On 8 September 2021, the House of Lords is due to debate the following:

Lord Davies of Brixton to ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of (1) the report by the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute Set Up To Fail: Making it easier to get help with universal credit, published on 26 May, and (2) any barriers to people with mental health problems receiving support for the management of their universal credit accounts.

Universal credit

The Welfare Reform Act 2012 introduced a system of universal credit (UC) which would replace six ‘legacy benefits’. The stated aim of this change was to streamline and simplify the benefits system for both benefits claimants and those administering the system. In addition, it was argued, the scheme would encourage people on benefits to start work and would reduce fraud and error.

The six means-tested legacy benefits replaced by UC were: income-based jobseekers allowance (JSA); income-related employment and support allowance (ESA); income support (IS); housing benefit (HB); working tax credit; and child tax credits.

Under the legacy benefits system, where a household was eligible for more than one of these benefits, each was claimed and paid separately. The introduction of UC aimed to remove the need for multiple claims and replace it with the introduction of a single online claim. Once a claim for benefits is made, information on the claim is used to determine which benefits an applicant is eligible for, removing the need for separate claims for different benefits.

In February 2021, the latest date for which data has been released, over five million households were claiming UC.

Claims process

UC is ‘digital by default’, with claimants expected to make applications online via the Government website (GOV.UK), rather than through paper forms. However, in some exceptional circumstances, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) may allow telephone claims or make home visits to assist with digital claims.

Since its inception, concerns have been raised by organisations such as Citizens Advice and the National Audit Office about the potential for the digital-first system to limit vulnerable claimants’ access to the system.

However, more recently the Government has made several changes to the system aimed at simplifying the claims process. For example, it has introduced a ‘Help to Claim’ service provided by Citizens Advice and Citizens Advice Scotland which aims to support claimants in the early stages of their UC claim.

In addition, the Department for Work and Pensions has received some praise for the role of UC during the Covid-19 pandemic. In June 2020, the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee argued that some of the DWP’s actions had “helped mitigate the worst impacts” of the Covid-19 crisis and there had been a “noticeable improvement in the proportion of people who are paid on time”. However, the report also highlighted ongoing difficulties with UC, including the fact that around 7% of claimants were not being paid on time.

In July 2020, a report by the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee praised the “efficient management of an unprecedented number of new claims over such a short period” by DWP staff, “which would not have been possible without the digitalisation of the UC application process”. However, the committee also called for a number of reforms to UC aimed at improving: its design and implementation; the adequacy of its awards; and how it supports claimants to navigate the system and find work.

Set up to fail?

On 26 May 2021, the independent charity the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute (MMHPI) published Set up to Fail: Making it Easier to Get Help with Universal Credit. The charity was founded by Martin Lewis, the financial journalist who founded the ‘money saving expert’ website which promises to ‘cut your costs and fight your corner’. The MMHPI itself focuses on “breaking the link between financial difficulty and mental health problems”. Its report examined the systems in place for UC claimants with mental health needs to get support for their claim from third parties.

The institute noted that people with mental health problems often rely on support from third parties to navigate UC claims and manage their UC account, with failure to complete tasks required for claiming UC having potentially “devastating consequences” such as sanctions, deductions or lost entitlements.

While a ‘Help to Claim’ service does exist to support people to navigate the UC online claims process, the report notes that once a person is in receipt of their first payment, access to the Help to Claim service ceases:

There have long been processes within the benefits system through which a claimant can get support from a third party. But the introduction of UC has made it harder than ever to get such help. It brought with it stringent new rules regarding third party access and compounded the difficulties people face. While these additional requirements are intended to protect claimants from fraud or abuse and ensure their privacy, the additional barriers are leading to harm, both financial and psychological.

A number of public bodies, including the Information Commissioner’s Office and the Social Security Advisory Committee (SSAC), have raised concerns and called for improved routes to set up third party access.

While acknowledging some of the work which the Department for Work and Pensions has carried out to address issues with the system’s complexity, the report argues that:

[…] with the pandemic leading to worse mental health, unemployment forecast to rise and many of those transferring to UC likely to have additional needs, delivering a third party support system that lets people get the help they need should be an urgent priority for the government.

The report includes a number of recommendations, including:

  • Changes to the explicit consent process, with clear and consistent prompts of information required and a drop-down menu clarifying what information claimants wish to share and for how long.
  • The introduction of a vulnerability marker scheme to identify UC claimants who might benefit from greater support.
  • Expanding the ‘Help to Claim’ scheme to include a new ‘Help to Manage’ support service for claimants.
  • A view-only access for authorised third parties, allowing claimants to share a specific screen with a friend or family member.
  • The introduction of a duplicate notifications system for both third parties and claimants to alert them to new messages or tasks in their UC account.
  • Improvements to the appointeeship system, which grants significant powers to third parties, to make it more proportionate and tailored.
  • Wider changes to simplify the system of UC, including how information on payments and calculations is presented.

What is the Government doing?

Asked in July 2021 what assessment it had made of the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute report, the Government pointed to mental health training for staff who have direct contact with claimants “to equip them to identify mental wellbeing issues or vulnerabilities, and to take appropriate action to support individuals”. In addition, it argued:

The Department is committed to providing the best possible support for all our claimants, including the most vulnerable in society, in both making and maintaining their claim. Help to Claim, delivered through Citizens Advice and Citizens Advice Scotland, offers tailored and practical support to help people make a universal credit claim.

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Cover image by Scott Graham on Unsplash.