Universal credit, which goes nation wide in October, will have to provide large scale support services for claimants to help them move from weekly to monthly budgeting. The scale of the support arrangements has now become clear from guidance published by the Department for Work and Pensions.
Councils, charities, trades unions, businesses and housing groups have expressed concern about the ability of people to cope with the switch from weekly to monthly budgeting, whilst at the same time getting to grips with the online system. There is particular concern about claimants with debt problems or other vulnerabilities such as poor numeracy skills, drug addiction or mental health issues.
The aims of the universal credit programme are to make work pay – so that people are better off in work than claiming benefits and to improve the benefit system and bring the experience of claiming and receiving benefit into line with the world of work.
The universal credit claim process has been designed to identify the money management challenges that a claimant may face, depending on their personal circumstances. Where there is a clear need, they will be referred to online, telephone or face-to-face support with expert providers at national and local levels. The support will seek to prevent claimants running into debt before the end of the month.
There will be personal budgeting support which will include money advice to help claimants cope with managing their money on a monthly basis and paying their bills on time. In addition, alternative payment arrangements will be available for claimants who cannot manage monthly payments. This could include rent paid directly to the landlord, more frequent payments or payment split between partners.
The support arrangements describe where the DWP funding lines will be drawn, but the complexity of individual cases and the uncertainty about how issues will be resolved leaves many questions unanswered.
A recent report on pilot schemes started last year by councils has showed that the scale of support is greater than anticipated and more difficult to deliver. Claimants have been reluctant to take part in budgeting and financial training in group sessions, because of the stigma of revealing personal debt and rent arrears issues. The uptake of group financial education sessions was low, leading to the cancellation of sessions.
Greater support for online access will also have to be provided. Although 86 per cent of the UK population have access to the internet, the pilots have found that in the case of benefit claimants it is closer to 60 percent.