Universal Credit: support for disabled people Contents

3Claiming Universal Credit

Online claims

49.The Department forecasts that once UC is fully rolled out it will deliver £100 million per year in efficiency savings, relative to the legacy system.105 Achieving these savings relies to a large extent on the Department moving away from costly ways of administering claims—such as telephone and in-person support—towards a single digital claim service and digital channels of communication.106 Claimants should make and manage their claims online, including verifying their identities and costs such as rent, and communicating with their Work Coach via the UC online journal. Both the NAO and the Government’s Infrastructure and Projects Authority agreed that the successful delivery of UC and its promised efficiency gains relies on ensuring that “complex cases and vulnerable claimants” are able to use the automated systems successfully.107

50.The Department’s research suggests claimants frequently experience difficulties making and managing their claim online.108 Three quarters (74%) of all (disabled and non-disabled) claimants surveyed made their claim online. Half of those (54%) were able to do so without assistance. A further four in ten (41%) did so with help—either from JCP (20%) or another source (21%). Claimants with long-term health conditions were more likely to experience difficulties than those without. 79% of claimants with no health conditions were able to register online (with or without help), compared to 69% of claimants with health conditions. Of disabled claimants who did register online, over half (52%) needed assistance. People with long-term health conditions were also more likely than the wider UC caseload to report needing more help than they received in setting up their claim, and more likely to say that they required ongoing support with managing their claim.109

51.The Department provides some help for claimants who need additional support setting up their claims. Its Universal Support offer, to be delivered by Citizens Advice from 2019–20, currently includes a single session of digital support for each claimant, intended to help them make their claim online.110 Our report on Universal Support concluded that this is insufficient to address the challenges that many claimants face in using UC’s digital systems. We heard it is especially likely to fall short for groups of claimants with lower levels of digital literacy—such as some disabled people.111 The Department acknowledged this problem in its guidance to Universal Support providers. This states that if claimants have “no or extremely low IT skills”, it may be “appropriate to signpost them to existing locally available opportunities (for example Adult Education)”. The guidance further states that: “Claimants who cannot and may never be able to self-serve online [ … ] should be directed to the Universal Credit Service Centre who will provide/arrange the appropriate support for the person to make the Universal Credit claim and the on-going administration of their claim”.112 This relies on claimants disclosing their circumstances, making a request for alternative support, and calling the Service Centre to arrange it.

52.Witnesses to this inquiry repeated that there is a need for more intensive, systematic support for disabled people to make and manage their UC claims online.113 But we also heard that the Department needs to offer suitable alternatives to the digital service for claimants who will never be able to use it independently and successfully. Daphne Hall, Vice Chair of the National Association of Welfare Rights Advisers (NAWRA), explained that “there are some people who are never going to be able to make an online claim”.114 Rob Holland, a co-Chair of the Disability Benefits Consortium and Public Affairs Manager at Mencap, gave the example of people with learning difficulties:

People with learning difficulties, for example, might need support from a family member, a carer or support worker, which is going to be absolutely critical. If you are lucky enough to have that support you might be able to complete the application but if you don’t have that support you are reliant on either contacting the UC helpline and them completing it for you or going to a third-sector agency that might be able to help you.115

Gemma Hope, Director of Policy, Marketing and Communications at Shaw Trust, a specialist employment support provider, therefore told us that although the Government is “committed to digital by default [ … ] it can’t be a default for everyone”.116 Sir Ian Diamond, Chair of the Social Security Advisory Committee, told us that in these situations the Department needs to proactively provide non-digital support to claimants. This should include the option of in-person home visits and freephone telephone appointments for those claimants who would struggle to attend meetings at JCP.117

53.The Government is committed to a digital by default process for Universal Credit, but digital cannot work for everyone. Some disabled claimants will never be able to use the online system. They will require flexible, intensive support to manage the transition to Universal Credit. The Department’s current approach to providing this relies on claimants disclosing that they need alternative support, and approaching the Universal Credit service centre to request it. Mirroring the Department’s approach to “managed” migration, the onus and the risk of failing to make or maintain a claim altogether is placed largely on the claimant.

