Universal Credit from a DWP Agent’s Perspective – The First Assessment Period
If you’d like to read my introduction on who I am and why I’m doing this you can find it here:
This series is also intended to add to some of my comments in this article in the Guardian in which I alluded to IT issues and Universal Credit processes being underdeveloped.
For this first post, I wanted to give an overview of Universal Credit from the first assessment period. Hopefully it will be useful for those making a new claim as well as begin to highlight some of the issues.
Is this the right benefit for me?
- Income Support
- Income-Based Jobseekers Allowance
- Income-Based Employment Support Allowance
- Housing Benefit
- Child Tax Credits
- Working Tax Credits.
In the early stages, I imagine this seemed simple enough, however things quickly became complicated.
Originally, Universal Credit was rolled out in a form that is now caled the “Live Service.” Claimants would receive letters in the post and manage their claim over the phone and at the Jobcentre. This mostly mirrored how previous benefits worked although with some unique problems.
The Department then developed their own IT system for managing Universal Credit, and it had a big impact on the benefit. For one, it was entirely online. From application to payment to claim closure, claimants were expected to use the online portal to manage their claim.
Originally referred to simply as the “digital” service, this form of Universal Credit came to be called the “Full Service.”
Full Service was brand new, untested, and riddled with bugs and process issues.
The roll-out of Universal Credit was already behind schedule. Live Service was now obsolete, but Full Service was brand new, untested, and riddled with bugs and process issues. A new tactic was needed for roll-out.
So the routine became that Live Service would roll out to an area for a length of time before switching claimants to the Full Service.
However, this process put many new claimants into hardship.
Knowing what to claim became difficult. An area might not have been a Universal Credit area at all, and suddenly now it was on Live Service. Or an area was on Live Service and was suddenly on Full Service, and there was no simple way to find out.
At first glance, this seems like little more than an inconvenience. However, this process put many new claimants into hardship.
People put claims in for benefits they believed they were entitled to because they weren’t aware that their area was now on Universal Credit. In many cases, claimants didn’t know what Universal Credit was depending on their reason for claiming. Or their area changed benefits between the time they posted their application and when it was reviewed.
Many of those other benefits did not seem to have a consistent policy of letting claimants know their claim was denied and that they should claim Universal Credit. Many claimants were only told after they called those benefits to chase the progress of their application weeks later.
Universal Credit does not recognise this as a valid reason to backdate a claim, so claimants have to cope with a significant gap in their income.
Live vs. Full Service – Further Complications
The Live and Full Service had different eligibility criteria despite both being Universal Credit. For example, if a claimant was in a Live Service area and had a health condition that affected their ability to work, they had to claim ESA, not Universal Credit. This wasn’t the case in Full Service areas.
Relatively recent changes further complicated things. If claimants had more than 2 children, they could not claim Universal Credit in any form and would be referred back to tax credits or other “legacy benefits.”
Depending on work history and circumstances, claimants may be entitled to “New-Style” benefits. These replaced the old contributions-based Jobseekers Allowance or ESA, but were seldom explained by Universal Credit staff unless asked by claimants.
And then the Department took the decision to not allow any new claims on the Live Service at all to focus on Full Service.
So what was intended to be a simple replacement for previous benefit became a labyrinth.
Depending on postcode, how many children they have, their work history, and their health, claimants may be claiming JSA, ESA, new-style JSA, new-style ESA, Income Support, Tax Credits, Housing Benefit, Universal Credit Live Service, or Universal Credit Full Service.
It took time for the Universal Credit service centres to wrap their head around this minefield, never mind the teams working on other benefits. Every day there were calls from frustrated claimants who were being transferred back and forth from Live Service to Full Service to Tax Credits because no one knew what they should claim.
At the time I left Universal Credit, hold times were anywhere between 45 minutes to 1.5 hours depending on the time. And bear in mind that up until late last year, none of these phone numbers were free to call.
If you are looking for further information to find out what you are eligible for, you can check here.
It is also worth looking into whether new-style ESA or new-style Jobseekers Allowance would be a better fit if you have been working for the past few years.
You can also use the calculators here, but bear in mind they can only provide an estimate based on the information you input and will not be able to factor in things like possible deductions.
What do I need to make my application?
To start the application, claimants just need information. But for many vulnerable claimants that’s easier said that done.
A postcode is necessary to start the process, which can be difficult for claimants who are homeless or have no fixed address. The typical workaround for this is to use the local Jobcentre’s address. This can cause problems for claimants who are regularly moving, especially to and from areas that may not yet be on Universal Credit, or areas where it would be difficult to attend that particular Jobcentre.
I will expand on some of these issues in a future post on appointments.
The other roadblock some claimants hit is a bank account. Bank details must be entered on the application, which can delay vulnerable claimants for obvious reasons.
The DWP’s official solution rather than changing the IT system to allow applications until a bank account is obtained? Enter fake details. The caveat being that the system is programmed to recognise a fake sort-code.
So a claimant who does not have a bank account and does not have a friend or family member willing to offer their details must find a real sort-code to enter and then enter a fake account number to proceed with the application.
