Last April, in an early attempt to respond to the impact of Covid-19, the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, introduced a temporary uplift for Universal Credit claimants of £20 a week. That might not sound like much in the scheme of things, you’d think? Wrong. it’s had such an impact on the families that have received it, that the potential of having it taken away would now be too much to bear. £20 a week means money in utility metres, food on the table, activities for families stuck at home. It’s a life-changing amount of money for families who are only just coping, or already experiencing daily deprivation in their lives.
The temporary extension
To the relief of many charities, campaigners and, of course, UC benefit claimants, the Chancellor announced in his Budget speech last week that the £20 a week uplift introduced last April was to be extended a further 6 months. To help mitigate the impact of coronavirus on household finances the uplift, which was due to end on 31 March, will now remain in place until September. The Chancellor also confirmed working tax credit claimants would receive equivalent support over the next six months through a one-off payment of £500.
But with the UC uplift extension have we just kicked the can further down the street and will the uplift need to be extended or indeed made permanent beyond September?
Surging unemployment has led to a massive increase in UC claimants
The number of people claiming Universal Credit in the UK has doubled since the start of the pandemic, surging from 3 million in March 2020 to 6 million at the start of this year. Around 446 people were still making new claims every hour in the first week of January 2021, and a total of 4.5 million people have made a claim for the benefit since the start of the public health crisis. The statistics reflect the scale of the hardship caused by Covid-19. This has been laid bare with new figures showing that more than a third of claims since Universal Credit was introduced in April 2013 have been made during the COVID19 pandemic.
Moreover, the number of people on company payrolls has fallen by 726,000 during the same period according to the Office for National Statistics, and the unemployment rate reached a five-year high in December. There is no doubt the £20 uplift has provided a safety net for people that have been made redundant or the self employed who have seen their profits drop due to lockdowns and social distancing measures. This is a very bad state of affairs indeed, that we predict will get worse before it gets better.
Why the £20 uplift proves so vital?
Over 620,000 families with children have started claiming Universal Credit since the start of the pandemic, marking a 51 per cent increase. Two thirds of the families now receiving Universal Credit are single parent families, and around 90 per cent of single parents are women. Analysis by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) last year concluded that withdrawing the temporary increase in March risked sweeping 700,000 more people, including 300,000 more children, into poverty.
With the current uplift lifeline in place, Citizens Advice estimated that lockdown debts have already reached £1.6 billion, 2 million households are behind on their energy bills and half a million tenants are behind an average of £730 on their rent. Citizens Advice research showed that the £20 a week uplift equates is the equivalent of 3 days food shopping and almost 7 days of energy costs for many households. With the announcement by Ofgem that energy bills are to rise by £96 to £1,138 a year in April for households on standard or default tariffs combined with the fact we already have higher energy costs due to being confined to our homes and the children having being at home due to schools being shut. Many have already found themselves in a perfect storm of fuel and food poverty due to these factors and the recent cold weather snap.
The loss of the uplift at the end of March would have proved devastating not just for families on Universal Credit and Working Tax Credits, but to the economy as a whole; it was estimated that the uplift alone is pumping £500 million a month into local economies at a time when they find themselves on life support due to many high street shops being closed.
What next for the £20 lifeline?
At this time, it is unclear whether the £20 uplift will be extended beyond September. With the vaccine roll out proving successful so far and infection rates dropping it is hard to gauge what will happen when lockdown ends and how quickly people can get back to work. It is difficult to predict how swiftly the economy can bounce back and if we will see a rise in redundancies again as the furlough or job retention scheme winds down similarly to what we witnessed last year as the rates the government paid to businesses were gradually reduced.
We’re so happy with our very first webinar, kindly hosted as a ‘Live Learn Lunch’ by the Institute of Employability Professionals mid December. We chose to talk about the 6 elements of Universal Credit, with an explanation of each element, and then a focus on how changes in circumstances can impact on people’s claims, as well as some obvious references to adjustments associated with the Covid-19 pandemic.
The webinar was formatted as a presentation from myself and Adam, followed by questions and answers. We think it’s so important for the support system to understand this dimension of the benefit, because then they can spot opportunities to help early on, before a problem brews and a claim is affected, so we were really pleased to have a good turn-out but also to have the opportunity for a recording to be viewed by those who weren’t able to attend.
Of course there’s a lot of detail we weren’t able to explore during the session, that we cover in a lot more detail in our Get to Grips with Universal Credit online training course, but the webinar did provide participants with some red flags they should look out for so that’s definitely a good start.
The Community and Voluntary Sector (CVS) is probably better known as a route for people to volunteer, perhaps as a way to ‘give back’ at the end of a career, than as a provider of formative or developmental career opportunities. That’s understandable. To the unaccustomed the ‘third sector’ or ‘not-for-profit sector’ can appear to be a bit detached from ‘real life’ compared to the cut and thrust of the private sector, and the gargantuan establishment that is the public sector. But if you think about it, selecting the CVS as your career choice has the potential to transport you to as close to ‘real life’ as you can get.
