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Benefits Blog

by Tombenefits

news and thoughts from the world of welfare rights
13 October 2017 at 20:19

Introducing UC: What? When? Where?

An introduction to this big change for "means tested benefit" as the roll out of  "Full Service" Universal Credit really kicks off big time this month.

Universal Credit (UC) is the real deal in “welfare reform” and it will be a big change affecting a lot of people:-)  Other big changes have been about cuts and changes to existing benefits.

But Universal Credit (UC)  is based on big think, a personal mission and a think tank to completely change an impotant section of the benefits system. Indeed, originally it was far from a cuts exercise at all and was going to cost more - at least in the short term. 

Essentially, UC replaces the main working age “means tested” benefits – i.e. those which are affected by income or savings – with a new, unified, online and very different kind of benefit.

News of its arrival has been somewhat exaggerated, until now! I have sometimes felt a bit like a cross between a snaggle toothed soothsayers of doom and the not so little boy who cried wolf, when I did foolishly made the mistake of believing an earlier fourth and final DWP when they said they really, really meant it…this time :-).

Media coverage of UC has until recently focussed on that difficulty getting out of bed :-) But now it is here there is growing media and MP awareness of some of the impacts as UC becomes real for a much wider group of people.

There is a final timetable, with some wiggle room built in, and the Government are understandably rather keen to stick to it; technically they may well be rightfully confident that the computer is up for it.

But there is an increasing pressure across all parties, many disability and lobby groups that has led to questioning whether the pause button should have been hit, to enable some real problems experienced so far to be ironed ou. You can see Citixens Advice take here 

The Government has made some useful adjustments that will help with one area, but is leaving the rest to "test and learn' prcesses as the roll out proceeds.

By Christmas, Universal Credit will become more of a topic of conversation around Kitchen Tables – and Benefits Advisors eyes will start whirling :-) - in: Cheltenham, Fife, Glasgow Lanarkshire, Manchester, Merseyside, Newcastle, Oldham, Oxford, Swansea, West London

So, it really is time for some up to date blogs around Universal Credit - which I should stress has some good and bad points for Centre visitors. It is though, rather letting itself down a bit thus far :-).

So here in Part 1 of a 2-part Introduction and overview, I’ll take a look at exactly what UC is, who may be affected by it and when. What does your area going “Full Service”, actually mean for you?

In Part 2, I will look at why UC is happening which may help explain some of the key differences in the way it operates and new approach to customer care by the DWP.

Follow up blogs will explore key areas in a bit more detail to get a fair idea of how UC is meant to work, and then a look at some of the problem areas and cunning solutions people that might help what is at present a rather tricker journey than UC intended :-) 


1. So what is Universal Credit? And who will it affect?

Universal Credit (UC) is the flagship welfare reform of this Government that will eventually affect 7.5 million households in the UK; with a strong personal and think tank commitment to this quite radical change.

At its simplest, UC replaces most of the “working age” means tested benefits i.e. those that are affected by most income and savings and also the similar but different tax credits.

These benefits exist either to top up other income - whether in or out of work - or to helping with specific costs such as bringing up children or paying the rent.


1.1 The "legacy benefits"

UC then will eventually replace:

  - Income related Employment and Support Allowance (Ir-ESA) – for those too unwell to work
  - Income-based Jobseekers Allowance (Ib-JSA) -for those actively seeking work
  - Income Support (IS) – for others – mostly claimed by carers and some lone parents but also the top up for people on Statutory Sick Pay
- Working Tax Credit (WTC) – for those in work on low or temporarily reduced earnings
  - Child Tax Credit (CTC) – for children, whether parents are in or out of work
  - Housing Benefit (HB) – for help with the rent

The above benefits do not disappear when your area goes over to Full Service UC 

It's just that for most people making entirely new claims the "legacy benefits" will cease to be open to them and you would claim Universal credit (UC) instead

For people alresdy getting one of those benefits you won’t need to switch over to UC for possibly quite some time after,  You will though come into contact with UC at some point

So in the early days of your area going over Full Service UC, most people will be on legacy benefits and by March 2022, no-one will be. 


