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Read our submission on UC natural migration

19 February 2019

Disability Rights UK submission to Work and Pensions Committee Inquiry on natural migration to Universal Credit

Work and Pensions Committee Inquiry on natural migration to Universal Credit 

Disability Rights UK (DR UK) is led by people with lived experience across the spectrum of disability and health conditions, including mental health conditions, learning disabilities, dementia and autism.

We are a pan disability membership organisation led by disabled people seeking change. Our membership includes individual disabled people and organisations working on their behalf including disabled people led organisations.

Among our membership are over three hundred organisations that give advice directly to disabled people, particularly in respect of benefit issues. DR UK run a second-tier advice line where we assist their front-line advice workers with supportive information and advice.

We have many serious concerns relating to disabled people’s natural migration to universal credit. Most centre on the rules and administration of the benefit itself.

Around 40% of people claiming universal credit reported a ‘long-term health condition’ according to the DWP’s Universal Credit Full Service Survey.  In addition, the DWP found that 25% or more are likely to be deemed disabled under the Equality Act 2010.

So, a significant group affected by natural migration to universal credit will be disabled or have a long-term health condition.

In addition, while the Government has said it will introduce transitional protection for those who naturally migrate to universal credit this is insufficient.

Those claimants who become disabled or develop a serious long term health condition only after natural migration will have equal financial and accessibility needs.

Many of the problems in relation to natural migration to universal credit are inherent in the design and operation of the benefit itself.

This is clear from the conclusion of the UN’s Special Rapporteur’s visit statement on extreme poverty and human rights in the UK who found that -

“No single program embodies the combination of the benefits reforms and the promotion of austerity programs more than Universal Credit.  Although in its initial conception it represented a potentially major improvement in the system, it is fast falling into Universal Discredit.”

The Special Rapporteur highlights several endemic problems with the new benefit, including its inbuilt delay in first payment (and delays even to this), its “advance payment” loan scheme, “draconian” sanctions (“even for infringements that seem minor”) and its digital-by-default nature.

Recommendations

The five-week waiting period is removed and with claimants being given the option of being paid fortnightly.

The universal credit claim process be made fully accessible to those who are unable or find it difficult to use the internet and provide accessible means of communication throughout that claim.

Welfare conditionality and sanctions are abolished for disabled people and those with long term health conditions.

The SDP be included in the applicable amount for universal credit.

Those who submit a fit note should be treated as having a limited capability of work until they undergo a work capability assessment.

Disabled students receiving DLA or PIP should be treated as having a limited capability for work.

No joint payment is made Ito a household where more than one person receives universal credit with individual payments being made instead.

We thank the Committee for its consideration of these points.

In our submission we outline our reasons for these recommendations.

Five-week waiting period

The Trussell Trust, the biggest provider of food banks, has reported that food bank use goes up by an average of 30% in areas where universal credit had been introduced.

In addition, an independent study commissioned by the Trust found that over 50% of households included a disabled person, consistent with the definition used in national surveys.​

While it is welcome that the Government has now acknowledged that universal credit is linked to food bank use, it is far from the case that better access to advance payments can solve this.

The five-week waiting period for the first payment universal credit has not in the long term been eased by the provision of “advance payments”. These must be repaid leaving claimants to live on reduced income - debt doesn’t ease food poverty.

The current waiting period causes rent arrears, which puts people at risk of homelessness.  The survey of English housing associations found that tenants on universal credit are more than twice as likely to be in debt compared to all other tenants. Nearly three quarters (73%) of universal credit tenants are in debt, compared to less than a third (29%) of all other tenants. 

The National Audit Office NAO report on Rolling out Universal Credit highlighted that the five-week waiting period does pushes many claimants further into debt as -

“… the majority of claimants do not have the money to manage over this period. Take-up of new claim advances is now at 60%, an indication that claimants manage over this period by taking on additional debt.”

November 2018 research commissioned by Gateshead Council “It’s hitting people that can least afford it the hardest” found that people claiming Universal Credit are being forced into debt, rent arrears and extreme hardship, with serious consequences for their health and wellbeing.

It says that people moving onto Universal Credit, especially those with disabilities, health problems or complicated lives, experienced an average delay of seven and a half weeks before receiving their first payment. In addition, once the payment is received, deductions for advance payments and rent arrears are leaving people without enough money to eat or pay bills.

In terms of rent arrears, the study found that very few claimants knew or were offered by the DWP ‘alternative payment arrangements’ whereby benefit could be paid direct to their landlord”. This contributed to this shocking situation -

“Gateshead Housing Company manage over 20,000 homes, including 19,000 council tenancies, and employed ten additional Advice and Support staff as the roll out of UC began in October 2017. A significant proportion of staff time is spent responding to UC related enquiries.

