Helen Undy, Chief Executive, Money and Mental Health

People who need help with Universal Credit are being #SetUpToFail

26 May 2021

Today we’re launching a campaign to change a system so baffling that when I first learnt how it worked, I genuinely thought there must be some kind of mistake. So believe me when I say, everything in this unbelievable tale is horrifyingly true. And perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s about Universal Credit.

Right now, absurd flaws in the Universal Credit system are preventing people getting help from loved ones to manage their benefits, leaving hundreds of thousands struggling to effectively manage their Universal Credit accounts and avoid sanctions. People are being Set Up to Fail, and we need your help to call on the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to put it right.

The problem

Around 1.3m people experiencing high levels of mental distress are currently receiving or applying for Universal Credit, and this is set to escalate as the furlough scheme ends in the coming months. Without support, many people with common symptoms of mental health problems — such as difficulties understanding complex information and remembering appointments — struggle to deal with the ongoing admin and bureaucracy required to get Universal Credit payments. This includes filling in detailed forms, dealing with correspondence from the DWP and appealing decisions about their benefits.

But our new report, out today, shows that when people with mental health problems try to get help from a loved one to manage all this admin, the Universal Credit system sets them up to fail. In order to nominate someone to support them, they have to navigate similarly complex and unclear processes to those that they were trying to get help with in the first place.

In a survey of over 230 people with mental health problems who have claimed Universal Credit:

  • over half (57%) said they have needed help from family or friends to manage their Universal Credit account
  • just over a quarter said they need that help always or often (27%)
  • and yet only one in ten has managed to give permission for someone to help regularly (10%).

This is where it gets silly.

Specific problems with the system include:

  • The DWP doesn’t advertise that people can give permission to a loved one to help manage their Universal Credit account, or what the process is to set that up through the Universal Credit website.
  • To nominate a loved one as a regular helper, the claimant needs to tell DWP details of every single task they might need help with, and every piece of information they want to share, but without any prompts or guidance.
  • In theory people can also call the DWP to explain what help they need from a loved one, but this is not a viable option for many people with mental health problems. Money and Mental Health’s research shows that more than half (54%) of UK adults who’ve had mental health problems say they have severe difficulties in using the phone, often leading to panic attacks, heart palpitations and spiralling anxiety.

The financial and emotional cost

These problems leave people at risk of being sanctioned by the DWP (having their benefits cut), or being cut off from Universal Credit payments altogether. It also causes unnecessary anguish for people who are already struggling with their mental health, and for their carers.

Gary, who took part in our research, explains:

‘In the last year I was made redundant after being with a company for more than 23 years, and all the stress and worry has just come to the surface. I found the process of managing Universal Credit just horrendous and tough to follow, nothing is ever explained to you. At the moment I find it tough to deal with people as it’s hard to talk. 

“I can’t deal with the messages from the DWP myself, I need my wife’s help, but we can’t set it up for her to receive notifications about the account. We’ve filled all the forms in but it feels like a trap door assessment, if you answer something slightly wrong you fall through and that’s it, they’ll take the money away. It’s like the system’s designed to trip you up to fail.’

Help us fix it

This is one problem with Universal Credit that shouldn’t be hard to fix. There is an army of carers, friends and family out there trying to help people manage the Universal Credit system, some relatively small changes would make this possible. Without them, claimants with mental health problems are being set up to fail.

You can read the full recommendations in our report

The report and campaign were kindly sponsored by Lloyds Bank Foundation for England & Wales. The Money and Mental Health Policy Institute retains complete editorial independence over this work.