1.2 Other means tested benefits are not affected:

  - so, the former Council Tax Benefit (CTB) was meant to be on UC’s list too, but has been taken off and passed fully to local councils. It saved the Treasury quite a bit, but does rather mess up aspects of the UC vision. 

  - Pension Credit (PC) – was never on the UC list, as the new kid on the block is primarily a “working age” benefit”; PC will remain separate when all the dust settles. There will though, be some knock-on changes to PC to allow help for rent and taking on the grandchildren as HB and CTC are abolished. And there will be a big change for couples where one partner is still under pension age. But these changes are not kicking in until some point after UC Autumn 2018.

 - Social Fund replacement schemes remain i.e.  Local Welfare Assistance in England, the Scottish Welfare Fund, Discretionary Assistance Fund in Wales and Discretionary Support in NI) 

  - similarly NHS Health Costs Scheme, education benefits etc


1.3 Non-means tested benefits remain outside UC entirely

That covers important benefits for people affected by cancer susch as Contributory ESA, Carers Allowance and Personal Independence Payment (PIP) will stay well outside of UC

However, the DWP has got itself a little confused about ESA, and the difference between the two types of ESA. Only now has UC realised that some people might only claim Contributory ESA and not be entitled to any further means tested support (e.g. because of a partner’s earnings and saving)

Originally people were told to cliam this trough UC , but given that meant claiming a benfit that people weren't going to get a dedicated claim line has been established for the renamed "New Style" ESA . Trouble is that comes as news to the hapless folk who pick up the phone at the other end :-) . Another blog will clarify the process, work arounds and some other changes involved in “New Style “ESA in a Full Service UC area.


2. UC and benefits for people affected by cancer.

You can get a bit of a “see the woods for the trees” overview of the current system and the benefits most relevant now to people affected by cancer in the Maggie’ Find Out More About … series that you can download from the Maggie’s Cancerlinks page here

That may give you a clearer sense of what the various benefits do and which might apply to you  and which will be touched by UC . Please though feel free to message me for a specific check about your entitlements whether under old or new systems

And it also points out the ones which will eventually become part of Universal Credit.

So as Full Service Universal Credit arrives in your area, some new claims will continue as before, some ought to be carrying on but have got a little muddled and some will be now be claims for Universal Credit instead

New claims for the legacy benefits will mostly - but not entirely be closed off - and most will claim UC instead. And there is a different timetable and some complicating issues for people already receiving a legacy benefit :-)

IUC is far more than just an administrative merger with a shiny new hip and happening online interface. So understanding Why UC? may explain some of the differences you will experience in UC’s brave new world. Some people actually quite like but others less so – it’s definitely a Marmite thing I will explore that a bit more in Part 2 of this blog.


3. So when is Universal Credit arriving in my area.?

In one sense, it already has:-)

Every part of England, Scotland and Wales already has a restricted version of UC called “Live Service” or “Gateway UC”. Delays in the legal and political process in N. Ireland, means that people there have missed out on this interim stage. But welcome aboard this October for your first UC experience as you go straight to Full Service UC


3.1 Gateway (aka Live Service)  UC

This interim stage was always planned with its a national rollout originally due between October 2013 to April 2014. But IT problems delayed that to an “accelerated roll out” – I kid you not :-) - between February 2015 and March 2016.

But “gateway” UC only takes new claims from jobseekers who are actively seeking and available for work. And then only those with the most straightforward circumstances that the “Live Service” computer can cope with.

So even if you are a jobseeker, but say have a partner, children, mortgage interest, savings or earnings that affect the sums, a touch of studying going on - then the “gateway” conditions stop you going anywhere near UC and confusing the computer.

