New CPAG report identifies “Problems with monthly assessment of pay and circumstances in Universal Credit”

Child Poverty Action Group – CPAG have released another critical report on Universal Credit.

The report by CPAG, called “Rough Justice,” helpfully covers a few of the things I was going to (and still will) look at in upcoming posts. The report is clearer and better written than I would have managed, so please read it for yourself, but I thought I would offer some bullet points of their findings and a few comments on the issues.

What is the report about?

  • Universal Credit uses the “Real Time Information Feed” to track claimants’ earnings. This is the system HMRC use for employers to report earnings National Insurance, tax, and pension contributions.
  • In many cases, claimants’ pay cycles do not match with their Universal Credit “assessment period,” the period of time that their monthly award is based on.
  • This makes it extremely difficult for those with weekly, fortnightly, or even 4-weekly pay to plan financially, especially if bank holidays mean they are paid early or late by their employer. This can cause their Universal Credit payment to vary wildly.
  • Universal Credit does not see this as an error, but simply part of how the system works.
  • Because of how the benefit cap is applied to claims, many people receive much less than they are entitled to because of this system and through no fault of their own.
  • This also affects the “work allowance,” or the amount of a claimant’s wages that is not taken into account when calculating their Universal Credit. This also means they may receive hundreds of pounds less than they are entitled to.

Why is it like this?

I believe these issues are examples of what I previously said to The Guardian which is that Universal Credit is punishing claimants for not understanding a system that was not built with them in mind.

These issues exist not because someone mistakenly thought this process would benefit claimants, but because it would save the Department time calculating payments each month.

So how do we fix it?

CPAG offers up some recommendation at the end of the report, especially that Universal Credit needs to be better at attributing pay to the correct months and assessment periods.

One recommendation is to convert the UC award calculations into a pro-rata daily amount. While this is a perfectly sensible and valid suggestion, I don’t believe the existing IT system or structure of Universal Credit would be able to cope with that.

“The personal budgeting support on offer to claimants is not an adequate solution to this in-built design problem,” they say, which is interesting and something I hope to touch on in a future post.

Another interesting comment they make is that, “Several existing arrangements could be deployed in new ways to assist claimants, without the need to reinvent the wheel.” Again, this seems like a relatively straightforward comment, but UC is a dense and tangled mess, and there are very few changes that can be made without wide reaching effects that impact often unexpected aspects of the benefit.

One example of a change CPAG suggests is allowing claimants to change their assessment period dates, which could and should be an easy fix in any sensibly designed system, but because of the clumsy way UC is calculated and processed this would require a massive overhaul of a lot of systems behind the scenes.

Towards the end of the report CPAG, like a growing number of other commentators in the media and politics, stress the importance of getting the system under control before the managed migration next year. But my big concern is whether these organisations will know whether these problems have been fixed in time to raise the alarm before it’s too late.

I’m looking forward to seeing the effects of this report and whether the Department is willing to make the changes needed to stop the damaging effects of this benefit, but I remain skeptical.

Bayard Tarpley