Universal Credit: the wait for a first payment Contents

7Support for claimants

123.DWP comes into contact with millions of claimants, including some of the most vulnerable people in society. The Department recognises this, and the fact that vulnerable people without strong family or community networks need extra support.133 In written evidence, the Department said that it takes a “holistic approach” to supporting people on Universal Credit. It also provides support through Help to Claim, a service delivered through Citizens Advice, that was introduced in April 2019. During its first three months Help to Claim supported over 100,000 people, with 9 out of 10 people saying that they had a good or very good experience of the service.134

Universal Support

124.Universal Support was launched in 2013 and was designed to run alongside Universal Credit as a system of support networks for claimants. Sir Iain Duncan Smith MP, who was Secretary of State for Work and Pensions at the time of its introduction, explained how Universal Support had been envisaged:

The key point about Universal Credit is it was not just a payment mechanism. It was always designed to identify those who would be most in need and would have those struggles. That is why Universal Support was designed to wrap around it, so that for those who have problems with debt and issues concerning the management of their money, for example, you would intervene directly with them to make sure that the money was available for them and also, more than that, that you would work both with local government and with local organisations like Citizens Advice to ensure that they went on to programmes to help them with their debt.135

125.Baroness Stroud, a former special adviser at DWP, told us that Universal Support was designed to complement and go “hand in hand” with Universal Credit.136 However, this vision was never fully realised, and in March 2019 it was superseded by a new service—Help to Claim—which is delivered through Citizens Advice.

Universal Support: the reality

126.Our predecessor Committee held an inquiry into Universal Support, culminating in a report that was published in October 2018, shortly after the announcement of Help to Claim. The Committee said that the Government “must ensure that it is funding the right support, at the right time” and welcomed DWP’s “commitment to reviewing and improving Universal Support”. It concluded, however, that the Government’s initial vision for Universal Support had not translated into reality:

The gap between the Department’s original vision for Universal Support, and the meagre offer it now funds, is vast. The Department envisaged providing ongoing help to Universal Credit’s most vulnerable claimants, ensuring they can make the most of the new benefit. In reality it offers a single session of Personal Budgeting and Digital Support, restricted to the first three months of a claim. The current service is almost solely focused on getting new claims up and running. The new contract with Citizens Advice will not substantially diverge from this approach.137

Help to Claim

127.In its response to our predecessor Committee’s report, the Government acknowledged the concerns about Universal Support, and said that this was why it had commissioned a new service—now Help to Claim—to be delivered through Citizens Advice.138 Citizens Advice says that Help to Claim can support people “in the early stages of [their] Universal Credit claim”.139 Its focus, however, is on supporting people with their initial application rather than providing support throughout a claim. Baroness Stroud told us that Help to Claim “exists to help people gather evidence for their application and to help them prepare for their first Jobcentre appointment”, and that the service it provides is not comparable to what was planned for Universal Support.140

128.The National Audit Office found that people with limited proficiency in English can struggle to complete their claim form, saying that people in this group may make incorrect declarations, submit the wrong evidence or not take required actions promptly because they do not understand what is expected of them. The NAO has said that inefficiencies in the Habitual Residency Test (HRT) also led to delays.141 Joshua Reddaway, Director for Work and Pensions, Value for Money, at the NAO, told us that there were problems with the process for this test, saying it is a “long and difficult process” and that sometimes an existing decision can be overwritten, meaning that people have to go through the process again.142 In July 2020, the NAO reported on the process of getting to the first Universal Credit payment. As part of this study, it noted that stakeholders had expressed concern that some vulnerable groups, such as people with learning disabilities or low digital skills, may struggle to make a claim and provide the required evidence.143

Universal Support: what now?

