Thousands of people experiencing high levels of mental distress are at risk of cuts to vital universal credit payments because the process is so complex, according to a new study that predicts a new wave of problems once furlough ends on 30 September.
A prominent campaign group, the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute, is calling for urgent action by the government to fix what it describes as nonsensical “design flaws” in the benefits system to ensure that anyone who needs help can get it, particularly in light of the dramatic rise in the number of claimants during the pandemic.
That includes 1.3m people currently receiving universal credit who are also dealing with high levels of mental distress.
The charity’s research shows that without support many people with common symptoms of mental health problems, which are unlikely to have been helped by the events of the past year, struggle to deal with the ongoing administration and bureaucracy required to get and keep their universal credit payments.
These can include difficulties understanding complex information and remembering appointments, common aspects of filling in complex forms, dealing with correspondence from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and appealing decisions about their benefits.
This in turn leaves people at risk of being sanctioned by the DWP, or being cut off from universal credit payments altogether, the charity argues. It also causes unnecessary anguish for people who are already struggling with their mental health, and for their carers.
To nominate someone to support them, a claimant has to navigate similarly complex and unclear processes to those that they were trying to get help with in the first place, the charity warns.
This week, its survey of hundreds of people with mental health problems who have claimed universal credit, has revealed more than half (57 per cent) said they have needed help from family or friends to manage their universal credit account.
More than a quarter said they always or often need that help, and yet only one in 10 has managed to arrange formal permission for someone to help.
“In the last year I was made redundant after being with a company for more than 23 years, and all the stress and worry has just come to the surface,” says Gary, who took part in the research.
“I found the process of managing universal credit just horrendous and tough to follow. Nothing is ever explained to you. I can’t deal with the messages from the DWP myself, I need my wife’s help, but we can’t set it up for her to receive notifications about the account,” he adds.
“We’ve filled all the forms in but it feels like a trap door assessment. If you answer something slightly wrong you fall through and that’s it, they’ll take the money away. It’s like the system’s designed to trip you up to fail.”
Specific problems identified by the study include the fact that the DWP doesn’t advertise the fact that people can give permission to a loved one to help manage their universal credit account, or what the process is to set that up through the universal credit website.
To nominate a loved one as a regular helper, the claimant is required to tell the DWP details of every task they might need help with, and every piece of information they want to share, but without any prompts or guidance to make the process more straightforward.
In theory, people can also call the DWP to explain what help they need from a loved one, but this is not a viable option for many people with mental health problems.
More than half of UK adults who have had mental health problems say they have severe difficulties in using the phone, often leading to panic attacks, heart palpitations and spiralling anxiety.
“It sounds like a scene from a spoof,” says Martin Lewis, chair and founder of the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute, as well as the creator of the MoneySavingExpert.com website.
“People who are entitled to universal credit, sometimes due to mental health problems, which impact their ability to fill in forms or process complex information, are allowed to nominate someone to help them with the admin needed to keep receiving benefits.
“Yet to do that, they must go through a complex process which requires them to do the exact things they need help with in the first place. If they don’t manage it, they ultimately risk being sanctioned or losing all financial help.
“I don’t believe this is a deliberate attempt to set people up to fail. Yet that is the practical outcome for some. This is one universal credit problem the government can easily fix, by providing people with the right advice on how to nominate a loved one to help them, and by making the process to do it much easier, simpler and user-friendly.”
A Government spokesperson said: “We always stand ready to help claimants who need extra support and sanctions do not apply to all claimants, including those with a severe mental health condition. We don’t want to sanction anyone and won’t without good reason.
“Universal Credit is providing a vital safety net for millions and for anyone wishing to nominate someone to help them there are several accessible ways to do so, including by phone, online or using the Help to Claim service. This is balanced with the need to ensure the right level of security and protection is maintained for claimants’ personal information.”