So can you have a ‘career’ in the sector, really?
What’s the shape and size of the sector?
If we stand back and look at the sector in all of its different guises, there’s no wonder really there’s uncertainty about its potential. At one end of the spectrum we have un-constituted community groups run entirely by volunteers that deliver localised support, and at the other we have social enterprises that operate, from the outside, as a commercial private business, but with the unique characteristic of creating social rather than material wealth; and this comes with varying levels of obligation – some, like Society Matters cic for example, are asset locked, meaning that all profits/assets must go to the community they serve. Then firmly in the centre we have the charity sector, governed by the Charities Commission.
As a result of this diversity and varying levels of formality it’s really difficult to get absolute clarity on the numbers of people actually employed overall, however according to the UK Civil Society Almanac 2020 the voluntary sector has a paid workforce approaching one million, almost 3% of the total paid workforce, and representing a 17% growth rate in jobs since 2010. Most of these jobs are in voluntary organisations with less than 50 paid staff (which is a similar proportion to the private sector). Over a third of employees are engaged in social work activities, followed by education and residential care which each represent around 12%. It should also be said that although the sector’s primary focus is social wealth, a significant economic contribution is also made, estimated by NCVO and ONS to be valued at £18.2bn 2017/18, or 0.9% of total GDP.
Obviously when reviewing the shape and size of the sector, we can’t get away without making reference to Covid19 which has had an inordinate impact on the CVS. For some organisations income has been lost, with a fifth of small UK charities reported to be expecting an income reduction of more than 50% as a direct result of the pandemic, and as many as 1 in 10 charities are said to be facing imminent bankruptcy. Income through trading has been slashed due to lockdown restrictions, particularly in the case of charity shops, but for others their capacity has grown exponentially as a result of the availability of volunteers, which will improve their impact statistics which has the potential of helping them raise funds for next year.
However in my view the most fundamental shift is the heightened recognition of the part that not only the CVS, but citizens individually and collectively, can (should) play in supporting society and societal change. At every level the concept of community has entered spheres of influence that hitherto had been severely lacking. Beyond Covid19 this presents a tangible opportunity for growth for a sector that stands out for its essential contribution to all our lives.
So onto career prospects and the need for new skills. Interestingly, according to the UK Civil Society Almanac 2020, employees in the sector are highly educated, with over half of the workforce being educated to degree level of higher, similar to the public sector and much higher than in the private sector. What also stands out is that reported skills gaps are lower than the other sectors, however the skills gaps that do exist contrast with other sectors, mainly focusing on hard skills such as complex analytical, operational and digital skills, and on soft skills most particularly self-management and management and leadership. This mirrors my own experience which can be explained in part by the starting point generally being that the charity and its people tend to be for society first, and a business second.
But of course, despite the social drivers, CVS organisations are economic structures – they are businesses: they employ people, they manage finance, they market, they manage facilities and IT, they develop operating models that enable services to be delivered. Although this is evolving, the culture of resisting ‘behaving’ like a business, combined with skills gaps that potentially get in the way of innovation, marketing and strategic change, present a significant barrier to survival and growth for many. However it must also be said, as someone who has worked in both the private and the community and voluntary sector, running a social business is far more complex than its private counterparts – at the very least because your main customer is highly unlikely to be able to pay for what you have to offer.
If we can get over this stand-off, a significant opportunity does exist for a heightened focus on leadership and management development across the sector (not necessarily delivered by those already in the sector), and a call for collaboration with the buoyant and growing digital sector, to uplift the capability of the CVS to build its efficiency and its ability to compete.
A word about volunteering
Volunteering and employability do go hand in hand, both with respect to presenting opportunities for acquiring work experience and employment-related skills and assets, and as a direct route into employment. As an example, over 20% of paid employees at Citizens Advice Gateshead, the parent charity of Society Matters cic, started with the charity as a volunteer.
As the employment landscape continues to change as a result of the pandemic, the need for reframing and retraining to enable people in the sectors worst hit to move forward, volunteering in the CVS has the potential to provide the answer. An investment in making this work for the sector, however, is critical; the misnomer that volunteers provide ‘free’ resource needs to be eradicated, as under-investment will have a catastrophic effect on the sector, and will prevent this workforce development opportunity to be realised alongside draining the already limited resources needed to deliver social value.
Jayne Graham MBE Executive Director, Society Matters cic
Welfare benefits claims are far from easy to navigate and people often have complex needs which can prove to be barriers to their benefit applications. The stakes are heightened with Personal Independence Payment claims, and the complexity of the application process can stand in the way of a successful claim for people who are really in need of the support.
That’s why, through our training, we share acute front-end experience of how to successfully support people through the claims process for PIP. But to get you started, our Social Welfare Instructor Adam has prepared some pointers that will make sure you get the basics right.
What is PIP?
Personal Independence Payment (known as PIP), is a benefit designed to help people with the additional costs involved in having a long term health condition or being disabled and isn’t means tested. That means that anyone can apply for PIP, regardless of their income or savings. The benefit replaced Disability Living Allowance in the UK.
