MANAGED MIGRATION to Universal Credit (UC) began in April in Northern Ireland, with 500 legacy benefit claimants in both Andersonstown and Enniskillen Jobs and Benefits Office areas contacted as part of an initial ‘Discovery Phase’, advising them that they have three months to move to Universal Credit.

‘Move to UC’ refers to the UK government’s plan to move ‘legacy’ benefit claimants on to Universal Credit. ‘Legacy’ benefits refer to those working age means-tested benefits that are to be replaced by UC including tax credits, Housing Benefit, Income Support income-based Jobseekers Allowance and income-related Employment and Support Allowance.

 Advice NI’s research report Move to UC – Get ready  highlights the concerns of advice sector advisers, and benefit claimants around the upcoming migration to Universal Credit (UC) and makes recommendations aimed at mitigating negative impacts, especially for the most vulnerable.

Speaking at the launch of the research, Kevin Higgins, Head of Policy, Advice NI said: “This is an incredibly complex and far-reaching process, with many thousands of people with over 250,000 separate benefit awards set to be affected by ‘Move to UC’. In order to help ensure that advisers, Department for Communities and most importantly claimants are ready, we decided to conduct this piece of research, gathering insights into potential fears of claimants who will be affected, collating the experiences of current UC claimants and making sensible, practical recommendations which will help to ensure that people are effectively supported through the process.

“UC is like no other benefit we have seen before. It is a digital benefit which means people must apply for and manage their claim online. That will require claimants to have a level of digital skills as well as access to the Internet and a digital device. This will be a challenge for many. Other challenges involve the monthly Assessment Period, the five week wait for the first payment, the claimant commitment with ongoing conditionality and risk of sanctions.

“Our research found that independent advisers were worried about how claimants would manage financially and about them falling into debt and rent arrears. They were also worried about how people with poor digital skills or Internet access would handle the online nature of UC.”

In response to these findings, Advice NI has proposed a number of recommendations, many of which can be implemented without any cost. For example, ensuring people are made fully aware of and have easy access to all the financial support available; clearly cautioning that some of this support is in the form of a loan that must be repaid; increasing awareness of options to waive or write-off recovery of existing benefit debt; and creating real-time access to UC staff so that independent advisers can escalate urgent cases immediately.

Kevin Higgins, Advice NI continued, “We know that ‘Move to UC’ has started, but it is phased and that means not everybody will be moved over right away. We also know that some claimants may now be thinking about whether they should move to Universal Credit before they receive their ‘Migration Notice’: our clear message is ‘don’t gamble on Universal Credit’. Comparing the amount of money someone would receive on Universal Credit as opposed to their current ‘legacy’ benefit(s) is often a complicated task, but there are some fundamental truths:

  •  While some people may be entitled to more money under Universal Credit than they receive in the ‘legacy’ benefits system, others will be entitled to less;
  •   People who voluntarily move from ‘legacy’ benefits to Universal Credit and find themselves worse off will not be able to return to their ‘legacy’ benefits and will simply be expected to cope with the loss of income at a time when the cost of living is steadily rising;
  •   People who wait until they receive their ‘Migration Notice’ will automatically avail of ‘Transitional Protection’ —a top-up payment to a claimant’s Universal Credit award to ensure that their award is equal to the amount they were receiving in the legacy system— should they find themselves in a position where they would be worse off.”

* Anyone who is not sure about what UC will mean for them or what support is available, can seek independent advice by going to their local advice centre or calling the Advice NI FREEPHONE advice helpline 0800 915 4604.

* Read the report Move to UC – Get ready here.

* Source: Advice NI