54.We recommend that the Department permits Universal Support providers to offer proactively on-going support to claimants who cannot use the online system, and provides them with the funding necessary to deliver this. This must take into account the differing needs of disabled people, with home visits and freephone telephone support made available where necessary. The Department should proactively ensure that claimants who struggle with the digital service do not miss out on vital communications. It could, for example, ask for a second email address (for a support worker or family member) for UC-related notifications to make sure they do not go unnoticed or unanswered. The Department must also help providers to proactively identify and contact Universal Credit claimants who might require such help: for example, through early sharing on data on vulnerable claimants. We discuss this point further in Paragraph 22.

Assistive technology

55.We heard that the Department could make it much easier for disabled people to use its existing systems. Assistive technology is technology designed to support and enhance the independence of people with health conditions. It can help them do daily tasks and participate more fully in society and employment. Where once assistive technology usually meant expensive, specialist equipment, it is now increasingly low-cost or free and integrated as standard with devices such as computers, tablets and laptops.118 We heard, however, that many disabled people do not own devices that, with the benefit of assistive technology such as screen readers or magnification software, could help them use UC’s online systems. They are therefore reliant on what is provided for public use in JCP.119

56.The Department told us that across the JCP network it has “over 8,000” computers and devices that have “standard assistive functionality available with the user being able to configure keyboard and mouse settings, use a magnifier function, sticky keys, high contrast and an on screen keyboard”.120 These are spread across around 700 JCP offices. It told us it is also “undertaking a programme of upgrading the current devices” and is “exploring opportunities to increase the availability of user-specific or individually configured assistive technology”.121 Witnesses told us, however, that the availability of assistive technology in JCP is often poor, and its functionality limited. NAWRA’s Daphne Hall said that the majority of computers available in JCP are “bog standard”: they “generally don’t have screen readers or anything like that”. She also highlighted substantial variation between Jobcentres, whereby some flagship sites have good access to a range of helpful technology and others have very little.122

57.More fundamentally, witnesses reported that the UC online service is not optimally configured so that disabled people can use it. For example, Gemma Hope told us that, in Shaw Trust’s experience, incompatibility with basic assistive technology can be a problem. She said, for example, that the system “does not always work very well with screen readers”, presenting a barrier to people with visual impairments being able to make and manage their claim successfully.123

58.Assistive technology could help disabled people use Universal Credit’s systems independently. This is good for disabled claimants, who will be able to manage their claim and work with Universal Credit on the same basis as non-disabled claimants. It is also good for the Department, since Universal Credit’s efficiency savings rely on claimants using the digital system wherever possible. But we heard that the availability and quality of assistive technology in Jobcentre Plus is too often patchy and poor. We recommend the Department set minimum standards for the availability of assistive technology across the JCP network, in consultation with disabled people and the organisations who support them.

59.Disabled people are one of the largest claimant groups that Universal Credit will support. It is entirely unacceptable that, in building the Universal Credit online service, the Department has failed to ensure it is compatible with some of the most basic assistive technologies that those claimants might use. We recommend the Department reviews and reforms the Universal Credit online system to ensure it is compatible with different forms of assistive technology, consulting with disabled people and the organisations that support them to ensure an appropriate standard. It should not begin moving disabled people to Universal Credit via managed migration until it has completed this work.

