'Serious systemic failures' affecting sick and disabled people claiming Universal Credit

By agency reporter
March 10, 2020

Advice NI, Northern Ireland's independent advice charity, has identified serious systemic failures affecting Universal Credit claimants, in particular Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) claimants moving from ESA to Universal Credit (UC). This is impacting vulnerable sick and disabled people and causing significant financial losses for a significant number of people.

Bob Stronge, Advice NI Chief Executive, says: "Regulation 25 (Regulation 26 in Great Britain) of Universal Credit ‘Claims and Payments’ regulations allows an earlier date of claim up to a maximum of one month before the date a Universal Credit claim is actually made, where a claimant could not reasonably have been expected to make their claim earlier due to specific circumstances during that earlier period.

"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.

"This systemic failure obviously disadvantages claimants who meet the specific circumstances outlined in Regulation 25 who could have an earlier date of claim and so be entitled to more Universal Credit."

"The failure to apply Regulation 25 becomes much more significant when ESA claimants make a claim to Universal Credit. Unless the Universal Credit application is made on the same day that the ESA claim ceases, a ‘gap’ will occur and the Work Capability decision may not be carried across from ESA, equating to losses of up to £336.20 per month. This also means that the person may unnecessarily have to go through the entire Work Capability Assessment process again. Other claimants will actually receive zero UC entitlement as a result of not having the Work Capability amount included in their UC assessment and so have their UC case closed."

Advice NI point to Universal Credit staff not applying Regulation 25 of the UC, PIP, JSA and ESA (Claims and Payments) Regulations (NI) 2016 which allows decision makers to extend the time for claiming Universal Credit and also to ensure there is no ‘gap’ between the ESA - or indeed a Jobseekers Allowance (JSA) claim - and the UC claim by extending by up to one month the time for claiming UC in specific circumstances. In Great Britain the equivalent provision is contained within Regulation 26 of the UC, PIP, JSA, and ESA (Claims and Payments) Regulations 2013.

Kevin Higgins, Head of Policy at Advice NI, added: "The Universal Credit failures are compounded by ESA failures in terms of incorrect and misleading information in system-generated letters which are not sent to claimants in a timely manner. We have uncovered particular problems in relation to what are called ‘mixed age couples’ where the older partner in a couple is reaching state retirement age. In the case of these ‘mixed age couples’ in receipt of ESA, where the older partner reaches state retirement age, the ESA ceases and the younger of the couple needs to claim Universal Credit to access means tested financial support. The delay in sending out the ESA letters which contain incorrect information means that it is more likely that there will be a 'gap' between the ESA and UC claims and again sick and disabled people will be at greater risk of losing out.

"We have a mixed age couple who suffered as a result of these failures. Their Universal Credit claim was made in July 2019 and was disallowed due to the ‘gap’ between the ESA and UC claims. The issue was identified by the local adviser in The Resource Centre and escalated to Advice NI. Advice NI has met with officials and thankfully they have agreed to correct this case based on Regulation 25, but how many other sick and disabled claimants have been similarly negatively affected?

"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.’

"We also need to stop these failures happening in future. The Department continues to take the view that ‘the onus is on the claimant’ to ask for Regulation 25 to apply where there should be an earlier date of claim or where a ‘gap’ occurs between the ESA claim and the UC claim. However, the Department has also confirmed that where there is a ‘gap’, Universal Credit staff will always check the system and will know that the claimant was previously claiming ESA. To me it is not good enough that Universal Credit staff do not act on this knowledge, to provide the best possible service for these vulnerable, sick and disabled people.

"My interpretation of Regulation 25 is clear: it allows the Department to act on this knowledge where a range of specified circumstances exist including ‘the claimant has a disability’ which will be every claimant in circumstances involving ESA. The Department is currently not willing to adopt this position, insisting that the ‘onus is on the claimant’ and so vulnerable, sick and disabled people remain at risk of losing out on essential support."

A Universal Credit claimant and client of Advice NI said: "I spent my life working and, a few years ago, when I became unwell it was a major change to our family life. We went to the Benefits Office at a low point in our lives and, naively, we expected better. Our social security system should have dignity and security at its heart. There is nothing compassionate or just about the rollout of the new benefits system.

"When I transferred from the ESA to State Pension it became even more of a minefield. We are classified as a ‘mixed age couple’ so it became even more unjust as we were relying on a single pension then adding insult to injury we lost our housing and health benefits. We were then told to apply for Universal Credit and after seven months of receiving nothing and jumping through hoops and a series of demeaning assessments we were told that we were not eligible. Seven months of filling forms, interviews, jumping through hoops, undignified assessments, no money, borrowing from children, rising debt and feeling constantly under pressure and humiliated.

"It was obvious that those implementing the system are feeling the pressure too; as we witnessed everything from stress to bewilderment to utter confusion. While some staff were understanding and supportive their hands were tied, with contradictory and confusing red tape obviously designed to make things more difficult.

"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. We would like to express our deepest and sincere gratitude to the Resource Centre Derry and Advice NI for supporting us and challenging this inequality and would urge other people to use your local advice centre to fight your corner and not allow the system to treat you so unfairly."

Advice NI urges anyone in Northern Ireland in this situation to seek independent advice or call the independent welfare changes Helpline on 0808 802 0020. 

* Advice NI https://www.adviceni.net/

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