Universal Credit: what you need to know

Universal Credit is the government's attempt to simplify the welfare system. Its stated aim is to provide a greater incentive for people on benefits to work - even for short periods of time - by ensuring they do not lose out financially.

Question mark made of money

It will be rolled out across Britain by 2016-17, but is already operating in some areas. Supporters hope Universal Credit will reduce in-work poverty by making it easier for people to move in and out of work and put an end to people being trapped on benefits, unable to risk taking a job for fear of being worse off. The government also hopes Universal Credit will cut welfare costs and prevent fraud, errors and discrepancies by creating a streamlined system where one payment replaces the current bundle of benefits.

But critics of Universal Credit worry it may leave many single people and families worse off. Many Mumsnetters have expressed concern about how the new system will work in practice - including fears that those with disabilities or those who are unable to work due to illness will be assessed harshly, and that there will be unrealistic expectations for lone parents with young children to go out to work.

Here, we set out a brief outline of what Universal Credit is and whom it will affect, and the chief concerns about its implementation. 

What is Universal Credit? | How will it work? | Benefit capWho will be eligible?When is it happening? | The other elementsEarnings disregards and tapers | Payment | Other welfare changes

What is Universal Credit?

Universal Credit will replace the following benefits:

  • Child tax credit
  • Housing benefit
  • Working tax credit
  • Income support
  • Income-related employment and support allowance
  • Income-based jobseekers allowance

Universal Credit will not replace:

  • Attendance allowance
  • Bereavement benefits
  • Carer's allowance
  • Child benefit
  • Council tax benefit
  • Disability living allowance
  • Maternity allowance
  • Contributory employment and support allowance
  • Contributory jobseeker's allowance
  • Industrial injuries disablement benefit
  • Pension credit
  • Personal independence payment
  • Statutory maternity pay
  • Statutory sick pay
  • War pensions


How will it work?

Universal Credit will be paid in one monthly payment to a household, which may consist of a single person, a couple or a family. It consists of one basic element and five other elements, for which claimants need to qualify.

Universal Credit will be paid to people who do not have a job and people who are in low-paid work to top up their earnings. The amount of Universal Credit will reduce as working hours and earnings increase.

The age-related standard allowance is the basic benefit awarded. It will be lower for under-25s. If you are in a couple, you will be assessed as a unit.

The other elements are:


Concern: Council tax credit will be administered by local authorities. The Insititute of Fiscal Studies has predicted there will be problems with this because local authorities have been given less funding to administer the credit, which may lead to crude fixes and arbitrary means-testing. The IFS predicts poor families will end up paying 19% of their council tax.


Benefit cap

In addition, there is a benefit cap, designed to make it impossible for anyone to receive more on benefits than the average weekly wage after tax and national insurance.

  • For couples and lone parent households the cap is £500 a week
  • For single adults the cap is £350 a week

The benefit cap was brought in nationwide in April 2013 and reductions will be made to housing benefit payments until Universal Credit takes over.

Concern: The benefit cap will hit larger families who live in comparatively wealthy areas the hardest, and may result in ghettoisation of poorer working people and some people being forced to leave their homes. Estimates from Disability Rights UK have suggested that 75,000 households will be affected in 2014-15, with 54% of these being households in Greater London.

Other benefits that will be included in the amount to be capped during the changeover to Universal Credit are:

  • Bereavement allowance
  • Carer's allowance
  • Child benefit
  • Child tax credit
  • Housing benefit
  • Income support
  • Jobseeker's allowance
  • Maternity allowance
  • Employment and support allowance (except where the support component has been awarded)
  • Guardian's allowance
  • Incapacity benefit
  • Severe disablement allowance
  • Widowed parent's allowance
  • Widow's benefit

Exemptions from the benefit cap

Some households will be exempt from the cap, including households where anyone receives disability living allowance or attendance allowance. The childcare element of Universal Credit will be exempt from the benefit cap calculations.

Until the changeover is complete, any household that receives working tax credit will be exempt from the cap. Those receiving working tax credits will know that a change in eligibility for working tax credits in April 2012 has meant that a couple have to work a minimum of 24 hours between them, rather than 16 hours, to qualify. 

Who will be eligible for Universal Credit and how do you qualify for each element?

Everyone must accept a Claimant Commitment to receive the basic element of universal credit. Couples living in the same household make a joint claim for Universal Credit but each individual has their own Claimant Commitment.

