Has the £20 Universal Credit uplift extension just kicked the can further down the street?

Has the £20 Universal Credit uplift extension just kicked the can further down the street?

How did we get here?

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.

The chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on poverty, Kevin Hollinrake, recently recommended that “There is a compelling case for making the uplift permanent.” The Trussell Trust found that before the pandemic struck 70% of Universal Credit claimants had experienced debt during the 5 weeks wait for the initial payment of the benefit. They also found out from their survey that only 8% of respondents said their full Universal Credit payment covered their cost of living and only 5% of people who said they were disabled or had ill-health said their full Universal Credit payment covered their cost of living.

The Government has expressed on multiple occasions that the uplift is ‘temporary’ and impossible to sustain.  We say families livelihoods will be impossible to sustain without it.

Let’s hope social responsibility takes hold before the Autumn.

I’m on a mission to make a difference …

I’m on a mission to make a difference …

As a proud non-exec Director of social enterprise Society Matters cic I’m on a mission to make a difference. Alongside my talented co-Directors, our wonderful staff team and our parent charity Citizens Advice Gateshead, we have a vision of a fair society for all, with lives well lived.

So what does that mean? To me, that means we are determined to help people in need to achieve their potential in life, to help families living in poverty, with disadvantage and deprivation, to become more self-reliant, resilient and move towards a lifestyle that is stable and secure. 

You might say – “well good luck with that” – and yes, it is a huge job. 

And it is one that is becoming more challenging daily while Covid takes its toll and employment – life itself – is ever more precarious.  Even people who are in employment are struggling to make ends meet and dealing with insecure jobs.

So, to achieve our ambition we have looked really closely at the part Society Matters cic can play – how our small but perfectly formed team can help to support people on a journey that leads to them ultimately supporting themselves.

Mobilising lived experience and specialist knowledge into the system

Proper support for people in need is crucial to enable them to emerge from poverty and avoid the traps that come along with it that often have long term impacts.  Debt, health problems, fuel poverty, housing and the knock-on impacts on education and social isolation are only a few examples of issues that that put people in crisis situations that are difficult to get out of.  

The Social Welfare system is there to provide such support but its complexities mean that people do not always get their entitlement and in many cases do not even realise they are eligible for benefits.  Accessing support can be difficult and not for the faint-hearted.  Not the best situation when you’re worried where the next meal is coming from or where you can get the bus fare to work.

So to help people access the support they need our approach is to mobilise the knowledge that resides in the advisers who deal with the complications of the system on a daily basis. The value of those experts, whose knowledge is second to none, and who have made a tangible difference to people’s lives, can’t be over-estimated.  So those advisers have invested their lived experience and specialist knowledge into the design, development and delivery of cutting edge training which is now delivered in a virtual classroom by Society Matters cic.

This is not training you can get from a book or a website. It’s coming at social welfare problems from the people perspective – not just relaying policy and practice. If you are one of the hundreds of people who have received this training, you’ll have the tools in your toolkit to really help people to navigate the social welfare and benefits system, and to get the best possible outcome for them and their families through your work.

We need more people to be able to help more people 

Like I said, this is a big job. So we’re on a mission to spread this acute, front-end knowledge far and wide.

On the ground, that means more people accessing the benefits they so desperately need, more people avoiding crisis points, more people moving out of poverty, more people taking the step from benefits to employment – more people reaching their potential. More people living their lives as well as they can. Isn’t that what we, as a society, should expect for everyone?

And of course, through the pandemic the public have grown a heightened awareness of the close connection between society and the economy. Through engendering more people with spending power the local economy gains, so we all gain. Did you know that in Gateshead alone in 2019-2020 the advice and information given to people by our parent charity Citizens Advice Gateshead  gained £7.8m additional income, most of which will have been spent locally – mind blowing!

Just think what could be done across our region with a bit more know-how.

Knowledge is power – Society Matters is mobilising knowledge through its training so the Social Welfare system provides the means to progress for people who need and want to battle successfully against poverty. And it’s already working.  Front line staff we’ve trained are picking up on potential problems with their users at early stages and averting crises like eviction and arrears, and people are being able to work through their disabilities because they have the right support to do so, because they’ve been helped in the right way to get what they needed.  Critically, through mobilising knowledge the trained support staff feel confident and empowered in their work, and the service users relieved – what’s not to like in such a great result. 

This is real social value.

Team helps IEP members with Universal Credit Webinar

Team helps IEP members with Universal Credit Webinar

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.

You can see the full webinar here.

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.

Lee Booth, 18th December 2020

Call for Community and Voluntary sector to complete short skills survey

Call for Community and Voluntary sector to complete short skills survey

Social enterprise Society Matters cic is looking into skills gaps that are challenging the community and voluntary sector. particularly with respect to understanding the complexities of welfare benefits such as Universal Credit and PIP, and is calling for as many people across the sector to complete the survey, for a chance to win a free welfare benefits training course for up to 12 people early in 2021.

