payments. Finding a technical solution to this problem would ease the difficulties faced by significant numbers of claimants. The first step would be to monitor the number of claimants paid on four weekly payments specifically- data which is not currently collected by the DWP.
  2. Address the problems with Real Time Information System (RTI). The RTI allows employers to upload information on employees salaries to HMRC, which is then used by the DWP to calculate Universal Credit payments. Our local partners frequently report people seeking emergency help because their Universal Credit payments have been delayed or incorrect, due to errors in the RTI information submitted. More clarity and coordination is needed between different parts of the system to ensure that these errors are reduced.
  3. Improve digital access. Universal Credit is applied for and managed through an online portal. For many vulnerable claimants, finding reliable access to a computer and the internet to be able to do this is a challenge. Without internet access at home, and with free access to computers in public libraries and Job Centres sometimes limited, this becomes a source of stress and raises the risk of claimants being unable to meet the requirements of the system. For claimants required to apply for jobs as a condition of their benefit, a lack of reliable access to the internet makes meeting this requirement extremely challenging.
  4. Monitor people dropping out of the Universal Credit system. We are particularly concerned at reports from our partners that vulnerable claimants are dropping out of the system altogether because they find the system complex, hostile, or impossible to navigate. These cases of ‘voluntary’ drop out- people either failing to complete their application or falling out of the system later on- represent a huge risk for people involved. Without access to benefits, we are concerned that many of these claimants will experience hardship or be forced into dangerous coping mechanisms such as taking out high interest loans. In response to a recent Written Parliamentary Question, the DWP confirmed that it does not collect data on the number of claimants dropping out of the system because of its perceived complexities. Better research into this, and robust monitoring of drop out data, would help those administering the system to ensure it works appropriately for some of the most vulnerable claimants.
  5. Strengthen support for vulnerable groups. Two groups in particular have been highlighted in recent discussions with local partners. First are homeless people who are faced with job search requirements that they are rarely able to meet, as they are grappling with the more pressing immediate crisis of finding somewhere to live. Easing job search requirements, and having more individual flexibility during a crisis period would help these vulnerable claimants. Second are people who have recently been granted refugee status and are joining the UC system for the first time. Being unfamiliar with the system and in many cases struggling with language barriers, people in this situation frequently find themselves quickly falling foul of the system’s requirements and facing sanctions. Putting in place stronger support for refugees moving onto Universal Credit, and making sure this support is well publicized and accessible, would help to alleviate hardship.
  6. Investigate deductions from Universal Credit payments: We are increasingly hearing about claimants who, when they receive their first payment, find that large unexpected deductions have been taken for unpaid debts such as old social loans and arrears on utility bills. These can be hundreds of pounds, leaving claimants with little money to live on. Claimants are having deductions taken without clear information about what loan it relates to and having to guess what the source might be, often going back several years. In some instances, there have been cases of wrongful deductions were the claimant has previously paid off the debt. To get information on the debt and to challenge unfair deductions people are passed from agency to agency with little support. Giving advance warning to claimants if deductions are to be taken from their payments, providing clear information on the reason for the deduction and who to contact about it, and having stronger protections for claimants to ensure that deductions are at reasonable levels, would all go a long way to alleviating hardship.