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Citizens Advice News

Jan 15, 2020

Citizens Advice offices in the North-East call for changes to the 5-week wait for Universal Credit


Category: News
Posted by: editor

Local Citizens Advice Offices in the North-East (Newcastle, Northumberland, South Tyneside, Gateshead, Sunderland and County Durham) have conducted joint research into the impact on claimants of the 5-week wait for Universal Credit. This research examined the barriers claimants had in making a claim for Universal Credit and how they paid for their essential bills during the 5-week wait for their initial payment. The full report can be found here - Impact of Claiming Universal Credit

A summary of this report can be found here - Summary Report 

Universal Credit offers a vital source of income for people to pay for their essential living costs during their time of need. However, the 5-week for the first Universal Credit payment risks undermining its key aims by putting people’s finances at risk. Our research has shown that there is still significant barriers for people claiming Universal Credit, largely due to a lack of digital skills and access to digital devices to maintain their claim. Significant numbers of clients are reliant on support without that provided through Universal Credit itself, such as the Advance Payment, instead relying on charitable support, friends and family or falling into arrears with their essential bills.

The research has also drawn attention to the difficulty those migrating from ‘legacy’ benefits in particular face. They were more likely to require additional support and fall behind on their essential bills than those making a new claim for benefit. Based on this evidence, we recommend a number of additional changes, support and greater flexibility to the Universal Credit system to help solve the issues highlighted in this report. They will also decrease the financial risk for claimants going through the 5-week wait for their first payment and beyond.

 

Recommendations:

 

1. Additional Support in Making a Claim

Through the evidence gathered for this report, and the “Help to Claim” service as a whole, it is clear claimants require additional support in making and managing a claim for Universal Credit, we therefore recommend:

  • Reform the ‘digital only’ approach. For vulnerable claimants, digital access can be expensive, unreliable and digital literacy is by no means universal. Their Work Coach should check digital literacy, along with availability and regularity of access. If this falls below an agreed standard, paper and telephone options should be available for claimants until this changes.
  • Reducing delays. Claimants should not receive a delay in their first payment through difficulty in providing evidence, such as identification, healthcare or childcare costs. Claims should proceed as normal (5-week point) as long as a Work Coach is working with the claimant to solve any evidencing issues.
  • Increase digital literacy and support digital skills associated with Universal Credit usage. Packages of support provided for claimants to increase their digital skills in order to empower people with the digital literacy needed to manage a Universal Credit claim; this could also develop into skills for the workplace. 

2. Ensuring greater flexibility and money within Universal Credit

Our evidence further highlights the hardship caused by the 5-week wait for claimants to receive their first Universal Credit payment, particularly for those migrating from ‘legacy’ benefits. In order to alleviate this, we recommend:

  • Reducing the 5-week wait. By bringing forward the first non-repayable payment to no later than two weeks into a Universal Credit claim. This would be achieved by using estimates, which is already the case for calculating Advance Payments, making this achievable.
  • Overpayment tolerance. Built into this should be a tolerance for any overpayments incurred through using estimates up to a set ceiling to minimise the financial impact on claimants.
  • Flexibility in Payment Periods. Claimants, based on their circumstances should be offered either fortnightly or monthly payments, similar to those options introduced by the Scottish Government to provide the flexibility many claimants need to reflect their circumstances.
  • Offer Alternative Payment Arrangement as Standard. Claimants should have the choice, when making a claim for Universal Credit to have their rent paid directly to their landlord from their first payment date.
  • Clearly communicate deductions. When a deduction of benefit is in place, claimants should be shown clearly what is to be deducted, how much the total is to be deducted and the total timeframe for repayment. Work Coaches should work out clear, and affordable repayment plans with claimants once this information has been communicated. 

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