Rachel Fergusson, External Affairs Officer, Money and Mental Health Policy Institute

The Universal Credit system sets people up to fail: here’s how we’re making a difference

24 April 2023

  • We’ve been calling on the government to make it easier for people to get help from a loved one to manage their Universal Credit. 
  • In the government’s Health and Disability White Paper, it says it will be exploring ways to support people claiming Universal Credit to give others permission to act on their behalf. 
  • That isn’t a concrete commitment to act, and we don’t know what the details of those plans are yet. But it’s a promising first step by the government. 
  • We’re following up with ministers to find out more about these plans, and to urge them to change the system now.
  • You can help by signing the petition calling on the government to take action.

Since Money and Mental Health was set up in 2016, a key focus of our work has been improving the benefits system so that it works better for those of us with mental health problems. That means a Universal Credit system that offers a genuine safety net to fall back on when we’re unwell, and that helps us into jobs that support both our financial and mental wellbeing. 

The government’s recent Health and Disability White Paper  set out its plans to support more disabled people and people with health conditions to start and stay in work. 

Overall, the White Paper offered up a mixed bag, but there are signs of promising progress. In particular, we were delighted to see a step towards government action on the central ask of our Set Up to Fail campaign – which calls on Ministers to make it easier for people to get help from their loved ones to manage their benefits. 

Read on to find out more about the government’s announcement and how we will be campaigning to push Ministers to take action —  to make sure people with mental health see the changes to the Universal Credit system that they need.

How the Universal Credit system sets people up to fail

We know that for anyone navigating the Universal Credit system, it can be a less than straightforward task. But for those of us with mental health problems, managing the ongoing admin and bureaucracy required to access payments – like filling in forms and dealing with correspondence – can be a particularly gruelling and even distressing process, especially when you’re unwell. 

Our research found that over half (57%) of people with mental health problems who have claimed Universal Credit say that they needed a friend or family member to help them manage their account. Yet, only one in ten (10%) have actually managed to give permission for someone else to provide that help via the Universal Credit system. 

Our Research Community members tell us that when they try to nominate someone to help, they’re forced to jump through a series of needless, bureaucratic hoops that are almost impossible to navigate – and set you up to fail. Without support, these problems leave people at risk of being sanctioned by the DWP, or being cut off from Universal Credit payments altogether in the middle of the cost of living crisis.

“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.” Expert by Experience

Our campaign calls on the government to fix these unnecessary flaws, to make it easier for people to get support with Universal Credit from their friends and family. That includes providing people with clearer advice on what information they need to share with the DWP to give permission for someone else to help them manage their account, and giving people flexible options about the level of access given to their loved one. Adding prompts and drop down menus to guide people through the process would also make the online process more accessible for people with mental health problems. 

What the government has said

In its Health and Disability White Paper, the government stated its commitment to “exploring ways” to better support people who rely on third parties to help manage their Universal Credit account – and give permission to other people to act on their behalf. 

That’s a positive sign that the government is looking seriously at this issue, and that the experiences of our Research Community are being considered as part of the government’s plans. But the White Paper offered little further detail about what specific aspects the government will explore. We’re now following up with Ministers to find out more about these plans, and to urge them to act on these issues.

How can you help our campaign?

If you support our campaign, you can help us by signing the petition below, asking the government to fix the problems with the Universal Credit system which stop people getting help from loved ones.