Written evidence from Ciara Fitzpatrick, Gráinne McKeever, Ruth Patrick and Mark Simpson [SWP0059]


Ciara Fitzpatrick and Mark Simpson are Lecturers in Law at Ulster University. Gráinne McKeever is Professor of Law and Social Justice at Ulster University and co-director of the Ulster University Law Clinic. Ruth Patrick is a Lecturer in Social Policy and Social Work at the University of York. All four authors have considerable expertise and published research on social security, including in the context of devolution, and/or administrative justice. Since 2019, we have been conducting research in partnership with a small number of recipients of Universal Credit to understand experiences of the benefit, how these might differ in Northern Ireland compared to Great Britain, and how it might be improved. The group – who call themselves UC:Us – remain active and are keen to be involved in discussions about policymaking and their own experiences of the benefit. This includes their current experiences during the pandemic, experiences which we are just beginning to engage with formally. UC:Us members would welcome an invitation to give evidence to the committee. This written submission draws on both the recent study with UC:Us and our wider body of research.

How well is the Universal Credit system working for the unprecedented numbers of new claimants? 

It is too early to state with confidence how the system is working for new claimants. While the DWP has managed to accept an extraordinary volume of new claims, it will not be apparent until payments are due to be received – a minimum of 5 weeks from the point of claim – whether the system is able to deliver support to these new claimants. However, it seems fair to assume that issues that have affected Universal Credit applicants and new claimants to date will also present challenges to the current cohort. Digital by default’ application and claim management puts those with limited digital literacy or who have difficulty accessing IT facilities at risk of missing out on their entitlements. In a recent baseline survey carried out by Department for Communities in Northern Ireland, 60% of respondents said that “they would need help or support” to make a claim online, with 44% stating that they would not be prepared to make an online application, while 27% “did not use the internet at all.” The current closure of libraries, cafés and other facilities where people can access computers or wifi will exacerbate this problem for the current cohort of applicants. A smartphone is no substitute if an applicant lives in an area with poor 4G coverage or has a limited data allowance. It is not easy to find information on making a telephone claim and unless a claimant is able to access an advice centre they are unlikely to be able to do so. In Northern Ireland the Department for Communities has introduced a special telephone service to support claim, but the number is restricted to direct referrals from frontline advice agencies and from Jobcentre Managers.

Once a successful application has been made, the five-week wait for an initial payment (see Patrick, Simpson and Fitzpatrick’s submission to the inquiry on the five-week wait) has been a cause of enduring hardship and debt for new claimants, including UC:Us members. Delays beyond the five-week minimum wait have been a feature of the system from the outset and it seems inevitable that delays will occur for many new claimants in the context of a high volume of claims. There will be a balance for DWP to strike in getting payments to claimants as soon as possible while ensuring that information determining entitlement is accurate and up to date (with the risk of under- or overpayments if it is not). Our research and others’ shows it can be difficult for claimants to understand how their entitlement has been determined. This in turn can make it difficult to challenge calculations of entitlement when appropriate.

What lessons can be learned from the changes that have been made to the processes for verifying the identity of UC claimants? Are there any particular changes that should stay in place after the outbreak ends?

The identity verification system has been an area with widespread reports of problems for applicants. In Northern Ireland, the Department for Communities has set the start of the claim at from the date of first contact, rather than the point when identity is verified, avoiding unnecessary delay. The DfC has also extended the documentation that they are willing to accept. UC:Us members felt it was pointless and undermined the gains (to the digitally literate) of the digital-first system to have to attend a social security office in person to verify one’s identify after completion of the online application. If online identity verification proves successful in the current period, it would make sense to continue to use it for online applicants into the future.

How effective have DWP’s communications with the public been during this period? 

One of the ways in which DWP should be encouraged to communicate with new and potential claimants is through the advice sector. This means ensuring advice organisations are able to increase or at least sustain their capacity to assist claimants. This is particularly the case where individuals may not be sure which form of support they should be seeking and whether Universal Credit is appropriate for them. As a priority, the DWP should encourage people to make claims as soon as possible given the likelihood that claims will not be backdated past the point of claim. Where claimants delay making a UC application, whether because of uncertainty over what support system they will need to rely on or for other reasons, this will delay financial support. It would be helpful if there was a public service broadcast at a peak time to provide simple directions on how to make a claim for Universal Credit and information on where people can access support.

New measures introduced in the context of social distancing requirements are yet to be reflected in the application platform. At the time of writing, the Universal Credit page on the gov.uk website still says “You might also need to book and attend an interview at your local Jobcentre Plus.” Following application claimants continue to receive automated text messages, for example, about attendance at a Jobcentre or phone calls with their work coach. This is a source of confusion and can cause additional stress during an already stressful time.

