Keeping up with Universal Credit: Challenges and changes

17 Sep 2018 | Written by Harriet Brown


In February, we updated our Universal Credit: a how to guide, a Learn My Way guide to support people who are applying for Universal Credit. We've had some really good feedback from Online Centres so far, who've also been using it as a tool for raising staff awareness. But at a recent Universal Credit focussed workshop, only 50% of Online Centres were aware of it at all. One of the reasons could be that Universal Credit is being rolled out area by area, meaning that not every Online Centre that we work with has been affected by the changes yet (if you're reading this wondering when your area will be affected universalcredit.info is a useful tool to find out). So it's really important for us that we continue talking about the Universal Credit guide, so that Online Centres in new Universal Credit service areas know that it's something freely available to them.

It's also important that we keep the guide and resources up-to-date. Universal Credit is being developed using a 'test and learn' approach. This means that information changes frequently, making it difficult for Online Centres to give advice to their learners - one Centre told us "it's all liquid at the moment". We've already updated the guide to reflect changes that have happened since the guide was launched, such as the wait period reduction, and changes to Housing Benefits payments during the wait period.

We'll also be continually talking to Online Centres about practical resources we can develop for claimants. In June, I visited two Online Centres in Manchester and Salford. The community surrounding the first drop-in session I visited is home to a number of people for whom English isn't their first language.

A lot of the people I spoke to there were struggling to find permanent, full-time employment, and were claiming Universal Credit while they looked for work. Their challenges weren't just the online nature of Universal Credit, but also unfamiliarity with English, as well as the often complicated language of UK benefits and government services. One of the main difficulties they faced was when using the Universal Credit journal. The journal is where claimants communicate with work coaches and Jobcentre Plus sharing details of their job search and their claim. One young woman that I spoke to had been given support to fill in her online application, but found the day-to-day filling in of the Universal Credit journal a real challenge.

The second Online Centre I visited talked to me about the budgeting challenges facing Universal Credit applicants. Universal Credit payments are now made monthly, and this change has been especially difficult people who have existing debt problems, mental health conditions or people who are young or leaving care. Jobcentre Plus has a number of things that they can put in place for claimants (for example, having your Housing Benefit paid directly to your landlord), but unless someone asks for them, the chances are they won't be considered for this help.

In response to this visit, along with other feedback and insight we've received, we've developed a new handout for learners to help them understand their journal and how to use it. We've also created a new section of the Universal Credit guide, explaining the help that's available to Universal Credit claimants who aren't coping with the new payment structure.

For someone struggling to update their online journal, or worrying because they're not making ends meet each month, these changes could make all the difference.

If you have any feedback relating to the Universal Credit guide, or the resources that accompany it please contact harriet.brown@goodthingsfoundation.org