Claimants with terminal illness

60.Certain people can apply for UC under the Department’s Special Rules for Terminal Illness (SRTI). This means they bypass the standard UC application process and instead use a simplified process that allows them to receive their benefit more quickly.124 To use the SRTI claimants must provide a document called a DS1500. This is issued by doctors if the person is expected to live for less than six months.125

61.Witnesses told us that it would be preferable for some claimants with degenerative illnesses to be able to access UC via the SRTI. They are prevented from doing so, however, because at the point of application they are expected to live for longer than six months. Medical staff therefore will not issue a DS1500 form. The Motor Neurone Disease (MND) Association explained that this is a particular problem for people who they support. People with MND frequently have to leave work soon after diagnosis. In many cases this will also be the first point at which they come to need support from the benefit system.126 The MND Association also told us that MND can progress unpredictably. GPs are, therefore, often hesitant to state that someone only has six months to live: owing both to this unpredictability and the distress that such a declaration might cause someone with MND.127 Despite having a terminal and rapidly progressive illness, people who cannot obtain a DS1500 have to claim UC via the standard application process. Policy in Practice, a consultancy, pointed out that this can involve steps such as going through a UC “Claimant Commitment” interview to agree conditions for receipt of UC.128 They described this as “difficult and inappropriate” for people living with terminal illness.129

62.There are different definitions of “terminal illness” used in different pieces of social security legislation. We heard adopting one of these might provide a more appropriate basis for determining eligibility for the SRTI than the Department’s current approach. The MND Association pointed out that the Social Security Act (Scotland) 2018, for example, allows people to access disability assistance if:130

It is the clinical judgement of a registered medical practitioner that the individual has a progressive disease that can reasonably be expected to cause the individual’s death.131

This diverges from UC’s requirement that the claimant should be expected to live less than six months, and instead makes identifying terminal illness contingent on medical professionals’ judgements. We heard that adopting this approach under UC could make claiming that benefit substantially easier and less stressful for claimants with terminal illness.132 This is the approach proposed in the Access to Welfare (Terminal Illness Definition) Bill, due to receive its second reading in January 2019.133

63.The MND Association further told us that even obtaining an DS15000 does not guarantee being able to claim UC under SRTI rules. They had experienced difficulties getting DS15000 forms submitted by third parties accepted by the Department. This is because Universal Credit requires “explicit consent” to allow a third party to act on behalf of a claimant—unlike the legacy system where “implicit consent” was assumed. UC claimants have to explicitly tell DWP that a support organisation or individual is authorised to act on their behalf. This could mean confronting the fact that they only have six months left to live before they are ready to do so.134 The MND Association further explained that giving consent can be particularly difficult for people they support because of the effects of their condition:135

As part of the severely disabling physical symptoms, [MND] can limit a person’s ability to communicate. MND can affect someone’s ability to breathe, speak and some people also experience changes to their thinking and behaviour; a small number of people with MND may develop frontotemporal dementia.

Accordingly they recommended that the Department establish a process whereby DS1500 forms can be submitted by third parties, without the need for the explicit consent of the claimant.136

64.Being diagnosed with terminal illness is already difficult and distressing. The Department should do all in its power not to exacerbate this distress. This includes making it as simple and quick as possible for people with a terminal diagnosis to claim benefits that often provide a vital backstop once work is no longer an option. The process for claiming Universal Credit under the Special Rules for Terminal Illness (SRTI) is failing some claimants when they need support most. The strict requirement for claimants to have under six months to live is unnecessarily restrictive. And the process for giving consent to another individual or organisation to act on their behalf is unworkable for people with some conditions. The Department must introduce a more humane approach.

65.We recommend the Department adopt the approach taken in the Social Security Act (Scotland) 2018 in determining who can use the SRTI. This would permit claimants to use the SRTI if:

“It is the clinical judgement of a registered medical practitioner that the individual has a progressive disease that can reasonably be expected to cause the individual’s death”.

We also recommend the Department allow evidence for SRTI to be submitted by third parties, without the need for explicit consent.

Disabled students

66.Under the legacy system, disabled people in full time education can apply for ESA. To be eligible they must also be in receipt of either the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) or its predecessor, DLA, and must be able to demonstrate that they have limited capability for work. Disability Rights UK explained that, for full time students only, being in receipt of PIP or DLA in itself is taken as evidence of limited capability for work. This entitles disabled students to claim ESA at the lower. WRAG rate during their studies.137 The Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland noted that this then acts as a passport to other benefits, including housing benefit.138 Disability Rights UK told us that this additional financial support can be vital in enabling young disabled people to participate in education on an equal footing to their non-disabled peers:139

Although income-related ESA is often paid at low levels during term-time—as it can act as a means-tested top-up to student loans—it can be particularly useful during summer vacations, when disabled students are often unable to secure employment. And claiming housing benefit is often the only way a disabled student can move away from home for the first time. In some cases, the course a disabled student may want to pursue at a college and university that is suitable for example in terms of accessibility, may not be available to them locally.