The team at Society Matters needs to understand the gaps that exist because they are looking for ways to support the sector at a time when investing in training is not currently on the agenda, for obvious reasons. Hundreds of paid staff and volunteers from the sector who have attended Society Matters’ social welfare training have said that without the right skills and knowledge they had found it difficult to provide the right help to the communities they support, and that once they understood the detail of the benefits being claimed by many of their clients they had so much more confidence, just after a few hours spent on learning and development.

Lee Booth, Trading Manager at Society Matters cic, who’s leading the survey explained “this year has been challenging for us all, but the community and voluntary sector has stepped up to make such a difference to so many people’s lives, and we send our sincere thanks. Through completing this survey the community and voluntary sector can help us to design programmes that can be delivered free to those who need it most, but don’t have the resources to pay.”

So please complete the short 2 minute survey to help Society Matters to understand the skills gaps you are experiencing in your organisation, and have a chance to win a free accredited welfare benefits training course of your choice for up to 12 staff and volunteers to give you a great start to 2021.

CLICK HERE TO START THE SURVEY

Do welfare benefits propel or prevent employment?

Do welfare benefits propel or prevent employment?

Millions more people are now claiming welfare benefits, and it’s probably fair to say that many believed it would never happen to them. So this is probably a good time to start a narrative around whether welfare benefits help or hinder employability.

Like me you’ve probably found it’s not unusual for the two issues of welfare benefits and unemployment to be couched as cause and effect; the implication that benefits ‘prop up’ people’s lives and diminish their motivation to find work. I honestly think this association has now become a lazy stereotype and we need to work together to dispel the myth. Why? Because while it’s out there, perception or otherwise, it carries a lot of weight, and that impacts heavily, not only on the by-standers who have a third party perspective, but also on those who are the main actors of the myth – the people who have been impacted through their self-esteem, and with a belief, perhaps, that they’ll never be taken seriously enough to get a job, because they’re on benefits.

It would be naïve to evade the reality that some people who are capable of working are satisfied not to, and that surviving on welfare benefits might be an option they have chosen (or that has chosen them). It’s also a truth that even in those minority of cases if we dig beyond the surface we can probably also find multiple reasons not to cast blame. But regardless, there’s no doubt we can do a lot better, recognising this connection between welfare benefits and employability as an over-simplification of what is surely one of the most complex and serious challenges for society, and one that’s been getting in the way of social justice for decades.

Unemployment of course is a complicated and multi-dimensional subject – for the unemployed themselves and for the support system at both a micro and a macro level. An important element of this support system is geared to managing welfare benefits claims but this has proven not always to be effective. Despite assumptions to the contrary, benefits are frequently under-claimed (in the millions) because the system is dogged with misinterpretation and/or misunderstanding.

For some people, benefits can hinder the prospect of employability (we explore this below, and the lazy stereotype doesn’t feature …) but more often than not this is a symptom of circumstance rather than an actual desire to be on benefits instead of earning a living. In fact there are many examples of welfare benefits making a positive contribution towards employability.

Welfare benefits actually help people to be employed

 To properly consider how benefits enable people to progress from unemployment to employment we need to evaluate how the welfare state enables millions people to actually be in work already. According to DWP data from July 2020 over 5.5m people were claiming Universal Credit, and about a third of those were reported to already have a job.

 Source: DWP

 The welfare benefits that are enabling employment for millions of people are as diverse as people’s life situations.

The system is designed – in principle – to be accessible for all, geared to fulfilling people’s potential employability on an individual level, rather than stifling it.

Universal Credit, for example, is a means-tested benefit which is geared to supporting low income families, whether they are in work or not. The childcare element of Universal Credit can pay up to 85% of childcare costs if household income is below a minimum threshold, making a huge difference to working families, and ensuring that they are not disincentivised to work through the cost of childcare provision. It would be helpful if families that are concerned about losing childcare benefits by progressing into employment were aware that this help is available, because it’s highly likely that their starting assumption is that it isn’t. The Carers element  of Universal Credit makes work accessible for those who are undertaking caring responsibilities for 35 or more hours a week; this can support someone to continue to work at least part-time, supplementing their wage to make room to look after a disabled family member, for example, and can remove barriers for many working and single parent families.  Helping families to recognise that moving into a caring role does not preclude them from working, and that working part-time can make them better off than leaving employment altogether, is key to avoiding working adults leaving their job altogether when they’re facing these challenges. There’s no doubt that welfare benefits can enable employment for people in this position.

Benefits for working adults also include non means-tested benefits such as Personal Independence Payment (PIP) and government schemes that include Access to Work, both geared to removing personal barriers which can affect employability. At a practical level, this can include anything from access to aids such as a disabled person’s railcard, bus pass, the Motability car scheme, or a blue badge – all significant in improving people’s ability to travel to work. Access to Work enables employers to access special equipment, adaptations or support worker services to help them in the workplace as well as with getting to and from work.

