Universal Credit: claiming during the coronavirus pandemic

04 August 2021

We recently conducted a large survey of housing association tenants detailing their experiences claiming Universal Credit during the coronavirus pandemic. We found positive experiences of the system and service, but overall the picture was very mixed, with some people clearly struggling.

The report highlights the findings of the survey and covers the claimant journey, the impact of claiming on people’s lives, employment, experience of the Universal Credit service, and what more housing associations can do to support tenants. We also make a series of recommendations for the government, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), and housing associations.

The survey ran in spring 2021 and gathered responses from 3,520 tenants claiming Universal Credit across eight housing associations.

Our key findings 

  • Overall, respondents generally found keeping up to date with their claim online easy and many were grateful for the financial support. Just over half of people generally agreed that Universal Credit is enough for the basics (53%, n=3,050).
  • While we can’t say Universal Credit causes hardship, there was evidence of real strain on finances and health and wellbeing:
    • 84% (n=3,007) of respondents needed some kind of financial help, such as loans, while claiming and over a third said they always run out of money before their next payment.
    • 79% (n=2,989) of respondents reported that they had struggled to pay for at least one essential item when claiming, with 43% saying they struggled to pay for food.
    • One in ten respondents said hardship on Universal Credit had given them a health condition. People also reported high levels of anxiety with 19% (n=2,980) rating themselves as completely anxious yesterday.
  • There was a mixed experience with the Universal Credit service with 48% (n=2,956) of people reporting they were broadly happy. Service experience may be linked to staff, mistakes with a claim or a lack of flexibility to individual circumstances, as well as whether people are better or worse off when compared to legacy benefits.
  • Housing associations can exacerbate stress relating to claiming through notices of rent arrears.

Our main recommendations for the government and the DWP

  • The government must not cut £20 per week of people’s Universal Credit from October 2021. Our survey shows evidence of real financial strain with many people unable to afford the essentials.
  • The government should end the five-week wait for first payment. Two in three respondents did not have money to cover the wait and it pushed some people into debt from which they haven’t recovered.
  • The DWP should review advances and deductions to ensure people can meet their own basic needs and their obligations to creditors. It should also review application of the benefit cap and removal of the spare room subsidy.
  • The DWP should extend the circumstances that allow a backdating of claims to the point of entitlement.
  • The DWP should consider compensating people who claimed the benefit when it was first introduced due to the longer wait for payment and no legacy benefit run-on. Respondents reported having still been in debt years after the wait for their first Universal Credit payment.
  • The DWP should invest in further staff training and case monitoring to ensure a consistent level of service for claimants.
  • The DWP should review reporting of annual rent updates. Many respondents found updating this difficult and wanted their housing association to do it on their behalf, given they had to verify costs.

Considerations for housing associations

  • It is recommended that housing associations advertise the welfare service they offer, or links to other services, more widely as most people were not aware or had not spoken to their housing association about their claim.
  • Housing associations should continue taking supportive approaches to income collection to reduce anxiety and help claimants to manage their finances.