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Blog: Ensuring our benefits system supports people during the pandemic

Updated: Mar 7, 2021

Senior Policy Researcher Karen Barker reflects on the unprecedented services provided by Citizens Advice during COVID-19 and what this tells us about access, eligibility and adequacy in the current benefits system

At Citizens Advice we provide advice to people to help them find a way forward, whatever their problem. Coronavirus has meant we've had to change the way we offer advice. After the first lockdown was announced in March last year, overnight our advisers at over 270 local offices across England and Wales had to quickly adapt the way they give advice – solely via telephone, email and web chat rather than face-to-face sessions.

These changes happened while demand for our advice was surging – Citizens Advice helped more people than ever before in 2020. Since 1 March last year, we have helped over 1 million people with issues affecting their lives, and we have provided over 300,000 people with one-to-one advice on Universal Credit alone. Millions more have accessed advice via our webpages. We’ve seen changes in the demographics of people who come to us for help as well. A large proportion of those seeking our help on benefits during the crisis have never come to Citizens Advice before. Our advisers have noted seeing more people with higher incomes who fall into this category. Our data also tells us that these ‘new’ clients are more likely to be younger and in work than those who came to us for help prior to the pandemic.

The breadth of our service and the data we collect allows us to identify areas where improvements to the benefits system are needed. Since the start of the pandemic, three areas stand out in particular:

  • Access to the benefits system

  • Benefit eligibility

  • Adequacy of financial support.

While none of these issues were new or due solely to the pandemic, the economic impact of this global crisis has exacerbated existing challenges. Access issues

The digital-by-default nature of Universal Credit has meant that millions of people have been able to remotely access benefits during the pandemic without needing to attend a Jobcentre. However, we know that there are many people who need additional support to apply for benefits. Before this crisis, the main reasons people came to Citizens Advice for help with non-digital options to make a Universal Credit Claim were computer literacy, disability and not speaking English as a first language. People with these support needs may have found it particularly difficult to access support remotely during the pandemic.

Covid restrictions have risked worsening the barriers people may face. The closing of spaces providing digital public access, such as libraries, community centres and charity-run spaces in particular will likely have made it harder for people without digital access to apply for benefits.

Alex’s story * Alex doesn’t have internet access at home and was forced to break his self-isolation to use a friend’s internet connection and make a Universal Credit claim. Alex is a part-time key worker and needs to access an advance payment to cover his travel to work where he provides care for a severely disabled person.

While the DWP have recently increased resourcing across their phone lines, including support for non-digital claims, they should continue to review the support currently in place for people making a non-digital claim.

Eligibility issues

The benefits system can be complex to navigate. The influx of people who have never accessed benefits before – along with the introduction of new policies such as the Job Retention Scheme and the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme – has meant we’ve seen many new types of queries arising.

One of the most worrying trends we’ve seen is a 91% year-on-year increase in people coming to us for help who have ‘No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF)’ – a condition attached to many visas that means people are not entitled to most benefits.

Some clients with NRPF have felt compelled to continue working, even if they are in the ‘higher risk’ or ‘shielding’ group or exhibit Covid symptoms, because they know they will be unable to access benefits if they stop working. Lack of adequate financial support can lead to individual hardship, but also risks undermining public health measures.

Sarita’s story Sarita works in administrative support in an NHS hospital. She’s on a zero-hours contract and has NRPF attached to her visa. Both her children are under ten. She had to self-isolate for four weeks, as she and her children had coronavirus symptoms at different times. During this time, she didn’t receive Statutory Sick Pay from her employer as she was told this was unavailable for staff on zero-hours contracts. She spent four weeks with no income.

To ensure that no one faces hardship for doing the right thing, the government should temporarily suspend the NRPF restriction for those subject to immigration control.

Adequacy issue

Many problems that lead people to seek our help stem from people struggling to make ends meet on their income from benefits. While the temporary £20 a week uplift to Universal Credit and Working Tax Credit has been a lifeline for millions of people during this crisis, we know many people still struggle to cover their essential costs. In November, a fifth of people we helped with Universal Credit also needed help with debt.

Data from our debt clients shows that the situation would be even worse without the uplift – 75% of people we help with debt receiving Universal Credit or Working Tax Credits would not be able to cover their living costs without the £20 uplift. This is hugely worrying as the uplift is currently set to expire at the end of March.

Natasha’s story Natasha lives in Wales and is a seasonal worker. She lost her job in March due to the coronavirus pandemic and had to claim Universal Credit. Natasha came to Citizens Advice for help after experiencing financial hardship which led to her falling behind on her energy bills and rent. Once her necessary outgoings are taken into account, Natasha’s income from Universal Credit leaves her with £60 per month to pay back her creditors. If the uplift were removed, Natasha would be pushed into a negative budget. She would be unable to cover basic living expenses or make contributions towards paying off her rent arrears – potentially leaving her at risk of eviction.

It’s also concerning that people receiving legacy benefits (such as Employment and Support Allowance and Income Support) have not received an additional income boost. Many people on the legacy benefits system are carers or disabled people who may have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. We’ve found carers and disabled people are more likely to have faced redundancy and are more likely to have fallen behind with their bills.

Extending the uplift to legacy benefits would help more than one in ten (13%) people we help with debt receiving these benefits to move out of a negative budget (where their living costs exceed their income) and into a position where they could cover their living costs.

To prevent a national household debt crisis, the government should commit to making the £20 a week uplift permanent. The government should also extend the uplift to legacy benefits to make sure that disabled people and carers are not left behind.

*All names are pseudonyms to protect our clients’ privacy

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