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Help! What to do if your Universal Credit journey turns a bit rough

The new benefits system has been called the biggest social experiment since the welfare state was created. It is hugely ambitious and many of the principles behind it remain untested.

People moving over to Universal Credit now really are the guinea pigs. UC has faced a massive public backlash because so many have struggled. However, the government is determined to roll it out, making improvements as it goes.

Need help getting through the first five weeks?

ADVANCE PAYMENTS

Advance Payments could help while waiting for your first UC payment. An advance is a loan, usually repayable over 12 months. The loan is interest free, however, and better than more expensive options but try not to borrow so much that you won’t have enough to live on once payments start coming through with repayments taken out of them. It is a good idea to do a budget first to see where you’ll be.

If needed, ask for this as early as possible, at your first UC interview once your online application has gone through, or by phone.

Need help with making ends meet?

BUDGETING ADVANCE

A Budgeting Advance is on offer to claimants in some cases. It is different to an Advance Payment because it is for one-off and emergency items, not to help tide you over while awaiting a payment. It could cover a household item, like a cooker, a rent deposit or removal costs, for example. It is still a loan and usually repaid over 12 months, deducted from your monthly UC payments. It is interest free, so better than more expensive options, but as with Advance Payments, try to avoid borrowing so much that you don’t have enough to live on when deductions are taken. Apply via the online UC Journal. Citizens Advice recommends speaking to them before applying.

Need help with bills, budgets or funerals?

OTHER HELP

There are other types of support for people on low incomes, such as help with bills in cold weather or funeral expenses. Citizens Advice has a list of help you may be able to apply for.

Need help with emergencies?

SCOTTISH WELFARE FUND

Local councils in Scotland operate the Scottish Welfare Fund, which provides crisis grants and community care grants, which do not need to be paid back. Each authority has its own form to apply for help. Crisis grants are not usually for difficulties caused by awaiting benefit payments unless you have had to spend out on a family emergency, like visiting a child in hospital. Community care grants are more for people who are setting up a home after a period of difficulty.

Need help with paying your rent?

ALTERNATIVE PAYMENT ARRANGEMENTS

Alternative Payment Arrangements’ (APAs) are for people who really struggle and could mean your UC ‘housing element’ payment goes direct to your landlord. Some people can have their UC money paid weekly or fortnightly or not paid to one person for the whole household. APAs are only for people who are disadvantaged, including people in debt or rent arrears. (See if you could apply at qimag.uk/ucapaa.) The best time to apply is at your first UC interview, otherwise call 0800 328 5644.

If you will struggle to pay your rent you can ask your landlord or work coach for help. Your payment could go direct to your landlord (but some do not accept APAs). Payments get confusing because deductions are taken out of your housing element if you receive an advance, have your benefits capped or if you’re earning. They might prefer a different approach.

Deductions if you are sanctioned come out of the housing element of UC but many sanctions are overturned on appeal.

Need help with basic needs?

HARDSHIP PAYMENT

UC claimants who receive a sanction may be able to apply for a Hardship Payment, which is a loan and has to be paid back once benefit payments resume. To apply, claimants have to call the UC helpline on 0800 328 5644 and prove they cannot meet their ‘basic needs’ such as accommodation, heating, food and hygiene and Jobcentre Plus will expect you to cut out luxuries. It is also seen to be a last resort for people who haven’t been able to access any of the other help listed here.

Where to go

If you are in social housing, talk to your landlord as soon as you know you’re moving to UC – they want to help. Some private landlords may help.

  • Your local council may also have a special welfare team
  • The Money Advice Service has clear information about the changes, especially on YouTube. Search online for ‘universal credit youtube’.
  • Turn2us has a good guide and you can check you’re getting all you’re entitled to. Benefits like Council Tax Reduction don’t come under UC so you’ll need to apply separately. They also explain how to challenge a decision.
  • Citizens Advice has an online guide but local offices are also likely to be the first port of call for many struggling with UC.
  • Clean Slate (home to Quids in!) offers support to claimants through one-to-one sessions over the phone (and sometimes in person). Find out more about the areas we work in and how you can access our service here.

Local authority

Whichever department at your local council deals with Housing Benefit or Council Tax should have some help on offer for new UC claimants. This is often the ‘Revenues and Benefits department’ but different authorities have different names for these teams. If Housing Benefit is one element of your Universal Credit claim, ask if there is any help.

Your local council may consider you for a Discretionary Housing Payment (DHP) if it is rent you’re struggling to pay. Different authorities have different rules, so ask the housing department if you can apply. Shelter advise that you should make clear the hardship you’re facing, especially if you feel you may be made homeless.

DHP can also cover tenancy deposits, advance rent payment and the cost of removals. You cannot claim DHP if you’re behind because you have been sanctioned by Jobcentre Plus. Turn2us has advice on DHP.

Landlord

If your landlord is the council or a housing association, they should be supportive if you’re moving on to Universal Credit. If you think you are going to struggle or slip into arrears, talk to them right away. Landlords can get tough with people who don’t keep on top of their rent but if you have a good relationship with them, they will try to keep the pressure off while you work things through. Check if your landlord reports rent payments to a credit ratings agency. If they do, ask them to freeze your account until UC payments are running smoothly. If you rent privately, speak to an advice agency if you’re worried you could fall behind. Don’t bury your head in the sand.

Jobcentre Plus

For Universal Credit enquiries, Monday to Friday, 8am to 6pm

Full service: 0800 328 5644
Live service: 0800 328 9344 Textphone: 08003281344 Welsh Language: 0800 012 1888 (make a claim)/ 0800 328 1744 (report changes)

REMEMBER:

You’ll need your National Insurance number to hand.

Calls to the Universal Credit helpline are now free, but the helplines are shut on bank holidays.

Use if or lose it

Universal Credit claimants have an automatic right to certain other benefits. Don’t forget them. These ‘passported benefits’ can be different depending on which part of the UK we live in, so check.

HOME: Claimants are missing out on thousands due to them in Council Tax support because it comes from the council, not DWP. Cold Weather Payments could apply to help with winter bills. We should also check if WaterSure or special help from energy suppliers applies, as they minimise bills for claimants.

HEALTH: We should be able to get help with prescriptions and dental treatment. Help with eye tests and eyecare may be available, as could travel to appointments. Grants are available for disabled people needing things around the home. And when the worst happens, there could be help with funeral expenses.

FAMILY: Pregnant mums, or those with children under four, could bag some Healthy Start vouchers. Also a SureStart Maternity Grant. Kids should be eligible for free school meals and we should always claim these because the school also receives additional money.

LEGAL: We should qualify for legal aid. Help with the cost of attending court or tribunals, or visiting prison, may also be available.

Last resorts

The Universal Credit claim process can leave people high and dry without income for weeks. There are places to go for help and advice if we’re unlucky enough to be one of them.

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