Social security should be reasonable and sympathetic - but it is not
Serious failures in the administration of Universal Credit are leaving many sick or disabled claimants with huge financial losses.
Advice NI has discovered that measures designed to help the most vulnerable people move on to Universal Credit are being ignored.
People with physical disabilities, mental health problems or other serious health problems are being put at risk of financial hardship, with losses of hundreds or even thousands of pounds over weeks or months.
This issue is long-standing and pre-dates coronavirus, and is another example of the reality of Universal Credit working against the stated aims of Welfare Reform.
The problem identified by Advice NI centres on a clause in the legislation, namely Regulation 25 of the Northern Ireland Claims and Payments Regulations (or Regulation 26 in the equivalent GB legislation).
This allows claims for Universal Credit to be backdated by up to a month when a claimant could not reasonably have been expected to make their application earlier than they did.
Regulation 25 can apply to anyone applying for Universal Credit – whether it is a new claim, or a transition from the previous benefits system, such as moving from Employment Support Allowance (ESA) to Personal Independence Payments (PIP). It is supposed to be a sympathetic measure that makes allowances for people in difficult circumstances, such as poor health or disability.
Unfortunately, not only is it being disregarded by officials, the consequences of the regulation not being applied can spiral massively, leading to huge losses in entitlements.
Mind the gap
If a claimant is moving from Employment Support Allowance (ESA) to Universal Credit, they are expected to formally apply for UC on the same day their ESA claim ends. Where this does not happen, a gap in claim is deemed to have occurred, which can have huge consequences.
Any gap can lead to additional Work Capability payments not being made, which can be hundreds of pounds per month until when and if the situation is resolved.
The entire Work Capability Assessment process may have to be repeated, which takes 13 weeks (not including any appeals against rejected claims).
Kevin Higgins, Head of Policy at Advice NI, told Scope: “During the transition, claims for Universal Credit would rarely be made on the same day as someone leaves ESA. The critical thing is the gap that creates. People are missing out on their rightful entitlements.
“What we uncovered is that staff overseeing Universal Credit are not routinely applying regulation 25, are not routinely asking claimants about how and when they made their claim, and are not asking if people should be getting their entitlements earlier.
“Staff are not asking how they can provide the best service and people are losing out as a result to substantial amounts of money. It’s so, so important that these sick and disabled people are treated properly.”
Officials have decided that the onus is on the claimant to establish that Regulation 25 should have applied. However, this runs counter to the spirit of the regulation itself, and also ignores the fact that many people who should benefit from the regulation are those not well equipped to deal with extra bureaucracy.
Bob Stronge, Advice NI Chief Executive, explained: “These provisions are particularly important where someone may have health problems or a disability which could mean they are unable to make the Universal Credit claim in a timely manner.
“However Advice NI has uncovered that effectively what Universal Credit staff are doing is routinely applying a strict rule that where a claim for Universal Credit is made, the date of claim is the date a claim is received, with no reference to Regulation 25.”
Problems with Regulation 25 were highlighted to Advice NI when they took up the cause of a Northern Irish couple who applied to move on to Universal Credit in July 2019.
A gap was recorded in their application and to this day they are still not getting their full entitlement. While officials have acknowledged issues and promised to fix them, the case has still not been solved.
The Advice NI client said: “‘Accessing the complicated benefits system can be a difficult task for anyone, but if you’re struggling with your mental health it can feel almost impossible, consuming and suffocating.
“This system dehumanises the individual and penalises the family and we were lost in a long line of lost faces and case numbers. It urgently needs to change, as it’s ruining lives and adding to the anxiety of mental health, poverty and family stress.
“It’s wrong that the benefits system can ruin people's lives as it is causing psychological distress among vulnerable people who actually need support. We need to see radical solutions to ensure that the benefits system plays its part in helping people stay well and be supported when they need it most.”
Per Kevin Higgins: “Whilst the Department continues to engage with Advice NI and some headway is being made, it has not as yet committed to carrying out a ‘Special Exercise’ to investigate the impact of not routinely applying Regulation 25 and the extent to which sick and disabled people may have lost out when moving from ESA to UC, including taking any necessary corrective action.
“I understand the Department for Communities has written to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to check if DWP can provide a scan to review any potential failures in respect of claimants whose ESA or JSA ceased due to reaching state retirement age.
“But much more needs to be done to make sure that everyone who may have been affected by these systemic failures is identified and the necessary corrective action taken.”
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