So ESA helps towards the extra costs of a student’s disability and housing benefit gives disabled students potential access to educational institutions nationwide.

67.To claim UC, disabled students in full time education must meet two requirements. They need to be in receipt of PIP or DLA. They also need to be able to demonstrate limited capability for work: but unlike in the legacy system, simply being in receipt of PIP or DLA is not sufficient evidence. Instead they have to have undergone a Work Capability Assessment (WCA).140 The Child Poverty Action Group reported that in practice these requirements mean that disabled students who are new claimants are not able to claim UC. Their UC claims are rejected because they do not hold the required proof of limited capability for work from the outset of their application (having not completed the Work Capability Assessment). But they cannot be referred for a WCA because they do not have an active UC claim.141 Disability Rights UK explained that students are rarely entitled to claim UC on other grounds because “they cannot actively seek work [and] are not lone parents with young children or carers”. CPAG concluded that this means there are effectively two different tiers of eligibility for UC: disabled students who have already completed a WCA and are within their review timeframe are able to claim it, but new claimants are not. Disability Rights UK referred to the current arrangements as a “Catch 22” situation.142

68.Witnesses suggested ways of addressing this problem. Disability Rights UK and the Child Poverty Action Group suggested that if the Department is determined that disabled students follow the same process as other UC applicants, it could place applications for UC from disabled students on “hold” until they have completed a WCA. Students could then go back to the Department and re-open their application, with the required proof. The Child Poverty Action Group said that “assessment of limited capability for work is the DWP’s responsibility, so [DWP] should refer the claimant for a WCA”.143 The Department told Disability Rights UK, however, that this was not possible because disabled students do not meet the entitlement conditions for Universal Credit. Referring to Regulation 41 of the Universal Credit Regulations 2013, it said:144

A person who meets entitlement conditions for Universal Credit is referred for a Work Capability Assessment where appropriate. As the Work Capability Assessment is not part of determining whether a person is entitled to Universal Credit, determining entitlement to Universal Credit cannot be delayed until a person has had a Work Capability Assessment.

69.As an alternative, Disability Rights UK recommended amending Schedule 8 of the Universal Credit Regulations 2013, which set out the circumstances in which UC claimants should be treated as having limited capability for work. If claimants undertaking a course of education and in receipt of PIP or DLA were added to this list then they could be treated as having limited capability for work, allowing them to begin a claim for the ESA equivalent.145 This would be administratively simple: it would effectively mirror arrangements under the legacy system, requiring claimants to undergo a WCA only if they wanted to determine eligibility for the higher, support group element. Disability Rights UK were unable to estimate how much this approach would cost because the Department does not hold data on how many students have been awarded ESA. They told us, however, that the number of disabled students receiving ESA at any one time “is likely to be very low”. They concluded it was “difficult to see how the effective exclusion of disabled students could be justified on public purse cost grounds”.146

70.We heard some evidence that top-ups enabling disabled students to meet the increased costs of education resulting from a health condition should not come from UC or DWP’s budget at all, but from the Department for Education (DfE).147 Child Poverty Action Group’s Daniel Norris suggested that there are “positives to supplying all of the payments or support for disabled students” via DfE.148 This would, for example, avoid disabled students having to go through the protracted UC application process, and could reduce the stigma associated with claiming additional support. He explained, however, that it was difficult to see how this would work in practice at the moment because “the existing student financial system does not have a particularly sophisticated or all-encompassing assessment of disability” for the discretionary support that is available.149 DWP, by contrast, “already has this procedure in place through Work Capability Assessments”. He felt it might be possible for the two Departments to work more closely together on this issue in the longer term: for example, by carrying out assessments under DWP and making payment via DfE.150