There are eligibility criteria that need to be fulfilled before claiming for PIP, including age and how the condition affects the potential claimant, so check these before getting started. You can find out more here https://www.gov.uk/pip
Collect medical evidence before starting the claim
Once you get started with a PIP claim the process is time limited, so it’s a really good idea to encourage your client to invest some time in collecting as much medical evidence as possible to support the application.
Prospective claimants should contact their GP and any medical professionals that have been working with them in the last 12 months and let them know they are applying for PIP. You will find that most professionals are really empathetic and will write a supporting letter to accompany a claim.
Remember PIP is designed to respond to how someone’s condition affects them, so the more medical evidence they get the better.
Help with form filling
The PIP application form is 33 pages long and can be quite daunting, so it’s always a good idea for a claimant to get help from someone with experience of successfully completing PIP forms.
After your client has made their initial claim over the phone with the DWP, a PIP form should be sent out within 14 days, then they will have a month to fill in the form (if they need longer, for example because they need help to fill in the form, if they let the DWP know in good time they may be granted an extension).
Stick to the descriptors
We can’t stress enough how important it is for a claimant to stick to the descriptors, and cross reference their mobility and daily living needs to score as many legitimate points as possible. In our Get to Grips with PIP training we really get into the detail of each of the twelve descriptors but you can also get a basic understanding of each of the PIP descriptors in this short video series.
Be prepared for the assessment
The assessment is an important part of the claims process so preparation is key. It is well worth seeing if a home visit is feasible if the claimant is not well enough to attend an external venue (they may need medical evidence to prove this). Whether it’s at home or at an assessment centre, it is always worth the claimant being accompanied to the assessment for support.
It’s also a really good idea for the claimant to keep a diary of how their condition affects them for a few weeks before the assessment date, so they can properly explain this to the assessor, to make sure they don’t forget anything if they feel a bit nervous.
Don’t give up
If the PIP claim is unsuccessful first time round don’t give up. In the event of a successful claim it’s definitely best to get help from organisations such as Citizens Advice to handle a ‘mandatory reconsideration’ and appeal if it gets to this stage. It may also be worth getting further medical evidence to back up the claim.
The Tribunals Service statistics show that claimants are winning PIP appeals at the highest rate ever recorded. Overall, an extraordinary 73% of social security appeals are successful, with the claimant getting a better award than they originally received from the DWP. Our parent charity Citizens Advice Gateshead recently reported a 93% success rate when it comes to appeals.
In this short video Director of Society Matters cic, Jayne Graham MBE, gives us a little insight into why Society Matters is playing such an important role in making the social welfare system work, and how you can get involved.
If you’d like to know more about the work of Society Matters cic, and how you can get involved in supporting our Pay it Forward Charity Discount Fund click here
As Universal Credit
claimant numbers rocket, North East social enterprise Society Matters cic has
moved its crucial ‘Getting to Grips with Universal Credit’ training courses online
as its country-wide classroom-based courses dried up through lockdown.
The social enterprise launched its specialist
social welfare courses last year to respond to the confusion surrounding
Universal Credit and other benefits. They had a full order book as the pandemic
hit, but due to social distancing rules the courses had to be cancelled. Several
of their customers, however, didn’t want to miss out, wanting to help their
staff and customers to cope with living on Universal Credit. So, the Society
Matters team fast-tracked their plans to move the training online and are now delivering
it in a virtual classroom format.
Northumbrian Water pilot online delivery approach
Northumbrian Water were quick to re-book the staff training that had been cancelled to comply with social distancing. Tracey Greener, the utility giant’s Workforce Development Manager explained:
“Our customer teams are continuing to develop their knowledge and skills whilst working from home. By partnering with Society Matters we have piloted an online training package to help our advisors understand more about Universal Credit. The learning from the course will ensure our teams have a thorough understanding of the benefit system and the challenges our customers face.”
Society Matters knows that their training is needed more now than
ever to help both corporates and charities to cope with the
fallout of over a million people having to move
onto the controversial benefit since the start of the Covid19 pandemic.
Lee Booth, Trading Manager
of Society Matters who delivers the course alongside welfare benefits
specialists trained by parent charity Citizens Advice Gateshead, said:
“When our whole team moved
to homeworking last month, we immediately set about getting the course into a
format that could be delivered online. It was too important to shelve just
because social distancing got in the way. We need corporates and charities to
really understand how Universal Credit works. By understanding it they can help
their employees and their customers to properly benefit from it, and not put
them at a disadvantage through their own policies without realising it.”
National delivery continues through the pandemic
The social enterprise has already trained people across the North and South West including national homeless charity Centrepoint, Northumbrian Water, Home Group, LSL Property Services, Gateshead Housing Company, Citizens Advice and Fedcap. The courses can be delivered in closed or open sessions in virtual classrooms, and within the next two months they plan to use the virtual classroom to deliver training in mental health awareness, employment law and discrimination, as well as all aspects of welfare benefits.
To find out more about our social welfare training that’s designed to help you to make your mark, please get in touch.