Universal Credit may or may not be “the most radical overhaul of our welfare system since its inception”, but there’s no disputing the scale of the reforms.  If all goes according to plan, 7 million individuals and families will be receiving the benefit by 2022.  Spending on the “legacy” benefits UC is replacing currently totals around £70 billion a year.

Most brand new claimants must wait at least six weeks before receiving payment, an aspect of UC that has been criticised by many MPs. The Work and Pensions Committee have called this a ‘fundamental flaw’ and called for the wait to be cut to four weeks.

But is six weeks an accurate reflection of how long most people have to wait for their first payment of Universal Credit?

A “baked-in” six week wait

Local authorities, housing providers, charities and pressure groups have voiced growing concerns about the impact Universal Credit is having in areas where the “Full Service” – the digital version of UC, available for all claimant groups – has been introduced.  The most immediate concern is the length of time people are having to wait before their first payment of UC.  The Work and Pensions Committee has described the “baked-in” six week wait for UC as a major obstacle to the success of the policy, pointing to compelling evidence linking it to an increase in acute financial difficulty.  The Committee recommends reducing the standard waiting time for a claimant’s first UC payment to one month.

The Government has resisted calls to “pause” the roll-out of Universal Credit, pointing to statistics showing that 89% of people making new UC claims receive some payment, and 81% receive their full payment, on time.  It has also revamped procedures to ensure that advance payments to help tide people over pending their first payment of UC are more readily available, and is moving the UC helpline to a Freephone number.

Getting on to Universal Credit

The chart below – from a DWP presentation – sets out the “claimant journey” in Universal Credit Full Service areas, from the initial steps the claimant has to take through to when their online UC account is fully up and running and their award is in payment.  The process is also explained in a DWP video on YouTube.

Flow chart showing Universal Credit claimant journey

(You can view the original version of this claimant journey flow-chart on page 7 of the DWP Universal Credit -Full Service presentation)

A person must complete a number of steps for their UC claim to be accepted.

Having found out how to claim Universal Credit, the person needs to create an online account, complete their registration and enter a verification code (sent by email) within 7 days.  They then have to enter details of their and their family’s circumstances including information on things such as housing costs, health conditions, savings and investments, work, education and caring responsibilities; provide bank, building society or credit union account details, accept their “high level” responsibilities for their claimant commitment; and make a formal legal declaration that the information they have provided is correct.

If the person fails to complete these steps within 28 days their account is deleted.

It is only at this point – indicated by the chequered flag in the flowchart – that the person’s Universal Credit claim begins.  If the person is paid “on time”, they will then receive their first UC payment around 6 weeks later (or 5 weeks, if they do not have to serve “waiting days” at the beginning of their claim).

Known unknowns

Looking at the end-to-end journey for new Universal Credit claimants raises a number of questions.  Are the practicalities for making a claim – including having access to an internet enabled device and a measure of digital skills – discouraging some people from starting the process?  For those who do embark on the claimant journey, how long is it taking them to complete the necessary steps before their entitlement begins?  How many people have their account deleted for failing to make their declaration within 28 days, and what happens to them?

Organisations submitting evidence to the Work and Pensions Committee reported that some claimants were struggling with the online application process for UC, but it’s not clear how many people are encountering problems and how long it is taking for them to be resolved.

It seems likely however that for some claimants, the wait between their first steps to applying for Universal Credit and their first payment may be considerably longer than 6 weeks.

Further information on how claims for Universal Credit are made, and on the impact of the wait before first payments, can be found in Commons Library briefing CBP-8096, Universal Credit roll-out: Autumn/Winter 2017.

Picture credit: calculator and money by Images MoneyCreative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC by 2.0)