71.The Government wants to improve the employment rates of disabled people. It should be doing all it can to support disabled people to reach their potential: including accessing higher and further education. Disabled students who try to claim Universal Credit for the first time find themselves in a catch-22 situation. Their claims are refused because they cannot demonstrate limited capability for work via a Work Capability Assessment (WCA). But they cannot be referred for an assessment unless their claim is accepted. Meanwhile disabled students who have a current WCA decision are able to claim Universal Credit as they would have claimed ESA. The result is an incoherent two-tier system which leaves some disabled students unable to access support that is vital for them to continue their studies and to which they are entitled. We recommend that DWP replicate under UC arrangements under the legacy system for disabled students. This would mean taking receipt of PIP or DLA as evidence of Limited Capability to Work, allowing them to open a UC claim. Students who wanted to claim the higher, Limited Capability for Work-Related Activity amount, would then have to undergo a WCA.

72.There are bigger questions to ask about which department should fund additional support for disabled students and how eligibility should be determined. We have heard repeatedly, however, that existing benefits and entitlements for disabled people only go part of the way to meeting the increased costs resulting from their conditions. The introduction of Universal Credit may provide a useful opportunity to consider those questions—but it is important that disabled people do not lose out on support in the meantime. We recommend the Department for Education and DWP convene a joint working group of organisations that support disabled students on financial support for those students, with a view to determining where funding should come from and how eligibility should be assessed.


106 Ibid.

107 Ibid.; Infrastructure and Projects Authority, UC Health Check, September 2016, p.3, para 5.1.2 and para 5.4.2

110 DWP, Press release: Citizens Advice to provide support to Universal Credit claimants, October 2018. For full details of the existing Universal Support offer as of December 2018, see Work and Pensions Committee, Universal Support.

111 Work and Pensions Committee, Universal Support, pp.11–12

113 Citizens Advice Scotland (UCM0010)

114 Q673 (Daphne Hall)

115 Q667 (Rob Holland)

116 Q676 (Gemma Hope). See also Shaw Trust (UCR0255), Mind (UCR0253)

117 Q952 (Sir Ian Diamond). See also Mind (UCR0253)

118 Work and Pensions Committee, Assistive technology

119 Q666–668 (Gemma Hope and Daphne Hall)

121 Ibid.

122 Q668 (Daphne Hall). See also RNIB (DMP0006)

123 Q676 (Gemma Hope). See also Shaw Trust (UCR0255)

125 Ibid.

126 MND Association (UCR0270)

128 Policy in Practice and the MND Association, The implications of Universal Credit for people living with motor neurone disease, 2018. See Chapter 4 on claimant commitments.

130 “Disability assistance” includes PIP, DLA and Attendance Allowance. These benefits are paid in Scotland by Social Security Scotland rather than by DWP. MND Association, Briefing: Access to Welfare (Terminal illness definition) Bill, June 1018 and MND Association (UCR0270)

132 MND Association (UCR0270)

133 Access to Welfare (Terminal Illness Definition) Bill 2017–19

134 MND Association (UCR0270)

135 MND Association (UCR0270)

136 MND Association (UCR0270)

137 DRUK (UCR0249). Disabled students only have to attend a Work Capability Assessment if they want to determine whether they are also eligible for the higher, Support Group payment.

138 Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland, Universal Credit and disabled students, May 2018

139 DRUK (UCR0249)

140 UC 2013 Regs 14 (b) and Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland, Universal Credit and disabled students

141 CPAG, Universal Credit and disabled students, December 2017; DRUK (UCR0249)

142 DRUK (UCR0249)

144 DRUK (UCR0249)

145 DRUK, Letter to the Minister for Employment, 21 June 2017 and DRUK (UCR0249)

146 DRUK (UCR0249)

147 Q701–708

148 Q707 (Daniel Norris)

149 Ibid.

150 Ibid.




Published: 19 December 2018