Millions of Brits struggling to get access to Universal Credit during the coronavirus crisis and its economic impact look set to get more help.
Between March 16, 2020, when the lockdown came into effect, and June 16, 2020, the DWP received 3.2 million new applications for Universal Credit.
But many fall foul of the system, the National Audit Office recently found.
Now the DWP has been asked to set up a fund to support the work of community organisations who assist people with benefits applications.
Vulnerable claimants and those who don’t have easy access to the purely digital process of Universal Credit are among those suffering the most.
The call for better support came from a new report looking at Universal Credit and why it isn’t working effectively.
BirminghamLive has already detailed 14 major changes proposed in the report for improving the welfare scheme.
More cash support for community organisations is an additional way the Government is being asked to help.
The report, titled ‘Universal Credit isn’t working: proposals for reform’, is the result of research by the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee.
As well as those big improvements to the benefit itself, there is a recommendation for extra funding to groups outside Government who help members of the public apply for Universal Credit and other benefits.
These community services include Help to Claim, offered by Citizens Advice and Citizens Advice Scotland. The DWP invested £39 million into setting up Help to Claim in April 2019 to provide “enhanced, free, confidential and impartial support to help people make a Universal Credit claim.”
But the new parliamentary report says the help provided does not go far enough.
It said: “The Government has provided funding for limited support to claimants, notably via the Help to Claim service. However, this stops after the first successful claim. The Government expects work coaches to be the main agents of support thereafter, but their time is already stretched.
“It should not be necessary for claimants to require specialist help to navigate the system.
“As this is necessary under Universal Credit, claimants have a right to informed, independent and free advice.
“The benefit has had a dramatic impact on the provision of support services by local authorities, housing providers and community-based advice bodies, as helping claimants to navigate the system has become one of the main functions of such services.
“Claimants have a right to such support; but this has had a significant impact on the budgets of such organisations.
“The Government should devise a fund for supporting this work, work alongside local authorities to identify best practice for providing ongoing and accessible advice, and publish the results.”
The report says the original aims of a broad range of help for the most vulnerable members of society never happened because of spending cuts. But it says such support is essential.
It explained: “The original proponents of Universal Credit envisaged a comprehensive system of support for the most vulnerable people and those with the most complex needs.
“However, we were told that this work was never undertaken as a result of the cuts to public spending that took place under the Coalition Government.
“The Government must do more to recognise and fund the impressive networks of local support and advice that are doing the vital work of supporting the hardest to reach claimants at great expense. This would ensure that vulnerable people are able to receive the help that they need and are able to navigate the social security system.”
And it says more help is needed for those who cannot manage the online process of claiming and managing their benefits.
It said: “Most people do not struggle with a predominantly digital service, but a significant minority do. The need to provide digital support does not end at the first claim.
“Claimants are expected to manage their Universal Credit accounts and work journals online for the duration of their claim. It is essential that trusted organisations are funded to guide people through the process.”