The Claimant Commitment is designed to show the claimant's willingness to work at short notice and that they are prepared to fulfil all requirements to get them closer to finding work or increasing their existing work hours.

Refusal to sign will result in tough penalties known as sanctions, these may include benefit being reduced or withdrawn for up to three years.

Concern: This commitment will tie in to the workfare schemes, where people will have their benefits cut if they are unwilling to work unpaid for six months. This is called the community action programme or 'support for the very long-term unemployed', but critics say it could be an easy way for companies to get free labour and take advantage of people who have been unable to find work (not to mention the fact that it would essentially remove paid jobs from the labour market by converting them into 'free placements').

Exemptions from the claimant commitment

  • Claimants with limited capability for work-related activity (as defined by a work capability assessment)
  • Claimants who receive the carer element
  • Those who are responsible for a severely disabled person for at least 35 hours a week
  • A lone parent with a child aged under one

Concern: Reports on the new way of assessing fitness to work for people with disabilities has shown a 'tick-box' approach that doesn't consider individual needs and may disregard 'hidden' disabilities, such as autism and mental health problems. It is also feared there will be targets for private companies who carry out work capability assessments, which will reward them for declaring more people fit to work. This was the subject of a Channel 4 Dispatches programme: Britain on the Sick


Degrees of conditionality

Claimants for the basic part of Universal Credit will be divided into different groups:

  1. No work-related requirements - because they may already earn enough or they may not be able to work at all.
  2. Work-focused interviews only - designed to keep people in touch with the labour market. This group would include a lone parent of a child between the ages of one and five.
  3. Work preparation group - claimants need to prepare to move to work or better paid work and may include people with a limited capability for work.
  4. All work–related requirements group - need to be looking for and available to do any type of work, usually full time. There will be concessions for parents of children aged 5–13 (where work hours would be limited to school hours), although it appears there may be concessions regarding work hours for parents who care for children aged 13–16, too.

There will be a three-month period where claimants will be able to look for work in a specific area and at a level of pay they have previously had, after which they must be willing to accept anything.

Concern: These requirements may be designed to help people into work, but the tough sanctions (fixed period sanctions of 91 days for the first failure; 128 days for the second failure, if it occurs within 52 weeks of the first; and three years for third and subsequent failures, if they occur within 52 weeks of the previous failure) mean that people will be forced into low-paid jobs.

Other sanctions will be applied if:

  • There is a failure to undertake mandatory work activity without good reason
  • There is a failure to apply for a particular vacancy without good reason
  • There is a failure to take up an offer of paid work without good reason
  • Paid work ceases by reason of misconduct, or voluntarily without good reason
  • Pay is lost by reason of misconduct, or voluntarily without good reason

Concern: Creating a workforce that lives in fear of losing low-paid jobs may lead to abuses and erode employees' rights. The fact that Universal Credit will not top-up payments for claimants involved in pay disputes may indicate a bias towards the rights of the employer. 

When does Universal Credit begin?

Universal Credit has been trialled since April 2013 in areas of Greater Manchester and Cheshire, so that any problems that arise in these areas can be ironed out in time for the national roll-out.

In October 2013, six centres in Harrogate, Bath, Rugby, Shotton, Inverness and Hammersmith, London began taking Universal Credit claims.

On 23 June 2014, the roll-out of Universal Credit to more Jobcentres across the North West of England began, with Hyde, Stalybridge, Stretford and Altrincham Jobcentres accepting claims for the new benefit. More Jobcentres are accepting Universal Credit claims each week as the new service continues to expand.

Joint claims for Universal Credit from couples, as well as those from single people, began on 30 June 2014 in Hammersmith, Bath, Rugby, Harrogate and Inverness Jobcentres. Universal Credit will continue rolling out to Jobcentres in the North West until the whole region is covered.

Current planning assumption is that the Universal Credit service will be fully available in each part of Great Britain during 2016, having closed down new claims to the legacy benefits it replaced; with the majority of the remaining legacy caseload moving to Universal Credit during 2016 and 2017.

There is a Universal Credit transitional payment designed to help those in the interim when the Universal Credit is less than their current benefits. The circumstances for this are 'currently being defined'.