Like Universal Credit and PIP, key to the success of these welfare benefits in enabling employability is the knowledge and support of the wider system – including employers and health professionals. If people become aware that these benefits are available to them as early as possible, and they can be supported to access them, as easily as possible, jobs can be saved through benefits. With the right benefits in place unemployed people will more readily access and retain jobs, avoiding them being unfairly disadvantaged by their need to tackle life challenges while they are working.

The benefits system and the push for employment

It is difficult to imagine how anyone living in crisis, not even sure whether they will soon have a roof over their head, unable to feed their family and coping with domestic chaos, could possibly be motivated and sufficiently confident to look for employment. Yes, a job would lead to a better income that in turn can help to turn around a challenging family situation, but that journey can be long and complex. Welfare benefits, if accessed effectively, can provide for basic needs during these times of crisis, and keep families together and safe.

Our primary challenge, then, is to ensure that once a foundation of security is established, this is quickly converted into a platform for progression, avoiding it transforming into a barrier to employment or a crutch.

Like it or loath it in practice, but the principles of Universal Credit when it was announced by the Conservative party 10 years ago were hard to argue with, cast as fairer for claimants and taxpayers, and designed to avoid the ‘cliff edge’ that was said to ‘trap’ people in unemployment when benefits ended as work started. Although the UC system has been criticised in practice (much of this criticism, in my view, being fair), many have gained employment as a result of the ‘extra push’ it has given. For people who have been assessed as needing to search for employment, Universal Credit payments are made in return for evidence of active job search activities. This can be anything from training, volunteering, or submitting job applications. Evidence of this activity being absent results in sanctions – reduced benefits payments – which have been proven, for some, to focus the mind on looking for work.

The welfare benefits system – including the broader employability support system – has the capability of giving people the ‘third party’ push they need to spur their confidence and help them to actively seek employment. This can be in the form of people pressure, or through the nature of the systems and processes in place, but to be effective it also needs to be person-centred. The support system surrounding welfare benefits that has been set up by DWP included the introduction of Job Centre work coaches. These coaches are intended to build relationships with benefits claimants, and to provide them tangible support to become more active in the job market.

On the ground, the level of service offered is inconsistent, and not everyone is able to recognise the benefit of this support or understand how take best advantage of it. It is therefore important that other players in the support system take an active role in brokering these relationships, ensuring that the claimant recognises the purpose of the work coach’s role in helping them to move forward but also, pragmatically, ensuring that the benefit claimant is clear about what they should expect, so they get all of the support that’s available to them; people need to be educated to expect regular access to relevant training and development, support with CVs and applications, and also to receive practical help with access to grants for travel to interviews and clothing to improve the likelihood of a successful outcome on the day (this can relate to increased confidence as much as making a good first impression to a prospective employer). This is a two-way street.

This role is being played by employability professionals and independent agencies such as Citizens Advice, however this interaction often comes at the point of crisis. More can be done at the outset to avert crisis, and perhaps in some cases it’s not ideal for the paymaster to own this responsibility.

So can welfare benefits actually hinder employability?

We can’t pretend that welfare benefits is the silver bullet that will fix unemployment, but there’s no question that attitudes to benefits need to change. The lazy stereotype image isn’t owned exclusively by the media. People who are claiming benefits feel the stigma. Some worry about whether they should make a claim and decide not to although they will suffer a detriment as a result, ‘just in case’. When applying for jobs, concerns about recruiters discriminating against them because they claim benefits is a real barrier to making the effort to apply in the first place.

People who have been in the position of claiming welfare benefits for long periods can be prone to believing they have become unemployable.

The bias of employers – unconscious or otherwise – can serve to further entrench these barriers – employing someone who is already in employment feels a lot easier and lower risk than employing someone who is long-term unemployed, does it not.

Helping employers to engage unemployed applicants in volunteer programmes to provide work experience, or work trials before a full commitment to a job is made, would make a huge difference, supporting people who feel ‘trapped’ in the benefits system to break down these barriers, and better equipping the employer and the prospective employee to remove prejudices associated with welfare benefits as a hinderance to employability.

If you would like to talk about how you could start breaking down these barriers in your organisation please get in touch; if we can’t help ourselves we’re pretty sure we’ll know someone who can.

A call to action – let’s change attitudes

So, do welfare benefits propel or prevent employment? I usually resist the temptation to talk about culture as it’s a pretty intangible concept in real terms and we can almost exonerate ourselves of responsibility for pretty much anything by blaming culture. But in real terms our attitudes shape the culture that exists around welfare benefits and unemployment, so our call to action today is for us to work together to help those who have found themselves claiming benefits for whatever reason to know that this offers a safe platform for progression back into employment, that the stigma that may have been attached to welfare benefits in the past no longer exists, and that benefits actually enable millions of people to work.

 

Jayne Graham MBE (Director) and Adam Matthews (Social Welfare Instructor) 

PIP Claims and how to get the basics right

PIP Claims and how to get the basics right

PIP Claims and how to get the basics right

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.

 

If you would like to learn more about PIP claims check out our series of short videos here, and if you’d like to learn more about how to help your own clients to improve their chances of a making a successful PIP claim please get in touch today to talk through how we can help.