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Designing a social security system that works for all

Updated: Apr 16

In this blog post, Ellen Clifford – a member of our project advisory group – reflects on her experience of making a new claim for Universal Credit during COVID-19 and what this tells us about the UK benefits system


I am one of the new cohort of Universal Credit (UC) claimants, having applied last March. My circumstances were linked to the pandemic but slightly more complicated. Following a prolonged acute mental health crisis, I’d been out of work for some time already, reliant on savings which have nearly run out.

Besides a nightmare trying to get through on the phone initially, along with literally millions of other new claimants, I found the rest of the application process straightforward. Having worked in the disability sector for many years previously I did have the advantage of prior knowledge. It wasn’t the same for others as I had to support neighbours who work, for example, in retail and construction to understand the application form.


WASD’s report ‘Claimants’ experiences of the social security system during the first wave of Covid-19' finds that 46% of new claimants had problems applying. That statistic can’t be explained just by the additional pressures of the pandemic and highlights a need for greater accessibility. It isn’t good enough for successful navigation of the benefits system to rely on friends, family or social media contacts to provide advice and support, because that actively disadvantages those most in need – those who are not only confused but also isolated.


I myself found it very difficult to get an answer as to what to do about having limited capability for work. A friend who is a welfare benefits advisor explained I needed to make a separate application for Employment and Support Allowance. Another friend who is also a benefits advisor but specialising in disability has since told me that lack of information on this question was a trend she was observing a full year before the pandemic began.

Having gone through my Work Capability Assessment and been placed in the Limited Capability for Work Related Activity Group (LCWRA), the system has generally worked well for me. The payments amount could be better, I still struggle financially but I know am better off than many people, including new claimants tied into higher outgoings and people on legacy benefits who never received the £20 uplift.

Being disabled in Britain today I’ve never been able to aspire to things, as much as I’ve wanted them, like a mortgage, or a pension or children. So in the current pandemic I don’t have the same financial commitments to keep up with. Additionally, I have the financial buffer of the additional LCWRA component as well as the protection that gives me from enforced conditionality. And what that has meant is a level of security enough to actually restart work – at my own pace, from home and on a very flexible basis. Each month I enter my income and expenses and the DWP works out what I am entitled to. I have no idea if they are right in what they calculate because there’s no transparency or explanation. A lot of the time I haven’t the energy to question things like this but I do know that I have always had some form of payment on time.


But as someone who has paid taxes for the vast majority of my working life, the kind of social security system I want to be paying into is not one that privileges those who are able to pay taxes over those who cannot through no fault of their own. My personal situation is a concern to me but so is the society I live in and am part of. And what we have had since March last year is a two tier social security system where new claimants are treated as more deserving.

In my dealings with the DWP, staff have been helpful and friendly but that is very different from the experiences of disabled people I used to support in my former work. The way that customer service experiences for benefit claimants changed so dramatically overnight is a clear indication that the previous hostility with which claimants were too often treated was part of a deliberate if counter-productive approach. The fact that legacy benefit claimants haven’t received the £20 uplift is a further suggestion that they are being punished for not being able to work. Many of these claimants are disabled people who have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic. Many have been shielding for nearly a year now and have seen their expenditure rise sharply to pay for essentials such as PPE, food deliveries and higher energy costs. The Disability Benefits Consortium found that 66% of the disabled people on legacy benefits they surveyed are having to choose between eating and heating.


And this is the big issue that I think the pandemic experience of UC has highlighted very clearly. Universal Credit was never designed with the people who were at that time reliant on social security in mind. The way that newer claimants have found the application process relatively straightforward to access – I say relatively, let’s not forget that 46% figure – is proof of this. Instead, it was designed for people with relative advantages in life such as literacy, online access and verifiable ID. It is by no means a tiny minority of people who don’t have these things. In 2014, the Care and Support Alliance stated that 500,000 disabled people who would have received social care in the past now do not qualify. This means many more people living on their own in the community now without support to do things like read their own mail, go online, sort their finances or navigate the benefits system.

People without lived experience of the benefit system tend to assume that it exists to protect those who are most in need and most disadvantaged. The truth is something different: those who are most disadvantaged are in my experience the ones who are most overlooked – policymakers don’t even have them on their radar let alone design services capable of meeting their needs.

I’d like to see a social security system that works for everyone whether disabled or non-disabled, whether in work, out of work or somewhere in between. I think that in Britain today we ought to be able to expect a social security system that is not only capable of processing large numbers of applications but one that is also able to provide a genuine safety net for all – one that gives low paid and unemployed workers sufficient support to navigate and succeed in the labour market, and one that doesn’t discriminate against and treat cruelly those unable to work. With such support we can make a much stronger contribution to society and without it we all suffer.

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