An effective communication strategy also needs to consider continuing claimants. We understand that some claimants in Northern Ireland do not know how the relaxation of conditionality affects them and presume that this is also the case in Great Britain. Uc:Us group members report finding it hard to access information about the changing requirements as regards conditionality, and to being unclear about how the work search requirements are changing during the current time. Recent public announcements on the welcome increase to the Universal Credit standard allowance and the local housing allowance have failed to mention that many continuing claimants will see no increase in income because the benefit cap has not been raised. Unless direct communication with claimants is better, it is likely that many will be both confused and disappointed to see their award unchanged.

How do the needs of people claiming UC for the first time now differ from the needs of groups who’ve claimed UC in the past? How well is Universal Credit working for these new groups of people?

Fundamentally, the needs of first-time claimants at present are no different to those of any other social security claimants. People claim Universal Credit and other means tested benefits because they have a low income and limited savings. So on one level there is no justification for treating new claimants more them more generously – for example, by increasing the UC standard allowance but not the basic award of jobseeker’s allowance, income support or employment and support allowance. What we may see is greater numbers of people being caught by the ‘cliff edges’ of Universal Credit: from those who may have had an expectation that they can claim benefits, but because of capital or savings will not meet the entitlement criteria, to those who – not unreasonably – expect income from Universal Credit to be sufficient to cover essential bills, including support for mortgage payments. Our research with UC:Us shows that adequacy be taken for granted in the context of what remain low benefit levels, the initial five-week wait and ongoing hit to income as debts accumulated in that period are repaid, and the paucity of support with mortgage payments. If anything, people who were already struggling – if not failing – to make ends meet now find this even harder as social isolation increases energy costs, shopping around for food becomes harder and some sources of support become harder to access. In this changed context, it is clearer than ever that punitive approaches to conditionality are unlikely to increase employment prospects and that benefit levels need to be adequate.

Are there any indications of how well the UC system will work for these claimants as they move into work in the short- to medium-term?

The UC system is focused on getting claimants to increase their income from employment so that they receive less income via UC. The outcome for the claimant may be that they are, or feel, no better off financially, given the low level of work allowance under UC. Where this is the case for significantly greater numbers of UC claimants it may be more difficult to maintain public support for conditionality (including in-work conditionality) or sanctions, assuming that the intention is to reinstate these as the lockdown ends. More broadly, there may be undermining of the public expectation that the government has promoted that individuals will be better off in work. The experience of UC:Us members has been that what on paper is a somewhat greater level of support for most in-work claimants compared to the legacy system does not feel that way in practice as monthly fluctuations in entitlement and the payment of childcare costs in arrears play havoc with budgeting, and the lingering effects of the five-week wait and mean it can be many months between the start of a claim and the full entitlement actually being received. Poverty itself has been shown to act as a barrier to re-employment as survival is prioritised over jobseeking, and this effect may be exacerbated in a period of limited opportunity and in which shopping for basic essentials has become more stressful and time-consuming.

How easy is it for people to understand what they’re entitled to claim? For example:

There is consistent research evidence that the public remain confused about what support the social security system provides, how to access it and how to challenge decisions on entitlement. This is in common with a general lack of understanding by the public of their legal rights. The harder it is for claimants to access their rights and entitlements, the more likely it is that they will just give up. This includes where individuals are misinformed about their entitlements, are referred from one agency or official to another (with the phenomenon known as ‘referral fatigue’) or are frustrated by systems that they cannot intuitively understand or feel are stacked against them. While Universal Credit is promoted as providing a simplified process to establish entitlement, there is limited awareness of what is covered by UC, what the rules are, how the process works, and how entitlement is determined. This will likely have been exacerbated by the volume of claimants seeking answers to these issues at a time of unprecedented demand, both on the DWP and the advice sector.

While UC has been in place for several years, the volume of claimants to date has been considerably lower than expected, prior to the surge of claimants as a result of the pandemic. In areas where UC claim volumes are low, the expertise of DWP staff in understanding the system will be impacted. A striking finding from the research with UC:Us was the number of reports of UC staff openly admitting to claimants that they were too inexperienced to offer the guidance that was sought (although there were also glowing reports of the support received). The main channel of communication for claimants is with their work coach and it seems likely that claimants will struggle to have effective communication here due to the volume of claims that work coaches will have to deal with. Again, multiple UC:Us members expressed concern at the length of time taken to receive a response to journal entries and the cursory nature of some replies. The concern is that entitlement – which is an ongoing process – will change as claimant circumstances change, but that work coaches may not be able to be as responsive and consequently claimants may not be advised properly on their initial or ongoing entitlements. The advice sector, a vital source of additional support with understanding entitlements, will itself be under extraordinary pressure to meet the demand that comes with high volumes of claimants needing support to understand their entitlements.

