Universal Credit: the wait for a first payment Contents

8Payment timeliness

146.Not everyone receives their first payment on time. We heard evidence that a significant minority of people must wait longer than five weeks—in some cases more than 11 weeks—for their first payment, or only receive part of their payment on time. A member of the public who provided evidence to our inquiry said, at the time of submission (March 2020), that they had been waiting seven weeks for a payment:

I am still waiting for my first full payment [ … ] this is week 7 and there has been no help or sense of urgency to resolve my dispute. I have had only 70 pounds since the 16th of January.169

147.From 16 March to 23 June 2020, DWP received 3.2 million new Universal Credit claims.170 In evidence, the Department told us that 93% of new claimants since March were paid on time.171 This equates to almost 3 million people receiving their payment on time, but a significant number–over 200,000–were still paid late.

Improvements to payment timeliness

148.In its report, Universal Credit: getting to first payment, the NAO said that DWP had been “very effective” at improving payment timeliness, increasing the proportion of people paid on time from 55% in January 2017 to 90% in February 2020. However, while the proportion has increased, the actual number of people being paid late has also risen alongside the overall rise in claimant numbers:

In 2017, 113,000 claims were not paid in full and on time, out of 162,000. This increased to 226,000 claims in 2018 and 312,000 claims in 2019. Claimants with claims due for payment in 2019, who were not paid on time faced average delays of three weeks in addition to the five-week wait.172

149.In our first report of this Parliament, DWP’s response to the coronavirus outbreak, we looked at the timeliness of payments for people who had claimed Universal Credit from 16 March, following the coronavirus outbreak and the imposition of lockdown. We welcomed the fact that most people (93%) had been paid on time but expressed concern about the fact that 7%—at least 200,000 people at the time—had been paid late. We recommended that the Department set out how it intends to improve on these high standards of timeliness in the long term with fewer staff in front line roles.173 In its response, the Government said that the high proportion of claims paid on time was because of the “easements” it had made to the application process, such as letting people use their existing Government Gateway accounts to verify their identity. DWP also said that “there will continue to be reasons why payment timeliness will never be 100%”, as timeliness also depends on the claimant providing necessary information or evidence on time.174

150.Since our report was published in June 2020, the Chancellor has announced £850 million of new funding for the recruitment of 13,500 new Work Coaches, double the current number, over the next financial year. Neil Couling, the Senior Responsible Owner for Universal Credit at DWP, said that the Department expects 4,500 to have been recruited by the end of October, and that these 4,500 staff can be accommodated within existing DWP estates and properties. Beyond that, Mr Couling said that the Department will need to acquire additional estates, and that it is “currently in discussions of acquiring them to a rapid timetable”.175 The Secretary of State was asked about whether the Department still expected to meet this deadline on 14 September. She said that the Department is “well on track for making sure that we have the right number of work coaches, and indeed replacement decision makers, on the agreed timescale”.176

151.DWP has made substantial progress in improving payment timeliness,. The Department has increased the proportion of people paid on time from just over half in 2017 to over 90% in 2020—a significant feat given the recent upsurge in Universal Credit claims. However, the overall rise in claimant numbers mean that more people than ever are being paid late, and when managed migration begins at scale there is a risk that these numbers will rise. No one should have to wait more than five weeks for their first payment.

152.We welcome the announcement of funding for the recruitment of over 13,500 new Work Coaches—double the current number—over the next financial year. This is an ambitious programme of recruitment. The Committee would welcome a written update from the Department, by the end of the calendar year, on how the recruitment is progressing. This should include, but not be limited to: how many of the new Work Coaches are in post; the Department’s progress in acquiring new estate to accommodate the new staff; and what impact the introduction of new staff has had on payment timeliness. The Department should then provide monthly updates on this to the Committee thereafter. As part of this, the Department should work with local authorities to identify any additional space that Jobcentres can expand into or share with local authorities. Depending on who space is shared with, DWP may find that it is able to offer better support to claimants through improved communication and collaboration.

Disabled people and people with health conditions

153.We heard evidence from organisations that support disabled people and people with health conditions which suggests that people in these groups are particularly likely to face delays. The Disability Benefits Consortium (DBC) told us that administrative delays and errors mean that disabled people can wait longer than five weeks for their first payment.177 The latest figures (released in March 2020) show that 73% of WCA assessments which found the claimant to be “fit for work” were overturned on appeal, which adds to the period of time a claimant faces without full payment.178

154.The NAO found that disabled people are less likely to receive their full payment on time, with data suggesting that this is because of the time taken to complete the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) process. For March 2019, the latest month for which data is available, the NAO found that, while 84% of claims from people receiving Personal Independence Payment (PIP) and Disability Living Allowance (DLA) were paid the core elements of their Universal Credit claim on time, only 75% of claims were paid in full and on time. This compares with 82% of claims from people who are not receiving disability benefits.179 Neil Couling told us that the data on whether disabled claimants are paid in full and on time can “overstate” the degree of lateness, as the majority receive the core elements of their award on time and payments relating to the WCA process can only be made after 13 weeks. He told us:

