Nikki Bond, Senior Research Officer, Money and Mental Health

Three ways the DWP can make it easier for people to access Universal Credit

4 June 2021

For many people, Universal Credit has provided a vital lifeline during the pandemic, but for those of us experiencing mental health problems, navigating the UC system can feel almost impossible. Common symptoms of mental health problems can make it difficult to meet the requirements set by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) for maintaining a UC claim, such as responding to notifications or completing tasks set by Work Coaches. The consequences of not successfully maintaining a claim can be enormous. People risk cuts to benefits or lost entitlements altogether – which can leave many struggling to pay their rent or put food on the table. 

With such huge stakes, people often turn to trusted friends or family members to help them maintain their UC claims – but getting help from a third party isn’t always easy, and people face barriers to giving permission for another person to support them. Instead, our research found that almost half of those who had needed help had bypassed the arduous system by sharing personal login details and passwords with family members or friends to get the help they needed.

In our new report, Set up to fail, people told us how navigating the online process to give permission for a friend or family member to help them manage their UC claim was often almost impossible. There were a number of reasons for this:

  • People do not know about the different options for accessing help as these are not clearly promoted
  • There is no information in the UC online system about where claimants should record their consent for giving permissions to a friend or family member
  • There is no information on precisely what details to include to delegate consent successfully. 

These challenges mean that claimants are required to navigate the very tasks which led to them requiring assistance in the first instance. Our Set Up To Fail campaign is calling on the government to make changes to the system to make it much easier for people to get help from loved ones. Sign our petition here, and read on to find out the key changes we want government to make. 

1. Make third party access systems in UC easy to access

The DWP should make it easier for claimants to give access permissions to a family member or friend by: 

  • Introducing prompts in the online system to help claimants provide the specific information required to delegate permissions successfully. 
  • Proactively raising awareness of third party access options among claimants who the DWP already know have some vulnerability.  
  • Expanding the existing Help to Claim service which supports people to make a UC claim, by offering a Help to Manage service to support vulnerable claimants to maintain their claim.

2. Make the UC system simple to use

While an improved third party support system is crucial, there are also opportunities to improve the system so people can manage tasks independently, meaning fewer people need help from family or friends in the first place. The DWP should improve the existing system by presenting information about payment calculations in a more straightforward format and providing an automated option for challenging DWP decisions.  

3. Design systems to maximise privacy and autonomy

Processes for sharing information and decision making with a family member or friend must strike a careful balance between maximising people’s right to privacy and independence, with the need to give trusted family members or friends enough information to provide support. 

To achieve this, the DWP should consider developing a system of:

  • View-only access for authorised third parties, allowing claimants to share specific screens with the person supporting them.
  • Duplicate notifications to authorised third parties, alerting both the claimant and their third party to new messages or tasks within their account.

With nearly 1.3 million people in receipt of UC also experiencing significant mental distress, a potentially significant group of vulnerable people stand to benefit from an improved third party access system. The recommendations we make here to improve the system would quickly deliver meaningful and welcome change. These changes are sorely needed to ensure people with mental health problems do not suffer sanctions and lost entitlements due to difficulties getting help to maintain their claim.