That is the DWP’s actual line of advice given to claimants who are struggling to submit their application.
Bear in mind, the claim will not start until the application is fully submitted.
What is an assessment period (AP)?
An assessment period is the monthly period that your payment relates to.
To use the Department’s preferred analogy of employment, it’s similar to how your payslip at the end of October is for the work you did throughout October.
On Universal Credit, your first assessment period starts on the day you submit your claim. If you claim on 10 August, your first assessment period will run from 10 August to 09 September.
The next AP will run from 10 September to 09 October, and so on.
Again, while this sounds relatively simple, it causes a lot of issues. These were recently covered in CPAG’s very thorough report, “Rough Justice,” and I will likely touch on them in a later post.
When is my payment?
In the above image, you can see how this would affect someone in the coming months using the previous AP dates. The highlights show the APs, and the circled dates are the relevant payment date.
In a future post about payments in general, I will highlight some of the issues with late payments.
How much will I receive?
This is difficult to answer, and that alone highlights a massive problem with Universal Credit.
With so many vulnerable claimants dependent on this service, it is infuriating that it is so difficult to predict how much someone is entitled to, and to expect claimants to just wait and see what happens.
Again, let’s say a person makes a claim on 10 August. They will not know what their award is until 10 September at least.
This is when the claimant will find out about any deductions, any adjustments for earnings, the real impact of any advances they’ve requested, whether their housing or children have been verified in time, whether their work capability decision had been migrated from ESA. And those things are not rare.
For some people this is the first time they find out that Carers Allowance or Maternity Allowance is taken in full, the first time they find out how their pension is taken into account.
There are calculators that can estimate what you would normally be entitled to, but they can’t account for unexpected things like tax credit overpayments being deducted, ESA not closing claims in time, housing benefit overruns (now half-addressed by a two-week run-on).
What do I have to do on Universal Credit?
- The initial evidence interview is where a claimant provides proof of their identity. Photo ID, tenancy agreements, bank statements, and other documents may be required. But there are other options if a claimant cannot provide these.Failure to attend this appointment has no specific consequence; although, if it is not rebooked and attended within 30 days then the claim will be closed.
- Following this appointment is a first commitments meeting. This is when a claimant will discuss what they agree to do while claiming and what support the Jobcentre can offer.Failure to attend this appointment will result in the claim being closed immediately unless there are severe complex needs. But these need to be communicated on the day of the appointment to prevent closure.
- Then of course there’s the work search review, the regular check-in at the Jobcentre. These are appointments with the Work Coach, an agent based at the local Jobcentre who helps with finding work. The Work Coach is not the same as the Case Manager who manages the claim behind the scenes and calculates the payment each month.Failure to attend this appointment may result in a sanction.
What is a Habitual Residency Test (HRT)?
The Habitual Residency Test is unique to Universal Credit as far as I’m aware.
It assesses eligibility based on whether claimants are considered “habitually resident” in the UK.
Initially, they assess this by asking if the claimant is a British Citizen and if they have had any extended absences from the country.
Based on this, a “residency test” may be required. This will assess family members, citizenship, employment history, and a few other details to establish whether someone is eligible for Universal Credit.
Waiting weeks to be told they’re not eligible
This process can take well over a month, though in theory it should be completed in time for the first payment. Claimants often wait weeks only to be told they are not eligible for Universal Credit.
The nature of Universal Credit means those claimants will not be able to apply for any other benefit, and they will be expected to manage without that support. In many cases, these are people who have worked, claimed tax credits, or have relied on housing benefit for years, only to be told they are not entitled to anything anymore.
Reasons for failing the HRT are explained to the claimant in an often incomprehensible “written statement of reason” presented in dense legalese.
This letter, posted only in the online journal, will explain that although they live with a family member, it’s not the right family member. Or although they’ve worked, it wasn’t for long enough or for enough hours, and so as such they are not a “qualified person.”
The letter cites EEA regulations and explains that for the purposes of Universal Credit, the claimant is not seen as having a right to reside in the UK, but that this does not affect their wider right to reside in the UK.
Once the letter is uploaded, the claim is then closed.
Needless to say, this is often confusing and overwhelming for claimants. The process and decision is seldom fully explained, and claimants expected to go to Citizen’s Advice Bureau and other charities for support.
So what’s next?
I appreciate that this post covers well-worn ground for those who are already claiming Universal Credit. But I hope it acts as a useful resource for those who will claim in the future, and I hope it starts to reveal some of the many holes in the system.
Please bear in mind I left the Department on 20 July 2018, so my knowledge is based on the assumption that there have been no major changes since then.
I hope that some of my next posts will be a little bit shorter as I analyse specific aspects of Universal Credit, but I thought this sort of overview was important.
My next post will be reviewing the process of applying for and issuing advances and highlighting some of the issues within that process.
Feel free to follow me on Twitter @BayardTarpley and let me know if there’s anything you think I should write about in regarding to Universal Credit from an agent perspective.
Thanks again for reading.