Universal Credit – Slipping timetables and a raft of concerns

Our benefits correspondent Charlie Callanan explains a new system with far-reaching implications struggling to get off the ground.

The long-running introduction of Universal Credit continues to cause concern and anxiety for many learning disabled people and the professionals, carers and relatives who support or look after them. Concerns include how soon clients will have to claim the benefit and what support will be available to do this.

Universal Credit is for people of working age who are on a low income, whether in or out of work. It is replacing all the means-tested benefits, called ‘legacy benefits’. These are income-related Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), Income-based Job Seeker’s Allowance (JSA), Income Support, Housing Benefit, and child and working tax credits.

The timetable for the roll-out of Universal Credit has continually slipped since its initial introduction in 2013. Currently the ‘full digital service’ is being rolled-out across Great Britain, with completion planned for September 2018. From 2019 the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) will begin the ‘managed migration’ of all existing claimants of means-tested benefits to Universal Credit, to be completed by 2022.

This now means that any new claimant entitled to claim means-tested support, and who lives within a full digital service area, will have to claim Universal Credit.

Transitional protection

However, existing claimants already getting a legacy benefit within a full service area may also have to claim Universal Credit, under the ‘natural migration’ process. This is most likely to happen where the claimant has a relevant change of circumstances. Examples where this may happen include where an ESA claimant fails the work capability assessment and tries to claim JSA while challenging the decision; or where a couple either separates or forms; or a JSA claimant becomes a carer and tries to claim Income Support.

Claimants who are moved in the future to Universal Credit via managed migration will get ‘transitional protection’. This is an extra amount of money which tops up a Universal Credit award so that the claimant is not worse off when moved onto the new benefit. However, claimants who move as
a result of natural migration will not be entitled to this.

A major feature of Universal Credit is that the claimants must apply for and manage the benefit online. This may cause difficulties for some clients unless they can get help managing their claim.

The policy of the DWP is to provide help for more vulnerable clients, where required. This may include ‘assisted digital support’ or help from a specialist team in a local job centre.

However, while government guidance (see rightsnet.org.uk/universal-credit-full-service-guidance) explains what assistance is potentially available, it also emphasises that the claimant should be strongly encouraged to be independent in managing their claim and that there are limitations to the help that DWP staff may give. For example, it states that job centre staff must never enter information on a claimant’s behalf, adding: “Assisted Digital Support includes: coaching, challenging and motivating claimants to become more digitally competent – helping them to create, maintain and fully utilise their digital account.”

But if the claimant cannot cope with being independent in inputting data, problems may arise if they provide wrong or inaccurate information; for example, about their capital or their number of working hours. This could have serious consequences for their claim, such as it being suspended or lead to an over-payment.

Explicit consent

Ironically the rules for Universal Credit may make it harder for a third party, eg. an advice worker, to intervene and support a learning disabled client. Unlike most DWP benefits where implicit consent is accepted to allow advisers to help claimants without needing to have written consent, DWP have introduced a system of explicit consent for Universal Credit. This means that the claimant must give their explicit consent for an adviser to act on their behalf, via their online account, or with the third party on the phone or in person at a job centre. The claimant must be clear about the specific information they want to disclose, so a general consent will not be enough, and the consent will only apply to that particular enquiry or issue.

Fortunately for many of our clients already claiming benefits they will have some breathing space before Universal Credit is forced on them. But professionals will need to be ready and willing to assist, or signpost to expert advisers, any clients who end up in the Universal Credit system.