The SNP has accused the UK Tory government of attempting to prevent MSPs from supporting Universal Credit claimants through the appeals process and SNP MSP Linda Fabiani has hit out at new changes imposed by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) that requires claimants to sign a waiver form explaining why they have approached a politician for assistance, rather than going straight to the Job Centre.
The new changes further require claimants to say precisely what they’ve discussed with their chosen representative before information can be disclosed concerning an appeal.
Previous figures have revealed that 55 per cent of people who were denied Universal Credit support by the DWP had their decisions overturned in court but the Tories are making it hard for constituents to approach their MSPs for help and making MSPs leap through hoops to support their constituents and it’s a disgrace and an affront to devolution.
The Universal Credit system is fundamentally flawed and needs to be halted and with so many loopholes and restrictions put in place to stop claimants getting the help they’re entitled to, it’s no surprise people come to their MSP for help.
Neither the DWP nor Boris Johnson’s Tory government has the right to prevent people from approaching their chosen delegates for advice and assistance but this is just the latest extension of the antagonistic environment introduced by this right-wing Tory government created to lock people out from getting the financial assistance they’re entitled to.
And the Tories are striving hard to turn benefits claimants into an underclass and Universal Credit claimants are routinely kept in the dark about how much they should get, how their awards are determined and if and how they can challenge DWP decisions because the Department’s interactions with claimants are obscure and inadequate.
Because Universal Credit has rolled six different old benefits into one and now claimants can’t tell which component is for what, so they don’t know if what they’re getting is correct.
And the information provided by the DWP about how a person’s money is awarded and has been worked out is often inadequate and payments may be incorrect, yet they go unchallenged and as a result, numerous claimant risk sliding into debt.
It’s a fundamental principle in a democracy that governmental bodies must have grounds for their decisions. It’s equally fundamental, or should be, that they should be able to explain what those reasons are.
And if the information doesn’t stack up, then, again on first principles, the decision should be open to review or appeal. But, the Department for Work and Pensions is frequently falling on every element of Universal Credit and people in need are left to guess at and grope for things which should be explicit and tangible.
The results are that the government feed into the fear and despair that so many people managing on low incomes experience, which in turn can affect family life for children growing up in these situations.
Universal Credit helpline staff are usually unable to explain how a claimant’s award has been worked out because they don’t have access to payment calculations which in the vast preponderance of cases are processed automatically on the Univeral Credit’s digital system.
And a claimant’s online monthly payment statements only gives basic information on how their award has been determined, so spotting mistakes, such as the omission of allowances for children, can be challenging or difficult for claimants.
And housing costs, payment statements don’t give an explanation when there’s a disparity between the amount of rent allowed for in a Universal Credit calculation and the amount of rent due and usually the discrepancy is because payment for rent within Universal Credit is capped by Local Housing Allowances or by the bedroom tax, but their payment statements leave claimants none the wiser.
More information should be given in claimant’s statements including a full breakdown of how awards have been calculated and a nil entry for allowances claimants are deemed ineligible for so that mistakes can more readily be recognised.
And the online Universal Credit account, by which claimants manage their claim and interact with their Universal Credit advisers should be redesigned so that all decisions about a claimant’s awards are identified as formal decisions, and as such can be challenged and stored in one place so that they’re accessible.
Currently, DWP decisions are strewed in various parts of the claimant’s online account and claimants have to trawl through old journal entries to locate them.
It further shows that the DWPs written information on claimant’s appeal rights falls short of legal requirements because it suggests a first stage reconsideration of a benefits decision, known as a Mandatory Reconsideration is only likely where there’s new information pertinent to a claim or where a claimant believes the Department has missed something.
Disagreeing with a benefit decision is adequate grounds for requesting a Mandatory Reconsideration and the Department’s standard-issue information further fails to tell claimants that there are time limits for requesting a reconsideration which is also unlawful.
Claimants experiences discovered that approximately a quarter of Universal Credit claimants 23 per cent felt that the decision about their claim either hadn’t been explained at all, or hadn’t been explained clearly, and 16 per cent of Universal Claimants stated that they’d been given wrong or conflicting information by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) about their claim.
And a study of Universal Credit claimants discovered that over 40 per cent of claimants got a different award than they were anticipating, and over 30 per cent of claimants disagreed with the statement.
Transparency should be at the core of a fair social security system but Universal Credit claimants don’t always understand the amounts they’re getting so it’s more difficult for them to pick up on errors or to foretell how their awards might change.
This is all the more troubling as the amount of Universal Credit claims is set to increase and the scope for mistakes, imperfections and flaws are vast and because Universal Credit is an all in one benefit, with all the eggs in one basket, when things go wrong for claimants the financial fallout can be terrible.
But there are effective, inexpensive changes the DWP can make to clear the befuddlement.
The Department must improve the information it gives so that Universal Credit claimants aren’t fumbling in the dark about their award.
Clear and accessible information on how decisions are made and a person’s right to appeal is the bare minimum we should expect from a modern benefit.