Katie Evans is the Head of Policy and Research at Money and Mental Health.

The government should go further in fixing Universal Credit roll-out

7 November 2018

Monday this week brought two major developments in the ongoing roll-out of Universal Credit (UC) benefit. Firstly, the Social Security Advisory Committee (SSAC) published its independent report investigating the government’s proposals for moving people onto Universal Credit from other working age benefits. That was followed by a response statement in Parliament from Esther McVey, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.

These announcements brought some positive news for people with mental health problems going through the UC migration process, but also some ongoing frustrations.

First, the good news. We were pleased that the SSAC report highlighted the specific needs of people experiencing mental health problems, and the difficulties they could have faced under the government’s initial proposals for UC roll-out.

Moreover, the government has agreed to act on a number of the report’s recommendations on improving this process for people with mental health problems.

More time for people to claim UC

One positive is the government’s new commitment to extending the period for making a claim from one month to three, and its explicit recognition that people experiencing mental health problems may need a further extension.

This will offer significant additional protection to people experiencing mental health problems, who might not be well enough to engage with the process of migration when their letter arrives.

Under previous proposals, people who are too unwell to engage immediately with the migration process risked not only losing the protection against a fall in their income during the switch to UC that they are entitled to as existing claimants, but could have been left without any income at all.

Better communication about changes to benefits

The government has also promised to drop current plans for notifying people that their existing benefits will stop – and that they need to make a new claim for UC – through a single letter in the post. As our submission to the SSAC consultation highlighted, using a single letter to make people aware of major changes to their benefits posed huge concerns.

Our research shows that many people experiencing mental health problems struggle to open their post, with 17% saying that they find their post distressing or difficult to engage with.

The government’s plans would therefore have created a serious risk that many people with mental health problems might have  fallen between the cracks in the UC roll-out, and seen their benefits stop altogether as a result.

To try and prevent that situation arising, the government has vowed to use a range of communication channels when notifying someone that they need to make a claim for UC. That will include advertising campaigns, face-to-face communication, texts, telephone calls and home visits as well as letters, to provide better support for people during the migration process. This is an important step which should help protect people experiencing mental health problems from being left without payments when the times comes for them to be switched to the new system.

Much more for the government to do

But this isn’t enough. Just because someone gets the message from the government that they need to make a new application, it doesn’t mean that they will be able to navigate the maze of forms, evidence and assessments necessary to get the benefits they’re already entitled to.

So we are particularly disappointed that the government has chosen not to act on the SSAC’s recommendation that it should reconsider the demand it is placing on people receiving benefits to make a new application for UC.

The government has cited concerns about the possibility of replicating inaccuracies in data as a reason not to change this demand. Yet these issues are not the fault of individual people claiming UC, and they should not be made to pay the price.

Beyond managed migration

And, even when the migration process is sorted, the job won’t be done. We know for people with mental health problems who are claiming benefits, there are fundamental ongoing issues with the design of the system.

That’s why we’re undertaking a major research project to understand what’s going wrong, and to make recommendations as to how the government should fix it. There’s still time to feed in!