Nikki Bond, Senior Research Officer, Money and Mental Health

The government can do more to help people access benefits during Covid-19

28 April 2020

The coronavirus pandemic is having a significant impact on the nation’s mental health and financial circumstances. A huge number of people have lost their jobs, and subsequently the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has seen 1.4 million new applications for Universal Credit since the beginning of the outbreak. 

Financial uncertainty means that new benefit claimants are likely to be anxious and afraid. People are potentially claiming Universal Credit for the first time, and operating under huge amounts of pressure and contending with increased stress and anxiety. 

For those with existing mental health problems, the cognitive and psychological effects of mental health problems can make navigating the benefits system even harder. Tasks such as completing forms, submitting evidence, challenging decisions or requesting and understanding Universal Credit advance payments, can simply be too much for some people. 

Now, more than ever, it is essential that we ensure accessing the benefits system is simple and straightforward.  

Highlight gaps in the system

The government quickly put in place a number of measures to help vulnerable people access benefits without being exposed to the risk of contracting the virus. These include a three month suspension of face-to-face assessments for people claiming disability benefits, and the suspension of benefit reviews and reassessments for three months. We welcome these measures the government has introduced, yet recognise there is still more to do, particularly to support people experiencing mental health problems. 

That’s why last month, we joined with other mental health charities including Mind, Rethink Mental Illness and the Royal College of Psychiatrists, to write to the DWP calling for further changes to the benefits system to ensure people experiencing mental health problems don’t miss out on benefits during the crisis. 

Positive changes

Last week the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work responded to our letter. The response clarified some additional changes the government has put in place in the benefits system, which will go some way to supporting people experiencing mental health problems.  Here we highlight some of the changes that have been made, and identify where more support is needed.  

New Universal Credit claimants no longer need to call the DWP as part of the application process. Instead the DWP will call claimants directly if they require any further information. This strips away claimant’s responsibility to call to make an initial appointment within a tight one week timeframe or risk their claim being discontinued. 

The number of Universal Credit telephone advisors has been increased. The government has redeployed thousands of staff to deal with the huge influx of new claims in an effort to ensure sufficient advisors are available to meet the demand of new claims.  

Rules around searching for work have been suspended. The DWP have said they will not be checking claimants are adhering to work search requirements for the next three months, and therefore claimants should not be sanctioned for failing to do so. Communication around this has been minimal and therefore shrouded in some ambiguity. Meaning people who currently have work requirements are left with uncertainties about what is expected of them. 

The timeframes for people to complete PIP forms has been extended. Claimants are being given longer to complete supporting forms, which means that people are not having to adhere to tight timeframes to complete difficult forms. This is particularly important as people are distanced from their usual support networks. However, with new PIP claims having more than halved since the outbreak of coronavirus, more clearly needs to be done to ensure people do not miss out on PIP benefits, because they are unable to navigate the process remotely.  

People identified as vulnerable should receive payments while their claims are processed. The government continues to ensure new UC claimants can apply for an advanced payment while they wait for their first UC payment. Repaying this loan can cause considerable financial hardship. Navigating the process to request and apply for an advance can be even tricker for people experiencing the cognitive and psychological effects of mental health problems. 

Still more to do

We welcome the changes that have been made, but are asking the government to go further, by: 

  • Suspending all forms of conditionality requirements, including mandatory work related activity and attendance at appointments, during the crisis. 
  • Clearly communicate all policy changes, and ensure these messages are consistently reinforced via JobCentre and DWP advisors, telephone lines and websites. 
  • Clarify how the DWP intends on identifying and offering additional support to vulnerable claimants who are unable to navigate the benefit process remotely. 
  • End the five week wait by making Universal Credit advance payments grants instead of loans. 

The coronavirus pandemic has seen an enormous shift in the pace of policy change. The government has responded quickly. What before may have taken months or even years, has been rolled out within a matter of weeks. We must ensure that within these changes people in receipt of benefits and experiencing mental health problems are also adequately provided for.