129.Patrick Spencer of the Centre for Social Justice called Universal Support “the unfinished business of welfare reform” that could “really support people to make massive changes in their lives”. He told us that DWP could expand on the support it currently offers by increasing the capacity of Work Coaches and Jobcentre staff, so that they can provide a wider range of support to claimants.144 Sir Iain Duncan Smith has called for the Government to reinvest in Universal Support:

I cannot stress enough I would advise the Government now to invest in Universal Support. The design is already there. Roll it out and test it. The Centre for Social Justice has already put forward a proposal—which, of course, I am part of—as to how they could do this. It really is vital because it is the critical bit as we go forward after this Covid era. There are going to be people with lots of issues and problems and this is exactly going to be needed, so I would get on with that. That is really the critical issue.145

130.We asked the Minister and Neil Couling whether they would consider reinvesting in Universal Support. The Minister explained that, after an unsuccessful pilot which saw inconsistent levels of support offered by different local authorities, a decision was taken to replace Universal Support with Help to Claim.146 He acknowledged, however, that the Department could do more to build on its offer of support for people with complex needs. Neil Couling said that the Department’s current offer of support, while branded differently, essentially amounts to a “de facto Universal Support”. He told us:

I agreed with Sir Iain that we needed to provide that service to our vulnerable customers. It was not possible to do it in that way, so I had to try to bring it in and put the burden, frankly, on jobcentres to do it because we could not get collective Government agreement to a Universal Support as he was envisaging it. We have done it; it is in the service. It is just not branded Universal Support.147

131.Help to Claim is a hugely valuable service for people who are applying for Universal Credit. But its focus is on helping people to complete their initial claim. It does not provide support for people throughout their claim, to help them to manage debt, personal budgeting, and maintaining their claim through their online journal. In that respect, Help to Claim is still a long way from providing the support originally envisaged as integral to the successful rollout of Universal Credit. We cannot agree with the assertion made by Neil Couling, Senior Responsible Owner for Universal Credit, that the Department is currently providing a “de facto Universal Support”.

132.We recommend that the Department invests in expanding and developing Help to Claim so that the service can provide support to people beyond the application process. This should include debt advice, support for people who are struggling with Advance repayments, and tailored support for people with complex needs who need additional support throughout their claim. The service should also offer digital support—for example, supporting people to make use of the online journal to maintain their claim. This would bring Help to Claim closer to the original plans for Universal Support.

Specific claimant groups

133.During our inquiry, we heard that certain groups of people are more likely to face challenges when claiming Universal Credit. These include:

Disabled claimants and people with health conditions—Scope said that the hardships posed by the wait for payments and Advance deductions are exacerbated for disabled claimants because they have higher living costs. Scope estimates that disabled people face additional costs of £583 per month (on average).148

Terminally ill people—The Motor Neurone Disease (MND) Association said that, under the Special Rules for Terminal Illness (SRTI), claimants of disability benefits can receive their payment more quickly than those who apply via the standard route. In Universal Credit, however, terminally ill claimants must wait the standard five weeks for their first payment.149 We describe in Chapter 4 how Universal Credit works for terminally ill claimants.

Refugees—The Refugee Council and Helen Bamber Foundation, organisations that support refugees and asylum seekers, highlighted that many refugees will have recently arrived in the UK and cannot benefit from existing support networks or savings. They may have experienced destitution, making them reluctant to take out a repayable Advance.150

Prison leavers—Changing Lives, an organisation that supports vulnerable adults, highlighted that prisoners cannot make a claim before their release, meaning that they must wait at least five weeks from their release to receive their first payment.151 Some prison leavers do not have a bank account or struggle to verify their identity, making it difficult for them to obtain an Advance.152

Young people who receive no support from their household—Universal Credit allowances for under-25s are lower than those for over-25s. Centrepoint, which works with young homeless people, said that this means they are more acutely affected by hardships caused by Advance deductions, for example.153

People with addiction problems—Changing Lives says that receiving a lump sum can have a hugely destabilising impact for people experiencing addiction, who will often spend all their award in the course of a few days, which can lead to significant harm.154

Tracking vulnerable claimants

134.The NAO also found that “the Department does not have all the information it needs to track vulnerable claimants and ensure its support is effective”, and that DWP does not use data ‘flags’ or markers to highlight claimants’ vulnerabilities or complex needs within the Universal Credit system. This means that DWP “cannot produce national-level management information on vulnerable claimants, and its front-line staff cannot use data within the system to easily identify all those people who might struggle with the process”.155

135.Because of the lack of clear system markers about who is vulnerable, the NAO found that DWP cannot ensure that the support it provides to vulnerable people is effective; for example, it cannot track whether a claimant has accessed the Help to Claim service. This makes it difficult to measure whether vulnerability has any bearing on outcomes—for example, whether vulnerable people are more likely to be paid late.156 In its report, the NAO recommended that DWP should:

Develop a better data-based understanding of the numbers of vulnerable claimants–and any direct or indirect diversity impact of its payment performance–and use this to support the needs of people who continue to struggle with making a claim for Universal Credit.