If claimants are moved to Universal Credit but their circumstances have not changed, they will be entitled to Transitional Protection. This means they will not receive less than they did under their old benefit or credits. This amount will be paid until either their circumstances change, or the amount of Universal Credit they have a right to receive matches, or is more than, the amount they were receiving under the old benefit or credits system.

The other elements

Separated parents need to decide between them who will receive this part. There will be one higher rate for first or only children and a reduced rate for subsequent children.

A lower rate is paid for each child who receives any component of Disability Living Allowance (apart from the highest rate of the care component), or a Personal Independence Payment (PIP) (apart from the enhanced rate). A higher rate is paid for each child who receives the highest rate of the care component of Disability Living Allowance or the enhanced rate of the PIP daily living component and for the first time, children registered blind are eligible for the higher disabled child addition.

The childcare costs element is available to all lone parents and couples, where both members are in work, regardless of the number of hours they work. The costs will continue one month after a period of work ends, so that a childcare placement can be secured and it will be easier to move to other work. Claims can also be made for deposits and advance costs.

Currently in Universal Credit, working families can claim up to 70% of actual childcare costs up to a cap. This equates to a maximum of £532 per month for one child and £912 for two or more children.

From 2016, this will increase to 85% of actual childcare costs up to £646 for one child, and £1108 for two or more children.

Both members of a couple have to be in work for this to apply, unless there is some reason that the person who is not working is unable to look after the children. This amount will be exempt from the benefits cap.

There is a Carer Element within Universal Credit to support carers on a low income who provide care for at least 35 hours per week for a severely disabled person.

Only one person can receive a carer element for caring for one severely disabled person. Where a benefit unit contains two eligible adults and each satisfies the carer test in respect of different disabled people then each of those eligible adults will receive a Carer Element.

This will be decided by a work capability assessment (WCA) and is divided into limited capability for work element (LCW) or the higher limited capability for work and work-related activity element (LCWRA).

Concern: Heavy-handed tick box assessments may be too harsh and may miss hidden disabilities and not look at the claimant's needs. 

The housing costs element will be given instead of housing benefit and will be fixed at a rate that will make the lowest third of market rents affordable. The support will be 'fair but not excessive'. There will be limits to the housing costs element for people who are considered to be under-occupying social housing. 

Concern: People will not be able to pay the rest of their rents and will be forced to move to different areas. It is possible that the housing element will be restricted to four-bedroom houses, which will penalise larger families.

Earnings, work allowances and tapers

If a claimant starts work, they will be able to keep some of the money they earn before there are any deductions to their Universal Credit payment. there are any deductions to their Universal Credit payment. This amount is called a work allowance.

Once a person is earning more than their work allowance, their Universal Credit will be reduced at a consistent and predictable rate. They will generally keep a higher proportion of their earnings.

The taper is the rate at which benefit is reduced to take account of earnings. Universal Credit has a single taper rate of 65 per cent.

In simple terms, this means that 35 pence in every pound earned would be kept: claimants are £35 better off for every extra £100 of net earnings.


When will Universal Credit be paid?

Universal Credit is supposed to be responsive to changing circumstances. Claims will be managed online, so that if a claimant does a week's work during the month, they will be able to add this information to their 'account' and their benefits will be adjusted accordingly. The government hopes that Universal Credit will be wholly managed online or over the phone.

Concern: The idea of paying benefits monthly is to reflect the world of work where wages are often paid monthly. But for those receiving a low income, there may be a lot more month left at the end of their money. This could trigger a proliferation of pay-day loans, or benefit-day loans, which would leave vulnerable people worse off.

Concern: This assumes everyone is online and able to update their 'account'. There is also an option to make claims on the phone and possibly at high-street shops, but the way Universal Credit is administered may deter some people from claiming it, and it will certainly be difficult for some people to manage their accounts.

Concern: Critics have concerns about the IT capabilities of the new system. The benefits system is supposed to work alongside PAYE tax details, and employers are supposed to feed payment details into the system to make the benefits system 'dynamic'. Reports suggest the system is not ready and there have been large delays in processing information. The system relies on real-time information being provided to track claimants' earnings. All employers are supposed to submit wage information, but it may prove difficult for smaller companies to do so.  

Other welfare changes

  • Child benefit - if one partner earns between £50K and £60K, only a proportion of child benefit will be paid. If one partner earns more than £60k they will receive nothing.
  • Disability living allowance is not changing for under-16s, but for over-16s it is changing to a personal independence payment.



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