[ … ] There is a slight quirk in the data, which is that the limited capability work-related assessment payments can only be paid after 13 weeks to severely disabled people, unless they are terminally ill. They all appear as late in the data, even though they could not be paid at the end of the first assessment period, so the data overstate—and the NAO accepts this in the report—the degree of lateness here. Because we do not have a time machine, we cannot go back in time and do a work capability assessment and then get the claim right; we can only ever pay arrears for that. Some of the lateness is artificially created by the way in which we are forced to collect the data, which is much better than the legacy system, I am hastening to add, but clearly still you would like to be able to refine it for that.180

The Work Capability Assessment

155.When a person applies for Universal Credit, they are asked if they have either a health condition or a disability which prevents, or limits, their ability to work. If they answer yes, they may be asked to attend a Work Capability Assessment (WCA). In most cases, a person will be referred for a WCA on the 29th day of their claim if they remain unable to work for the first four weeks, although there are some circumstances where a person can be referred for a WCA on the first day of their claim—for example, if they are terminally ill or prevented from working by law.181

156.According to the NAO, the average time taken between a person declaring a disability or health condition and their WCA decision is four months.182 Macmillan Cancer Support said that delays to the WCA process, including the time taken to receive a UC50 (a capability for work questionnaire that claimants must complete), can lead to people receiving their full payment late. It said:

Delays often occur during the assessment phase of UC and these delays are often complex and difficult to resolve. For example, evidence from Macmillan’s network of benefits advisers indicates that people with cancer are experiencing delays in referrals to a WCA, including cases of people waiting longer than four weeks to receive a UC50.183

157.During our inquiry, we heard evidence about the impact that the wait can have on disabled people and people with health conditions. Scope, a disability charity, highlighted that disabled people already face higher living costs because of their disability—an average of £583 per month.184 Gemma Hope of Leonard Cheshire told us that, because of the wait, some disabled Universal Credit claimants who also receive PIP have had to rely on their PIP award so that they can afford basic essentials such as food:

What we are increasingly seeing, and particularly during new claims in coronavirus, is people using their personal independence payment, their PIP, to get them through that five-week waiting period. PIP is there to help disabled people to pay for care, support and equipment, so our concern is people are going without the essential support they need to use their PIP payments to pay for essentials such as food.185

158.We acknowledge that most disabled people and people with health conditions receive the core elements of their claim on time. However, we find it troubling that, because of the time taken to complete the Work Capability Assessment process, people must wait much longer than five weeks to receive their full entitlement. Even beyond this, disabled people experience further delays, waiting on average four months for a WCA decision. Given that disabled or ill claimants face additional costs and challenges during the wait for their first payment, it is vital that people receive their full entitlement as quickly as possible. We have recommended elsewhere in this report that DWP prioritise the changes that are needed to the UC system to allow it to collect data about claimants’ characteristics, including impairment or health condition, in a systematic way. It needs that data to understand fully disabled people’s experience of making a claim for Universal Credit. DWP should investigate how it can speed up the WCA process. Four months, on average, is too long for a person to wait for their full award. In addition, the Department should continue to monitor and collect data on how long the WCA process is taking, and it should fast track any groups for whom data suggests the WCA takes the longest. Notwithstanding delays to the process, 13 weeks is still a long time. Disabled people and people with health conditions should not have to wait this long to receive the disability element of their award. DWP should commit to reducing the time taken to complete the WCA process.

159.The Universal Credit application process requires claimants to provide a great deal of information about their circumstances, to enable the Department to assess their claim. When they have done this, Universal Credit claimants rightly expect that they should be paid the full amount they are entitled to, on time. For too many people, however, this simply does not happen. There is a penalty for claimants who do not provide the necessary documents in time: their Universal Credit is paid late. But there is no equivalent penalty for the Department when it fails to keep its side of the bargain. Where a claimant provides all the information DWP has asked for on time, but DWP has not completed its own processes to verify the claim details and make a timely payment, the claimant should receive the full amount of benefit entitlement for which they are claiming. If the Department subsequently decides that a claimant is entitled to less than they have been receiving, claimants should not be expected to pay anything back to DWP except in clear cases of deliberate fraud. Similarly, where a claimant is expected to complete a Work Capability Assessment to assess how much money they are entitled to, the onus should be on the Department to schedule the assessment and make a decision within the usual initial waiting period for the benefit. If there are delays to the WCA process, through no fault of the claimant, claimants should be paid at the highest rate until their claim has been determined.

169 Name withheld (UCW0003)

171 Oral evidence taken on 23 April 2020, HC (2019–21) 178, Q85 [Will Quince]

172 National Audit Office, Universal Credit: getting to first payment, July 2020, p35

173 Work and Pensions Committee, First Report of Session 2019–21, DWP’s response to the coronavirus outbreak, HC 178, para 23

174 Work and Pensions Committee, DWP’s response to the coronavirus outbreak: Government Response to the Committee’s First Report, First Special Report of Session 2019–21, HC 732, p2

175 Q231–233

176 Oral questions, 14 September

177 Disability Benefits Consortium (UCW0061)

179 DWP does not collect data on whether a claimant is disabled or not; instead, it uses indicators such as whether a person is also receiving disability benefits, such as PIP and DLA, or whether a person is entitled to the limited capability for work element in Universal Credit. The ‘core elements’ of a Universal Credit claim are the standard allowance, plus housing and child elements (if applicable).

182 National Audit Office, Universal Credit: getting to first payment, July 2020, p35

183 Macmillan Cancer Support (UCW0037)

184 Scope (UCW0081)

Published: 19 October 2020