Thus, many new  jobseekers still make claims for the old Jobseeker's Allowance (JSA). And if for you the appropriate legacy benefit is something else – such as Income-related ESA (if unwell) or Income Support (as a carer), then keep well away :-) 

And that is why UC hasn’t been an issue for most Maggie’s Centre visitors or advisors – until these last few months in some parts and from this month in a much bigger way. 

Now of course people might start off as a jobseeker, but become something else – most commonly to succeed in getting a job. A few will statistically become unwell long term including receiving a cancer diagnosis. And some others might need to take time out as a carer or become a parent.

The official mantra during this period of moving over to UC is “once on UC, you stay on UC” And you can indeed do that, even though Gateway UC would have rejected you had you turned up at its gates looking a bit peaky :-).

 Your UC claim will carry on - albeit clerically so as not to upset the computer - for any of the reasons that UC would eventually cover.

However, you can also choose to go back on to the appropriate legacy benefit, whether because it might pay more or because you are really struggling with the rather different UC way of doing things. Do get advice about the difference in amounts in your case and the process and timing of any such move off UC


3.2 Full Service UC

The original plan was to work on the Gateway IT system so as to  switch all areas to Full Service in 2014 . Hoever it became clear that not only was it having indigestion rolling out Gateway areas, but no matter how much Wd-40 was lovingly applied, it wasn’t never going to work beyond that.

So, the UC plan was put on reset, buster that everything wouls be done by October 2017, and a new "in-house" team to start work on a new computer system; the UC computer was quietly nationalised 

A pilot of the UC Full Service was started in parts of Sutton in SW London in November 2014 and expanded earlier in the year, ahead of the gentle low speed first phase of the current progarmme to transition to UC.

So October 2017, originally the completion date for UC being fully in place and is now the date for pushing the accelerator from 5 Jobcentre Plus areas a month - out of 1,000 or so across the UK  a month to 50 or more.

July saw a slightly stress test at 20 new areas with a summer break to check all was ready for the full throttle test run starting now. 

The concern is that the main focus of "test and learn" has been about testing out the computer and tweaking it so that the rollout timetable is techically robust and safe. But there is a bit of a lag in understanding the real gaps and problems within the benefit itself. 

So from around 50 areas on UC Full Service at the start of the month numbers will have doubled by the end of this month and tripled by the end of November. A pause over chritmas and in January and then the aim is to pick up from February and run right through to completion of the transition to Full Service UC by the end of September 2018

You can see the full programme here.

But note that it’s Job Centre areas,  not whole council areas. Sometimes these fit neatly, sometimes less so. 

You can check on a postcode checker here.

That will tell you where you stand for UC right now and also let you know if this means your address when the local news starts taling about a switch to Full Service UC near you.

So, come the day when UC goes Full Service in your area it will mean that:

  - UC can take new claims from all comers - be they jobseekers too complicated for Gateway UC or the unwell, carers, lone parents, those in work, those managing on other benefits but just needing some help with the rent etc. etc.

  - if you are already claiming one of the “legacy benefits” iabsolutely nothing changes come your local Transitions Day; you will not feel the earth move :-) You will not have to do anything about your benefits at that point, but there will be more chances to have to make the switch to UC (see under migration below.

 - and UC will feel rather different than Gateway UC  as will no longer just be claiming online, but also running your claim and keeping contact with UC work coaches via your Online Account

So that’s why UC is going to be a much bigger deal for Visitors to this Centre and many others by Christmasand throuh next year.

After the completion of the transition of all areas by September 2018 there is a  9 month “firewall” which will allow for any catch up, should things slip. And a further period of testing out the system under the steady load of new claims and some switching over to UC.

The final stage doesn’t start until July 2019, when UC will start to cotact people who haven't yet switched to UC to move them over - see more about that "migration" process below. 

The whole of the UK will be full service UC then by September 2018 - although some slippage is allowed for on that. The end date - when everyone on legacy benefits will have switched to UC and these benefits are abolished - is very fixed in the Government's mind as March 2022.


