Universal Credit claimants ‘left in the dark’ about their entitlements

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Universal Credit (UC) claimants are routinely left in the dark about how much they should receive, how their awards are calculated and if and how they can challenge DWP decisions, according to a revealing report from the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG).

According to the charity, one in five UC claimants referred to its “Early Warning System” are due to errors by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) in calculating a persons full UC entitlement.

This is because the troubled flagship welfare reform rolls six different ‘old’ benefits into one and claimants have little to no knowledge of its many compenents.

DWP HQ, Caxton House, London. Photo: Paul Billanie for Welfare Weekly.

This essentially means that UC award may have been worked out is incorrectly, but claimants themselves are given little information on each component and how to appeal entitlement decisions.

In a Foreword to CPAG’s report,former Lord Justice of Appeal The Rt Hon Sir Stephen Sedley said: “It’s a fundamental principle in a democracy that governmental bodies must have reasons for their decisions.

“It’s equally fundamental – or should be – that they should be able to explain what those reasons are. And if the explanation does not stack up, then, again on first principles, the decision should be open to review or appeal. Yet, as this publication demonstrates, the Department for Work and Pensions is repeatedly falling down on every element of these public law obligations in its administration of Universal Credit.

“People in need are left to guess at and grope for things which should be clear and tangible. The consequences…feed into the stress and worry that so many people managing on low incomes experience, which in turn can affect family life for children growing up in these environments.”

The report warns that UC helpline staff are often unable to explain how a claimant’s award has been worked out, because they themselves do not have access to information about payment calculations.

For example: In working out housing costs under Universal Credit, the system lacks explanation when there is a discrepancy between the amount of rent allowed for in a UC calculation and the amount of rent actually due.

CPAG is calling for more information to be given in claimants’ statements, including a full breakdown of how awards have been calculated. Campaigners claim that UC claimants routinely have to trawl through old journal entries to find them and they may not be clearly labelled.

The charity’s analysis shows that the DWP’s written information on claimants’ appeal rights falls short of legal requirements because it suggests a first-stage reconsideration of a benefit decision (known as a Mandatory Reconsideration) is only possible where there is new information relevant to a claim or where a claimant believes the Department has overlooked something.

In fact, disagreeing with a benefit decision is sufficient grounds for requesting a Mandatory Reconsideration.

The Department’s standard-issue information also fails to tell claimants that there are time limits for requesting a reconsideration – this is also unlawful, the charity says.

A Government survey of UC claimants found that 23% felt that the decision about their claim either hadn’t been explained at all, or hadn’t been explained clearly, and 16% of UC claimants reported that they had been given incorrect or contradictory information by the DWP.

Another survey found that 40% of UC claimants received a different award than they were expecting, and over 30% of claimants disagreed with the statement “My Universal Credit account makes it clear what entitlements I am being paid for.”.

CPAG Chief Executive Alison Garnham said: “Transparency should be a the heart of a fair social security system but our research shows universal credit claimants do not always understand the amounts they’re getting so it’s harder for them to pick up on mistakes or to predict how their awards might change.

“That is all the more worrying as the number of universal credit claims is set to double this year to 3 million and the scope for misunderstandings, omissions and errors is vast.

“And because UC is an all-in-one benefit, with all your eggs in one basket, when things go wrong for claimants the financial fallout can be dire. But there are practical, inexpensive changes the DWP can make to clear the fog.

“The Department (DWP) must improve the information it provides so that universal credit claimants are not floundering in the dark about their award.

“Clear and accessible information on how decisions are made and your right to appeal is the bare minimum we should expect from a modern benefit.”