Brian Semple, Head of External Affairs, Money and Mental Health

Set Up To Fail: Lords make the case for government to act

9 September 2021

Last night brought an important milestone in our Set Up To Fail campaign, as members of the House of Lords used a parliamentary debate to put the campaign high on the government’s agenda. In particular, Peers called on government to fix flaws in the Universal Credit (UC) system that can prevent people with mental health problems getting vital help from loved ones to manage their benefits.

When people with mental health problems can’t get this help, the impact can be devastating. Our Research Community members have told us horrendous stories of facing sanctions or even having their benefits cut off altogether — all because they couldn’t get the help they needed form family and friends to manage their UC account.

Making the case for government to act

That’s why we were delighted to see members of the House of Lords raise these issues in last night’s debate, which was led by Lord Davies of Brixton. Lord Davies used his opening speech to explain how common symptoms of mental health problems, such as memory problems or difficulties processing complex information, can make it difficult to complete the arduous admin tasks involved in managing a Universal Credit account.

This is why people often want help from friends or family to keep up with these tasks. But as Lord Davies pointed out, the current design of the UC system makes this very difficult. People aren’t told by the DWP how to give permission for someone else to help them. Neither are there any prompts or guidance in the UC system to explain to people what information they need to share with the DWP to get help with their account from someone else. 

And while in theory people can also call the DWP to explain what help they need from a loved one, this is not a viable option for the many people with mental health problems who say that using the phone can lead to panic attacks, heart palpitations and spiralling anxiety.

Lord Davies also made clear the human costs of these problems, drawing on the experiences of our Research Community member Gary:

How government can fix these problems

We were also heartened by the thoughtful contributions made to the debate from other Peers, including Baroness Sherlock, Baroness Donaghy and Baroness Drake. Each speaker reaffirmed the need for the government to act on these problems.

And the good news is that this is one problem with UC that the government can fix relatively easily. For example, providing people with clearer advice on what information they need to share with the DWP to get support from a loved one — and how to share this information through the UC website — would go a long way in ensuring more people can get support to manage their benefits. 

We also want the government to make the UC website much more user-friendly, by adding prompts and guidance on how claimants can get support from a loved one to manage their UC account. Finally, we want the DWP to give people more flexible options over sharing decisions with a loved one about their benefits — for example, the option to give a friend or relative view-only access to your UC account, or to allow loved ones to get notifications about your account.

The government’s response

Responding on behalf of the government, DWP minister Baroness Stedman-Scott said she recognised there are problems with the system, and that our Set Up To Fail report was very helpful in highlighting them. She also said that DWP officials are now exploring potential improvements to make it easier for people to get support from loved ones with their UC account, and that this work will be informed by our research.

It is encouraging to hear that government is taking this issue seriously, and is planning work to address it. However, Baroness Stedman-Scott stopped short of making the firm commitment to tackling these problems which we’re calling for. We estimate that 100,000s of people experiencing high levels of mental distress may struggle to get support from loved ones to effectively manage their UC accounts and avoid sanctions. That number could rise when the furlough scheme ends at the end of this month, and more people move onto UC.

With so many people at risk, this is not an issue that can be kicked into the long grass. In the coming months, we will continue to push the government to take urgent action, so that everyone who needs help from a loved one to manage their UC account can get it.