A welfare adviser’s view on Universal Credit: a flawed system that emphasises process over people

Struggling to make ends meet. John Stillwell/PA Wire

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been scathing in his criticism of the government’s rollout of Universal Credit. Speaking at prime minister’s questions on October 11, Corbyn said:

Not only are people being driven into poverty, but absurdly … the Universal Credit helpline costs claimants 55p per minute for the privilege of trying to get someone to help them claim what they believe they’re entitled to.

The move to combine six existing means-tested benefits into a combined monthly payment sounds attractive in principle. The government believes that Universal Credit is an essential element of a reformed social security system and will reduce in-work poverty, reduce fraud and error, and simply make a complex system a bit easier to navigate.

Yet the rollout of Universal Credit has been beset with administrative and structural problems. Many advisers working on behalf of claimants have joined Citizens Advice to call for a pause to the rollout of Universal Credit to allow the flaws in the system to be ironed out. Work and pensions secretary David Gauke rejected these calls for a pause, insisting the rollout will continue with a scheduled end date of 2022.

Those professionals who advise welfare claimants on legal and financial issues are in a unique position to analyse the impact of the rollout of Universal Credit from both a technical perspective, and that of the claimant. Advisers mainly work for third sector or voluntary organisations, local government, trade unions or solicitors.

For many years I worked as an adviser in a local government setting and I now teach students to become welfare advisers at Staffordshire University. We are a member of the National Association of Welfare Rights Advisers (NAWRA), which represents advisers and which submitted evidence to the Work and Pensions Committee on Universal Credit in March 2017 on how to make the benefit system work better for claimants.

A significant problem is that Universal Credit is now paid monthly, rather than weekly. Some vulnerable claimants – such as those with learning disabilities or victims of domestic violence – are able to request more frequent payments. They can also have payments split between partners or have the housing cost element of Universal Credit paid directly to the landlord. One possible improvement to the system would be to give all claimants flexibility to request such alternative payment arrangements.

Computer says no

The government expects Universal Credit claims to be made and managed online. This can require claimants to access their online account on a daily basis to demonstrate that they are taking steps to secure a job. But alternative ways of managing a claim should be available, for example on the phone or in a face-to-face meeting. There is now growing pressure on the government to make calls to the Universal Credit helpline free. In my view there needs to be a much easier system for claimants to navigate that would prevent people missing out on vital benefit payments.

For those claimants suffering from serious health problems, with significant caring responsibilities, or who don’t speak English, access to appropriate IT facilities is further complicated by the closure of many jobcentres and the lack of capacity for the advice sector to absorb this demand.

Jobcentres are being closed and merged across the country. via shutterstock.com

There can also be issues with how quickly housing costs are paid. Under the previous system, landlords received housing benefit directly – but now Universal Credit recipients must pay their landlords themselves out of their monthly benefit. Advisers report that many claimants have difficulties in getting the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to accept the level of rent they are paying, and this has led to delays in payments to landlords while further evidence is sought.

Allow helpers to help

Many claimants report difficulties in communicating with the DWP making even relatively straightforward issues difficult to resolve. Even as a professional advice worker, I’ve found communication with the DWP problematic. Long waits on telephone hotlines are commonplace and there can be a reluctance from DWP agents to share information with an adviser even when a claimant is happy for this to happen.

A sensible suggestion from NAWRA would be to introduce “implicit consent”, allowing advice workers to communicate directly with the DWP on behalf of a claimant. Claiming benefits can be a bewildering process and having the support of an adviser who understands benefit terminology and the complexities of the system can be crucial in securing timely and fair decisions.

One advice worker, quoted in NAWRA’s evidence to the Work and Pensions Committee, said:

On one occasion I was working with a young, vulnerable adult. He made a claim for Universal Credit and for some reason was not paid his standard allowance after the sixth week. It was eventually paid after eight weeks only when we intervened and rung the helpline together with our customer. The agent apologised and our customer was paid within the three hours. Due to vulnerabilities our tenant was not able to ring the helpline on his own.

Benefit advisers have long called for changes to the benefit system to make it easier to understand and access for claimants. The whole point of Universal Credit is to provide a more streamlined and coherent system. The widely reported problems with the rollout of Universal Credit demonstrate that there is still much work to be done to improve a system that too often emphasises process over people.