Is it clear enough how the benefits system interacts with other forms of Government support during this period, such as the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme? 

The general point (above) that people often do not fully understand their social security entitlements or how they are calculated is relevant here. The complexity of the work allowance, taper and a one-month lag between income from employment and the adjustment of a Universal Credit award led to genuine confusion on the part of some UC:Us members about how and why income fluctuations were experienced. Understanding the impact of other sources of income on a UC award will remain an issue for recipients of low levels of support through the job retention scheme. At the individual level, people will not care which scheme their income comes from, but they will need to know which is relevant to them so that they know whether to claim UC or not. Confusion is likely to arise where employees are not clear whether they have been made redundant, laid off or furloughed. Ulster University Law Clinic has received a huge volume of calls from clients who do not know where their entitlement lies. Complexity will be even greater for those with multiple jobs, on zero hour contracts or in the gig economy who may or may not be considered as employees, or who are entitled to apply for both UC and the self-employed grant and do not know how these will interact.

Is it clear enough how public health guidance interacts with the benefits system? 

The avoidance of face-to-face interaction in the social security system is clearly in keeping with guidance on social distancing, but in itself is not sufficient. Now more than ever there is a need for all the population to be able to eat healthy, balanced diets to ensure resilience to infection. This means paying income replacement benefits at a level that makes this possible. This is not the case at present; while increases to the Universal Credit personal allowance and the local housing allowance will help some smaller households and new claimants, the benefit cap means a lone parent with two children in London, not receiving any disability-related benefits, will continue to receive just £65 a week to cover all non-housing costs (even less if repaying an advance or if housing costs exceed the LHA). This is £45 pounds less than the household needs to meet its most basic needs for food, warmth and hygiene.

Further, people on very low incomes typically spend a lot of their time shopping around to find essential items at the lowest possible prices. At present, any such imperative is at odds with the advice to minimise social contact, including shopping trips (which, in any case, become harder if younger children are off school). Here, there is an example of good practice in Northern Ireland, where families entitled to free school meals are receiving cash payments, which can be spent anywhere, in contrast to England and Wales, where families are receiving vouchers that cannot always be spent locally to the recipient. UC:Us group member Deirdre McCausland has shared her experiences of the difficulties managing financially in the current time, and the extent to which an ongoing struggle to get by on a low income has been tested further by the pandemic.

What impact has the outbreak had on people who were waiting for a Mandatory Reconsideration of a decision, or who were going through the appeals process? 

The likely impact on Mandatory Reconsideration is currently unknown. It is unclear in particular whether additional resources will be allocated to assist with the likelihood of increased demand. The existing problems with Mandatory Reconsideration are not likely to change, but may affect more people. The process may also take longer, as reflected in the recent extension of deadlines for redeterminations by Social Security Scotland. In Northern Ireland, Disability Living Allowance applicants whose application for Personal Independence Payment is unsuccessful or who receive a lower award receive a supplementary payment until the conclusion of their appeal, which shields them from the impact of any delays in the process. This model could be adopted UK-wide for continuing claimants of any social security benefit whose award is reduced or terminated and who wishes to appeal, as will be the case with Short Term Assistance in the Scottish devolved system.

The suspension of face-to-face appeal hearings may mean more appellants opt for ‘paper hearings’ (where the tribunal reviews papers submitted by the appellant and DWP). The success rate at paper hearings is considerably lower than those in person, due mainly to the ability of the tribunal to draw out new information from the appellant that is relevant to the decision being, so there is risk that this will result in some people missing out on their entitlements. Where tribunal decision making is transferred to a telephone or video-conference platform, there are concerns about the procedural justice implications arising if appellants struggle to participate effectively.  Potential issues range from digital exclusion, so that individuals cannot access the internet resources needed to participate in online tribunal hearings, to false confidence that the online hearing tribunal is not a formal legal process, to difficulties enabling advisors to participate on behalf of or alongside appellants. The barriers faced by individuals in participating in the social security decision-making process, from initial claim to final determination, are already considerable. While virtual platforms may offer a way around current problems with physical accessibility easier, there remain intellectual, practical and emotional barriers. There is a vital need to collect data about how ‘virtual’ tribunal appeals are working, considering issues such as where virtual hearings are and are not being conducted (and why), whether internet connections were stable for all participants throughout, whether representatives were included, whether document sharing can work within the hearing, and whether outcomes are in line with in-person hearings.

Have people who were already claiming benefits when the outbreak began seen any changes to the support they receive from DWP?