Gateshead Housing Company have seen an increase in average rent arrears of 114% per person,a dramatic increase in numbers of claimants presenting in a severely distressed state, requests for fuel poverty support increased by 144% and food bank support has increased by 274% since October 2017."

DR UK supports the Trussell Trusts’ five weeks is too long campaign and maintain that it the waiting period should be reduced to two weeks.

The housing benefit element of universal credit is paid directly to the claimant which can result in rent arrears. We recommend that the universal credit claimant be able to readily request its payment to their landlord.

Difficulties making and maintaining a universal credit claim

Many disabled universal credit claimants struggle with the universal credit system as it is digitally based and not been designed with disabled people’s access needs in mind.

There are several factors that may restrict the digital inclusion of disabled people - for example training and skills, access to equipment or adjustments and poor finance. to understand and use the internet.

To apply for universal credit, claimants must first create a ‘Verify’ account online, which proves their identity. In addition, subsequent communications between them and the Jobcentre are then made via an online journal.

Yet 20% of disabled people have never used the internet, according to 2018 figures from the ONS and many others find the online process inaccessible.

According to June 2018 DWP’s own research - Universal Credit full service claimant survey - almost half of universal credit claimants say that they needed help in registering their claim online.

Overall, more than four in ten claimants said they needed more support registering their claim for universal credit. Three in ten said they need more ongoing support with using their universal credit digital account.

The DWP research also found that it was quite common for the claim process to take more than one attempt and, even amongst those with experience of claiming other benefits, again nearly half found it more difficult to claim universal credit.

In its July 2018 research report - Making a Universal Credit claim – Citizens Advice also found says that significant numbers of people are failing to claim at their first attempt, particularly because of difficulties supplying evidence.

A quarter of claimants Citizens Advice advised lost more than a week's universal credit entitlement because of difficulties finishing their claims, and that, of those advised who qualified for extra costs under universal credit -

  • 48% found it difficult to provide evidence for health conditions;
  • 40% found it difficult to provide evidence for housing; and
  • 35% found it difficult to provide evidence for childcare.

Also, of concern is that Citizen Advice report that those who are accessing financial support for a health condition face particularly long delays, with only 1 in 3 of those who have a limited capability for work element in their claim receiving their full payment on time.  Almost half (48%) of those it spoke to said they found evidencing health conditions difficult.

This overarching emphasis on digital communication means that reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act 2010 are not prioritised. 

But the DWP is not monitoring the needs of those who are not able to cope with its digital claim system. This is evidenced by its failure to track to track data on the number of people who make universal credit applications without using a computer. 

In a freedom of information request HuffPost UK asked the DWP what proportion of the current 1.2 million people receiving Universal Credit had first made claims using methods other than digital – for example by visiting a Job Centre, in person, or by telephone.

The department responded by admitting that it did not hold this data -

“Following a search of our paper and electronic records, I have established that the information you requested about the current Universal Credit caseload is not held by this department.”

A paper universal credit claim pack needs to be readily available so disabled people can more easily make an application. Again, for example, rather than by online journal, people with learning difficulties and some deaf people need to be contacted by Easy Read with large print or Braille used for visually impaired people. 

The DWP is to fund by £39 million Citizens Advice to provide Universal Support from April 2019. Any increase in support for people needing to claim universal credit is welcome.

However, the location of Citizens Advice offices across the country is patchy. And it remains to be seen if the amount allocated to them will be sufficient.

We are concerned that the emphasis seems to be on help submitting an initial claim and not funded to provide ongoing digital support -

“Our help to claim service supports clients to make their initial Universal Credit claim. We can also support them with other issues in their lives by signposting or referring clients to other services - within Citizens Advice or through other organisations.”

Sanctions

Sanctions under universal credit are at least nine times higher than the benefits it is replacing.

In addition -

The Work and Pensions Committee has already concluded that sanctions do not work and are harmful and counterproductive, with evidence against the imposition of conditionality and sanctions on people with a disability or health condition being “compelling”..

We support its recommendation that -

“… the Government immediately stop imposing conditionality and sanctions on anyone found to have limited capability for work, or who presents a valid doctor’s note (Fit Note) stating that they are unable to work, including those who present such a note while waiting for a Work Capability Assessment. Instead, it should work with experts to develop a programme of voluntary employment support.”

The Government’s rejection of this has no evidential basis.