[ … ]

Prioritise improvements to the Universal Credit digital system to help front-line staff identify and support claimants who need more help.157

136.The NAO report noted that DWP staff can use ‘pinned notes’ in the Universal Credit system to track the needs of vulnerable people. In an August 2019 article, Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG), a charity that supports claimants, welcomed the introduction of pinned notes but described them as “insufficient” to address previous problems with identifying vulnerable people.158 The NAO said that DWP “cannot currently use [pinned notes] to produce consistent, national-level management information on vulnerable claimants”, or to identify all the vulnerable people that it works with.159 Joshua Reddaway, Director for Work and Pensions, Value for Money, at the NAO, has described pinned notes as “the digital equivalent of a post-it note put on the paper file at the top” and said that while this works operationally, it “does not work from having a data-led approach to understanding what is going on”.160

137.When asked about collection of data about claimant vulnerabilities, Will Quince MP, the Minister for Welfare Delivery, said that the Department is able to collect some data through pinned notes, but acknowledged that it could do more to identify particular vulnerable groups:

We have a very good system in terms of our support for the individual through Universal Credit, because it is that personalised, tailored support, so by pin notes we are able to put quite a good amount of detail as to the specific characteristics of an individual and, therefore, able to support them based on them. What we do not have at the moment is a checkbox or something where we can identify particular vulnerable groups, disadvantaged groups or cohorts of people. That is, I think, what the NAO is specifically referring to.

What I hasten to add on that is that I am very keen for us to get into that place. It is quite a significant system build change and it is part of the programme. It is going to take some time, but my ambition is for us to get to exactly that place.161

138.DWP currently lacks a comprehensive system for recording and tracking claimants’ needs. The introduction of pinned notes is a step in the right direction but, as the National Audit Office said, pinned notes are the digital equivalent of a post-it note on a file: they do not enable staff to collect consistent data on who needs additional support. We welcome the Minister’s ambition to improve the way the Department identifies people who may need additional support, and his recognition that more needs to be done. We would welcome timely action to address that recognition.

139.DWP must immediately make improvements to the Universal Credit system to formalise how it identifies and defines vulnerable claimants, as part of its overall approach to safeguarding vulnerable people. This will be a substantial piece of work, and DWP should set out when it expects to achieve this. The new mechanism should, as the Minister for Welfare Delivery suggested, include the ability to identify vulnerable and disadvantaged groups and specific cohorts of people. DWP should gather data to identify whether any such groups are more likely to experience problems during the wait for first payment, delays to their payment, or any other issues throughout their claim. DWP should proactively use this information to expedite claims for these people, ensuring that they do not face further delay, and to provide the additional support that they need.

DWP’s work with support organisations

140.Jennifer Harrison, Head of Policy at Changing Lives, said that some people may feel uncomfortable disclosing vulnerability to DWP staff. She highlighted the importance of support workers, who she says play a significant role in helping vulnerable people navigate the system. She also said that, while some support workers have very effective relationships with DWP, this is not always the case:

What we see broadly is quite a bit of variety in terms of how that is applied. We will have some circumstances where those relationships are very, very strong, and other times where we might find that we have to repeatedly share information with people in DWP to be able to demonstrate that we have the right permissions and so on to help and support people.162

141.Universal Credit uses an ‘explicit consent’ model, where claimants must consent to a third party acting on their behalf each time a request is made. This is different from other benefits, which use an implicit consent model: this means that DWP staff can use their judgement and experience to decide whether the claimant has consented to a third party acting on their behalf. In a report published in September 2020, the Social Security Advisory Committee (SSAC) noted that some support organisations had expressed concern about the operation of explicit consent, saying that it “hinders their ability to help, causes distress for some claimants with mental health problems who rely on the support of an advocate and creates delays”. SSAC recommended that DWP should extend the implicit consent model to Universal Credit. In its response, DWP said it would “explore options” for improving the explicit consent model.163

