ADVICE FROM CITIZENS ADVICE COUNTY DURHAM ON UNIVERSAL CREDIT

24th Feb 2021

Citizens Advice County Durham is calling for people to come forward for help if they have struggled with income, debts and rent payments due to some lesser-known problems spotted by advisors working on Universal Credit cases.

The local charity is worried that untold numbers of people could face increasing risks of eviction from their homes, and other hardships and health risks, because they don’t know what to expect from the ‘benefits system’… and wouldn’t always realise if things have gone wrong.

Research & Campaigns Officer, Lewis Kirkbride, explains: “Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re advising people and working families who have never needed help before; and we don’t know exactly how many other people are struggling to get by without any help, or who is about to run out of options.”

“Because the rules have been changing so fast, it’s harder than ever to know where you stand with work, Universal Credit, debt and unpaid rent.  If you’re claiming for the first time, you might not know if your claim was simply rejected, or has gone wrong – and you wouldn’t necessarily know your rights well enough to challenge unfair decisions, or know when delays are not normal.  We’re worried people are falling through the cracks in the system and not receiving the correct income. ”

Increases of between 46% and 78% in the number of Universal Credit claims in different areas of County Durham have been recorded during the pandemic, and 83% of people asking for help with benefits in the county have never asked Citizens Advice for help before.

As well as offering advice and guidance to help people through the financial and practical strain of the COVID pandemic, the local charity hopes to gather more detail on how certain problems with Universal Credit claims happen, and the effects they have, so that it can show Department For Work & Pensions and agree with them some steps to stop more people having the same problems.

Four main issues are currently being investigated, which may never have been tackled if people hadn’t come forward for advice on their problems:

  1. Don’t miss out!  Many people miss out on hundreds of pounds because they don’t realise Universal Credit is only paid from the date they actually make their claim – their claim won’t be ‘backdated’ to the day their circumstances changed.  Citizens Advice wants people to know they should claim as early as possible, and that some people can become eligible for Universal Credit even while they’re working as normal if their income is low or dips below certain levels
  2. Underpaid while you wait for assessments?  Some people are going into serious debt and struggling to pay their rent with only basic amounts of Universal Credit, because there are unable to work due to illness or disability… but also unable to claim the extra financial help they should be getting for their care and support needs, because their ‘Work Capability Assessment has been delayed for weeks or even months
  3. Don’t give up!  People whose claim is turned down are finding that their Universal Credit online ‘journal’ is being shut down almost instantly; so they don’t find out why their claim was rejected, or realise that they can check and challenge the decision.  If you have a good reason, you have the right to ask for a ‘Mandatory Reconsideration’ to look at your claim again
  4. Waiting weeks with no income?  More people than ever are having to claim Universal Credit due to job losses and reduced incomes, and the ‘benefits system’ is struggling to keep up with demand – some people are asked to wait for a call from Department for Work & Pensions 0800 phone number to confirm their claim, but it can take weeks for the call to come … and the delays are leaving people with no income while they wait!

Lewis continues: “Citizens Advice County Durham urges people to get in touch, even if it’s just to check what options you have; and please tell us about your experiences of trying to access help.  What makes it hard for you access help?  What went wrong with your claim?  What didn’t you know?  How have problems and delays and hardships affected you?”

“If there’s a way to fix your problem, we’ll help you find it – and if we find out more about these issues, we stand a fighting chance of stopping more people facing them alone.”

You can follow Citizens Advice County Durham on Facebook for tips, Scam Alerts and important information at https://www.facebook.com/CitizensAdviceCD, or call 0808 278 7821 Monday to Friday 10am-4pm for individual advice.

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