4. "Migration" to UC -  or  when and how do I switch? 

If you are receiving a legacy benefit by the time your area goes over to Full Service UC , there are two ways you can switch over to UC:

 - a “managed migration" between July 2019 and March 2022

 - a “natural migration” because of a change of circumstances from anytime now right through to March 2022


4.1 “Managed migration”

This is the safer, more organised option and on the original timetable was how most people would have switched. It's safer, because if you were to get less money under UC than before, you would get "transitional protection" to honour the normal principle that "no-one will be worse off at the point of change”

At some point – between 2019 and March 2022 - you will be contacted by UC about the arrangements for you to start claiming UC instead of any legacy benefits you may be getting at that time. 

The key difference with switching this way is that you will get the "transitional protection" should you lose out in the new UC sums compared to your old legacy ones. Any switch from one system to another means some will gain - yay :-) you get to move up to the new rates straightaway and some will lose  under the new sums.

Traditionally all Governments have offered “transitional protection” to those who stand to lose. So, at the start of your UC claim you would get an extra “transitional addition” added to your benefit to bring you up to what you had immediately before. OK, you are the frozen at that level, until the normal rates catch up, but that is certainly better than a sharp drop.

So thats what they mean when they say :no-one loses out at the point of change" . You will lose out eventually but slowly so you get time to adjust .

UC “managed migration"  offers that normal protection, although there is a bit more small print in the UC offer : there are quite a few ways you can lose that protection and drop down and the DWP are being rather coy about how long they will continue it for. 


4.2 “Natural migration”

However, most people are are now due to switch the other way - by a "natural migration" because of a a change of circumstances. In fact with the extended timetable most people are going to switch this way.

And whether you switch because you actually do have to, or whether you end up switching earlier than you really needed - as there is a lot of confusion around this in Full Service areas, shouldn't matter that much.

But crucially, there is no transitional protection if you switch this way.

So it rather does matter,  if you are misadvised by UC or HB staff and switch earlier than you need. Or just switch to get it over with. Or indeed are planning a change that will lead to a switch.

Of couse a switch could be something to be grabbed with both hands if you can get more money :-) But you may still need advice to time that switch wisely, to minimise disruption to your finances.

“Natural migrations” have been taking place in small numbers since UC first appeared in April 2013, but the pace will really quicken up as areas go Full Service.

That’s because there are only limited ways of doing a “natural migration" in Gateway UC areas:

  - you might become jobseeker after either losing a job when you were on say tax credits or after recovery from cancer treatment (on Income-related ESA) and happen to be simple enough in your circumstances for the UC gateway system

  - or you take a shine to a strapping young gateway UC claimant and start a joint claim with them :-)

But as long as your area remains Gateway UC one you can also get out of UC again.

But with UC open to all comers in Full Service, then that range of circumstances becomes a lot wider.  And you can't usually get out of UC once you have jumped.

Thats not just because of greater numbers of eligible Universal Credit claimants about the place, to catch your eye across a crowded Kitchen Table :-). As with Gateway areas that would be one way to do it. 

But so would a parting from someone, when as a couple you were on a legacy benefit . You would then need to make a new single claim for a "legacy benefit",  which iwould no longer open to you 

And that’s the key to whether or not a change in your circumstances is one that switches you to UC or not: Is it actually a change that would have required a new claim under the old system?

Sounds simple enough, but there is a lot of confusion among UC and HB staff as to whether you need to switch to UC or not. So if in doubt you might want to get advice or message me.

A case study and warning:

One of my colleagues adviser has already had to involve solicitors to threaten UC with legal action,  after a terminally ill person with cancer was misadvised and told they had to switch to UC. Having acted on that advice, they were about to lose £170 a month, as well as face the changes and challenges of UC processes . In the end, UC found a way to treat the claim as never having been made. Our client then got his money back and avoided UC processes.

Technically though,  once a UC claim is made all your legacy benefits stop and you are locked out of "legacy benefits" for ever. Hence some legal threats to get UC to shift. 