142.London Councils, a group which represents London’s thirty-two boroughs and the City of London, said that Universal Credit places claimants and local authorities in a position of financial insecurity. This, the group says, is largely as a result of the wait and a failure to recognise claimant vulnerability and adapt accordingly, arguing that “the government needs to do more to ensure support is available for vulnerable claimants who struggle with UC and that local authorities are best placed to deliver that service”.164

143.Housing providers argued that DWP should improve its approach to data sharing so that it can identify vulnerable claimants and offer them support earlier in the process. Community Housing Cymru recommended that DWP should use the Landlord Portal to improve two-way information sharing between the Department and landlords. Housing Cymru said that “this could help prevent fraud, homelessness and situations that escalate into crisis”.165 The Minister for Welfare Delivery Will Quince MP, in a letter to the Committee, said that there needs to be “a specific reason either underpinned by policy and/or regulation to allow us to share additional data with landlords”.166 DWP already operates a “Trusted Partner” system. A Trusted Partner is “a social landlord appointed by DWP to identify tenants who are unlikely to pay their rent”.167 The landlord assesses the need for a managed payment to the landlord and arranges support for the tenant. Once a landlord takes on Trusted Partner status, they will then be given access to the Landlord Portal.

144.A 2019 report by the Child Poverty Action Group on the impact of Universal Credit in the London borough of Tower Hamlets highlighted the importance of sharing information between DWP and local councils. CPAG said that in Housing Benefit, which is administered by local authorities, “staff can see when problems have arisen, and intervene to prevent or resolve them.” With Universal Credit, CPAG said this is not the case:

With universal credit, councils do not have access to the same information, meaning that problems may go unresolved for much longer, claimants may accrue arrears, and their homes may be at risk”.168

145.Support organisations have expressed concern that DWP’s approach to data sharing and consent has had a detrimental effect on their ability to support vulnerable claimants. The Department now says it is exploring options for improving its model of explicit consent. We urge the Department to publish more detail about how this exploration is being progressed, including when the Department expects progress to be visible to observers and experienced by claimants. We echo the Social Security Advisory Committee’s recommendation that DWP should consider applying the implicit consent model to Universal Credit, or at least consider what improvements it can make to the model of explicit consent. More broadly, DWP should review its approach to how it works with people and organisations that support claimants, including support workers, housing associations and local authorities.

133 Oral evidence taken on 22 July 2020, HC (559), Q1

134 Citizens Advice, Help to Claim: the story so far, 31 October 2019

137 Work and Pensions Committee, Eighteenth Report of Session 2017–19, Universal Support, HC 1667, Para 12

138 Work and Pensions Committee, Seventeenth Special Report of Session 2017–19, Universal Support: Government response to the Committee’s Eighteenth Report of Session 2017–19, HC 1862, Para 11

139 Citizens Advice, Get help applying for Universal Credit, accessed 6 August 2020

141 National Audit Office, “Universal Credit: getting to first payment”, July 2020, p 46

143 National Audit Office, “Universal Credit: getting to first payment”, July 2020, p 12

147 Ibid.

148 Scope [UCW0081]

149 Motor-Neurone Disease Association [UCW0028]

150 Refugee Council [UCW0019] and Helen Bamber Foundation [UCW0032]

151 Changing Lives [UCW0030]

152 Citizens Advice Leicestershire [UCW0038]

153 Centrepoint [UCW0021]

154 Changing Lives [UCW0030]

155 National Audit Office, “Universal Credit: getting to first payment”, July 2020, p 13

156 Ibid., p13

157 Ibid., p14

158 CPAG, UC and Complex Needs, 1 August 2019

163 Social Security Advisory Committee, Consent in Universal Credit, 8 September 2020

164 London Councils [UCW0054]

165 Community Housing Cymru [UCW0084]

166 Letter from the Minister for Welfare Delivery, dated 27 August 2020

Published: 19 October 2020