New research featuring one of the largest surveys of Universal Credit claimants ever conducted has just been released by the National Housing Federation's welfare reform group, of which I'm a member.
Housing association residents have been claiming Universal Credit for some years now. Here in Bath and NE Somerset, our customers were among the first to experience the fully-digital Universal Credit system, which started in May 2016. During that first year we saw a huge growth in our customers being moved onto Universal Credit and, for many, this was not an experience that they felt prepared for.
We surveyed our customers to better understand their experience and over 1,600 of them took part. I am eternally grateful to them for their candour, and won’t forget many of the moving accounts that I read as the results came in.
Having discussed the survey work we carried out at Curo through the National Housing Federation’s welfare reform group, we as a group decided to collaborate to increase the scale and sample size of the research. This report is the outcome of that exercise, and is important because it allows the claimant’s voice to be heard in the debate about the future of the benefit.
The survey, conducted jointly by nine housing associations across England including Curo, looks at how the move to Universal Credit impacts people’s lives: their finances, ability to manage day to day, and their health. It also investigates whether claimants tend to delay their application after a change of circumstance and what the reasons for this are.
The survey offers useful lessons for policymakers and landlords about the experience of the claim process and how it could be improved.
What did we find?
Our five key findings were that:
- The vast majority of claimants did not have any money saved to live on over the five-week waiting period, meaning that many had to borrow money.
- There was a very high incidence of struggling to afford necessities following the claim, as well as alarmingly high levels of high-interest borrowing.
- Many claimants reported that the experience of claiming Universal Credit worsened, or in some cases even triggered, health conditions, most notably mental health concerns.
- The vast majority of claimants made their claim as soon as their circumstances changed. Of the minority that did delay, the most common explanation was that they didn’t know what to do.
- Claimant satisfaction both with Universal Credit and with the landlord’s support services is mostly driven by responsive and helpful support services.
What needs to change?
The report contains these five recommendations for both the government and housing associations, so that we can jointly offer the best support for claimants.
- End the five-week wait for money.
- Make sure people have enough to live on.
- Provide adequate funding for advice and support on how to claim Universal Credit and eligibility criteria.
- Improve the effectiveness of communication from the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP).
- Landlords should support residents to make and manage their claim, inform them of all the support available and adapt their processes so that they don’t pressure customers who are waiting for a claim to be paid.
It would be remiss of me not to mention the DWP’s response to the COVID-19 crisis. Aside from the phone system going into meltdown over the course of the first few days, the department and its systems have coped remarkably well with an unprecedented 1.8-million-strong surge in claims; something that would have been impossible on the older versions of welfare benefits.
There is still much to do to make this benefit one that works well for all claimant groups, and there has never been a more important time to get this right.
Here at Curo we will continue to lobby for change where it is needed, on behalf of our customers.
Pictured:Sarah Seeger giving evidence to the Work and Pensions Select Committee in the House of Commons.