So some changes will involve you in a "natural migration and some will not . So, for example:

-  moving home to a new council area - would mean a new HB claim, so if it happens to be a full Service UC part of that council's area it wwill mean switching to UC, but it might still be a Gateway UC part of the council area so its double check.

  - But changing addresses within the same council area does not. And that's even if new council happens to use an HB  claim form to gather information about your new address.

 - a change that meant you would have swapped from ESA to JSA or from either of those to Working Tax Credit would be a new claim and a switch to UC

  - But claiming the other element of a "unified" benefit does not. e.g. being on Contributory ESA and then becoming entitled to an Income-related ESA is not a new claim: ESA may need talking through that. Nor is having a first child when you are already on Working Tax Credit and now needing to claim Child Tax Credit. Both then are changes within the same “compound benefit”

You can see a handy chart looking at which changes do and don't lead to a switch to UC  - and ones where theres a choice :-)  - produced by Newcastle City Council - here.

So winner or loser you may need some advice and support about switching:

   - to check what the difference for you would be under old "legacy benefits"  and new Universal Credit

   - even if you are a "winner" :-)  to time and plan any switch to avoid too scary a gap in your payments. 

   - and if you be a "loser" :-( in UC - but certainly not personal :-) - terms, to check any suggestion that you need to switch after a change in circumstances, no matter how confident the person you speak to at UC or HB seems to be. They may well be wrong

   - if you do indeed have to switch to UC then depending on what the change may be, you might want to check if there is any way to do things differently to avoid the switch. And if not and you need to do it to plan and prepare - if time allows for the change over. 

It so should not be this way :-) People should not have these additional complications, especially if seriously or terminally ill. It would be much simpler if the Government followed the usual precedent of offering transitional protection  and did so for all people switching over to UC

Then it wouldn't matter so much if they keep failing to tackle widespread misadvice about whether or not you actually need to make an early switch. 

But the way things are you may need to hold on to a legacy benefit by the finger nails until you get a letter about a managed migration :-) 


 And so...

UC then is at its simplest a merger of six old "legacy benefits" into one. But it is much more than that as I will explore next time 

There is now a clear - and determinedly final :-) -  timetable with some flexibilities within it. And it is rolling forward big time from this month onwards,  despite calls by some for a pause. So you can now see when your area is now due to go over to full fat, turbo charged, ral deal allsinging, all dancing  Full Service UC

It's a transition because UC  does already exist across Great Britain,  but in a restricted "Gateway" UC that is less likely to affect people with cancer. This then is the next phase as you go over to the "full monty" version . And if you live in N.Ireland we welcome your first entries into Full Service this month.

There are good things to be said about UC, You may actually be “better off” under UC and you might even quite like some of the thinking and new systems, which I will summarise a little next time. 

There are some real complications that urgently need sorting out. Hopefully these will have eased by the time UC comes your way, but these next few months tell what progress has been made over the summer break .

This time,  I hope that I have answered the basic questions about:  what UC is, whether it might affect you, and when it’s coming your way. Already though some of the long history, complications and unusual approach to the duty to offer "transitional protection" complicating rather the process of switching to UC, all mean that this blog is a tad longer than it should have been :-)

But I hope your head head is not hurting too much :-)

Next time, I will explore Why UC?  and How UC works out in practise? - the key differences that follow from the UC vision thing :-). 

Until then, please post your general queries, comments and concerns by joining the Conversation here. Whether you like the sound of UC or are a bit worried about it it does involve a big change and so it might be all the more important to share and support each other through this big change

I will get into some of the practical issues and more detail in blogs after that. In the meantime you can find further information on UC:

 - from the DWP - here

 - from Citizens Advice - here

 - from Newcastle City Council - here

But please always feel free to message me for a private chat about any of the issues raised in this blog or elsewhere. Please don’t have UC nightmares :-)

Best wishes,

Tom :-)

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