The Essentials of Universal Credit
Sarah is part of the team at Universal Credit Essentials,
a group of volunteer, work from home benefit experts who give up their time to
help others understand and navigate their Universal Credit claims. Many of the
team have disabilities, are carers or are parents of children with additional
My health has been deteriorating for the past two years and a few months after I found myself in a position where I was no longer able to work, my partner was suddenly made redundant and we made our first claim for Universal Credit. After everything I’d heard about UC, I was quite frankly terrified. I took all the advice I could find and did a lot of research (to the extent my partner was sick of hearing about it!) and wanted to put my knowledge to use. I joined Universal Credit Essentials as a volunteer at the beginning of this year, I’d been following the team for a while and I could really relate to the founder’s story. Just two weeks before Christmas, with no savings, the creator Claire Sharp, found herself unexpectedly pushed onto UC, she was given wrong information time and time again which compounded the difficulties she had. Like many of us, Claire sought advice through social media advice groups. However, she quickly became frustrated with the amount of inaccurate and conflicting information being given and vowed to learn all she could about UC, eventually leading to the creation of UCE. The team quickly grew and we’re now a team of 13 from a variety of backgrounds. The majority of us have either our own disabilities or care for others who do and in my case, my office is basically my bed.
Universal Credit can be confusing and we found many members with inaccurate claims believed their lower awards (and sometimes the loss of hundreds of pounds!) to be correct and just accepted their lot. At UCE our aim is to educate and inform. There are many misconceptions about UC which leads to a lot of worry for people. We believe that if people understand how their claim is calculated it makes it easier to spot any errors. We teach people how to manually calculate what their award is and have found that by teaching people to calculate their award they can make an informed choice about whether to claim UC or not.
Universal Credit is very different to existing benefits – known as legacy benefits – and brings together six existing benefits, Job Seekers Allowance, Employment Support Allowance, Income Support, Housing Benefit and Child and/or Working Tax Credit. Currently only those who have a change in circumstances (and need to make a new claim for one of the legacy benefits being replaced) need to claim UC. But from January 2020, managed migration starts, and everyone will be transferred at some point in the following three years.
When a claim is made for Universal Credit this is all done online. This can feel very different for those who are used to claiming using a form or by going to the Job Centre. It can also be a barrier to claiming for some people. There is ‘Help to Claim’ and anyone struggling should ask for help. As the claim is online it relies on claimants giving accurate information. This can lead to errors, and it is these errors we help to prevent if possible and challenge when they occur. Sometimes things go wrong because claimants are unaware they should include certain pieces of information and sometimes the error occurs because the DWP didn’t set the claim up accurately. I will share a few of the more common ones:
ESA transition: If you need to claim UC and have been claiming Income-related ESA, you need to let UC know. When you are asked if you have a fit note, you should say no and add a comment asking for your determined ESA award (state which group e.g. Support Group or WRAG) to be transferred to UC under transitional regulation 19.
Children: quite often children are missed off the first payment breakdown. This is usually because UC haven’t completed their checks of have simply forgot to add them to the claim. This is usually easily rectified with a phone call.
Rent: Universal Credit works differently to legacy benefits and everyone is entitled to their full eligible rent as an element whether they work or not. One of the most common problems we’ve encountered with rent is Untidy Tenancy. This happens when there is someone else on the tenancy, usually an ex-partner, who no longer lives at the property. Universal Credit then see that person as responsible for half the rent and pay the remaining half to the claimant. This is incorrect! At Universal Credit Essentials we have a template that members can add to their journal stating why they should get full rent element. This works very quickly with most seeing rent changed and back payment within a week or two.
If you find yourself being told to claim Universal Credit, we’d strongly advise three things:
1. Check your change of circumstance definitely means a switch to UC. Some people are incorrectly advised by HMRC, the DWP and Job Centre staff.
2. If you do have to move, manually calculate what you should be entitled to. There’s plenty of help out there, including from Scope and teams like ours at UCE. This will help you to spot any inaccuracies in your claim.
3. Check your award thoroughly, especially if it’s less than you were expecting. If you’ve followed step 2, you should know how much Universal Credit you should receive. Sometimes even the advisors and work coaches get things wrong. We’ve seen people told their claims are correct when they’re actually hundreds of pounds off. There are so many rules and regulations with UC and sadly not all DWP staff are fully aware of them.
Unfortunately, even when you know how the system should work, it doesn’t always go to plan. I’m currently chasing my own Work Capability Assessment and at the stage where I might need to get my MP involved, so please keep everything crossed for me!
How have you found Universal Credit, or are you yet to make the switch? Is there anything about Universal Credit you’d like to know?