DR UK want a system that genuinely supports the many disabled people who want to work to keep their job when they become disabled - and, for those out of work, to get into work, or set up their own business, with the tailored and flexible support they need to do so.

Instead people are subject to a regime that seems to be finding coercive ways to get people off benefits when their health or other critical factors clearly make this inappropriate.

Disability Rights UK will continue to argue for replacing benefits sanctions with effective support for both disabled people and employers, to make a reality of the Government’s pledge to halve the disability employment gap.

Treated as having a limited capability for work

Unlike ESA, Universal Credit claimants are expected to carry out any work-related activity before they have had their work capability assessment (WCA). This means decisions on work related activity that a person is to carry out is at the discretion of their individual DWP work coach, who has no medical training and likely to have access to little information about their disability or ill health.

Disabled people are therefore under a greater risk of possible sanction. 71% of universal credit sanction decisions relate to failing to attend or participate in a work-focused interview.

We have serious concerns that work coaches lack the ability to identify people that people that should not be compelled to seek and apply for jobs and may impose unsuitable claimant commitment agreements.

The National Audit Office’s report on Rolling out of Universal Credit under the section on ‘Identifying vulnerable claimants’found that some staff  found it difficult to support claimants because they:

  • lacked the time and ability to identify claimants who needed additional support;
  • lacked the confidence to apply processes flexibly and make appropriate adjustments; and
  • felt overwhelmed by the volume of claimants reporting health problems.

Notwithstanding the problems of the work capability assessment itself, disable people and those with a long-term health condition have their fitness for work in effect assessed by a Jobcentre wok coach.

Disabled students and universal credit

A linked problem is the ineligibility of disabled students for universal credit. 

For ESA, a full-time disabled student can be treated as having a limited capability for work and entitled to ESA, and so housing benefit, if they receive Disability Living Allowance (DLA) or Personal Independence Payment (PIP).

However, under universal credit a disabled student receiving DLA or PIP is not treated as having a limited capability for work and is denied both entitlement and the opportunity of a work capability assessment (WCA) itself.

Only 16% of disabled people have a degree level qualification compared to 30% of non-disabled people.

Universal credit rules will inevitably make this situation worse as it:

  • adds to the financial barrier to disabled people accessing higher education; and
  • bars disabled people from accessing residential college or other rented accommodation.

Our disabled students’ helpline estimates that at least 40,000 disabled students have started higher education this autumn (self-declared through UCAS) and that one in four could be in receipt of DLA or PIP.

It also estimates that at least as many disabled young people in receipt of DLA or PIP have moved into full-time further education and will also be unable to claim.

A total of around 20,000 disabled students.

Someone who has contacted our Helpline is the mother and appointee of Angus, who is 19 years old and autistic. He was in receipt of PIP and housing benefit but had to claim universal credit on moving universities.  and has just started University and moved to campus accommodation.

She explains that -

“Angus is limited in his capability to work term time and has had a history of chronic fatigue and severe allergies so can't be denied time to sleep and cope at the pace "he" can manage without detriment to his health, physical, mental and academic achievement.”

Before university and following medical examinations, Angus was awarded a Disabled Students Allowance and PIP.

Had his University not be in a universal credit area, Angus would have straightforwardly been able to claim and receive both ESA and housing benefit.  However, he has not been awarded their replacement UC.

Severe Disability Premium

The severe disability premium (SDP) can be awarded in addition to any other premium that may be payable. It is £62.45 a week for a single person or £124.90 a week if both members of a couple qualify.

We welcome that from 16 January 2019 new regulations prevent those receiving the SDP in a working age benefit means tested benefit from being able to claim universal credit.

We also welcome that Government has said that it will also introduce ‘SDP transitional payments’ for those eligible claimants who have already lost the SDP because of moving to universal credit through natural migration.

However, neither of the above will help those disabled people who become entitled to PIP after they have moved on to universal credit due to natural migration.

SDP is a vital support to the extra costs of disability and should be included within the universal credit applicable amount. 

Single payments

Disabled women are at least twice as likely to experience domestic abuse and non-disabled women. Domestic abuse can include financial abuse.  

Therefore, it is vital that UC payments should go to directly to each UC claimants’ bank account so there are no joint payments, instead split payments need to become standard.

Disabled and non-disabled women will not always able to come forward to ask for a separate payment or disclose financial abuse, especially if their abuser accompanies them to the Jobcentre. A system where each claimant receives a separate payment is needed.  

We thank the Committee for its consideration of these points.

Ken Butler

DR UK Welfare Rights Advice and Policy Officer

ken.bulter@disabilityrightsuk.org

13/2/2019