There is a distinct difference in support between those under the legacy system and those who have moved to Universal Credit. There will be no uplift in the rate of Jobseeker’s Allowance equivalent to the increase in the UC standard allowance. The managed migration pilot that was being rolled out to establish the core issues with migrating legacy benefit claimants to UC was conducted on a very small scale and has now been indefinitely suspended. It is not clear whether there are any lessons that could be learned to address whether there should now be an automatic move from, for example, JSA to UC – which would open up access to the higher standard allowance, but might have other, less favourable consequences. Matters for consideration include what transitional protections might be required, how existing claimant data could be transferred to the UC system without requiring claimants to provide this information anew, and the extent to which claimant losses would arise. The Covid-19 uplift may alleviate some of these concerns, but at this point is a temporary measure, so that someone who moved to UC might be better off for a period, but then worse off if the system later reverts to the pre-Covid-19 payment scheme. Further, as noted above, individuals in Great Britain with a claim of more than nine months’ duration – to whom the benefit cap applies may not receive the full, or any, benefit from the increase to the standard allowance and local housing allowance. The picture is different in Northern Ireland, where the benefit cap in practice does not apply to claimants with dependent children (which means very few, if any, claimants are capped). If the cap is to remain in place in Great Britain, its level should at least be raised so that continuing claimants receive some benefit from these welcome changes.

Are people who are claiming benefits receiving enough money to cover their basic living costs during this period?

From Beveridge onward, income replacement benefits in the UK have been supposed to provide only a subsistence standard of living. Consequently, there has been very little space for people to meet their basic needs if unexpected costs arise or benefit income is reduced. Until March 2020, a deduction from a single adult’s benefits of just £15 per month was enough to result in destitution. Even following the increase in the Universal Credit standard allowance and local housing allowance, even for claimants whose benefit income is not capped, there will be those who are repaying advances or overpayments, or whose rent still exceeds the LHA, and consequently struggle to meet their basic needs at a time when some costs may have risen and shopping around may be harder. Social distancing and relatives’ concerns about their own job security means people who receive ad-hoc assistance (whether in cash or in kind) from their families to help make ends meet may find it harder to access this at present. One UC:Us member tells us: “I would have visited my mum daily. We would have had dinner at her house and she always picked up stuff for the kids at the supermarket. Now she cant go out we cant visit. My dad and brother usually lend me money but my dad is self-employed and at risk.”

While the DWP have halted debt repayments for three months, they are still collecting advance payments of UC in the usual way. This can reduce people’s UC payments quite considerably, and makes it even harder to manage on a low-income. Within UC:Us, there are cases where individuals estimate that the rate at which they are paying their advance payments back (£98 a month, for example) completely off-sets the additional £20 a week they will receive, leaving them without sufficient funds to meet their basic living costs during the pandemic.

The two-child limit on support is a further factor that will mean increasing numbers of households cannot access the income they need to meet their needs and should be urgently reconsidered.

Are there groups of people who need support but aren’t able to access it through the benefits system? What should DWP be doing to support those people?

Significant numbers of people in the UK are excluded from the mainstream social security system because of residence requirements or their immigration status. Some of these individuals – including asylum seekers have no right to take paid employment either. Support available through the Home Office and local government for those excluded from the social security system and labour market can be meagre and in many cases is wholly discretionary. In a public health emergency, it may be necessary to suspend some of the normal residency or immigration requirements for entitlement to ensure that people can pay for the food, clothing and energy they need to stay healthy, and do not risk public health by continuing to work in the grey or black economy because they have no alternative source of income. McKeever, Simpson and Fitzpatrick’s previous recommendation for a duty on public authorities to protect all persons lawfully present in the UK from destitution is relevant here.

Are support organisations and charities able to access the resources they need from DWP to support vulnerable people? What more could DWP be doing to facilitate that support?

The DWP should work in partnership with the Ministry of Justice to ensure advice agencies have capacity to deliver and maintain support for social security claimants. Legal advice and rights charities were already among the worst hit parts of the voluntary and charity sector after the 2008 financial crisis. The availability of advice for welfare-related problems has been further and severely impacted in England and Wales by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, which removed legal aid as an income stream for most welfare-related advice work. There is a need for direct financial support for such organisations that has not been addressed by HM Treasury – a request of £4 billion by charities including the advice sector has resulted in an announcement that £750 million will be provided. Responsibility also rests with the Ministry of Justice, which funds the independent tribunals that hear social security appeals. Specialist representation is highly valued for being able to direct the tribunal to the relevant issues, substantiated with the necessary evidence. The success rate at (face to face) appeal tribunals sits at around 60-70 per cent, depending on the benefit being appealed. Were this success rate to suddenly drop as a result of a combination of paper hearings, online or virtual hearings and/or the inability of representatives to support appellants there would be questions to answer over whether a fair hearing had been possible and whether procedural justice had been compromised to the point where an appellants rights under Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights had been breached. The onus is on the Ministry of Justice, with support from the DWP, to ensure claimants at each step on the journey can access the advice and guidance needed to establish an accurate entitlement to benefit.


April 2020