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In this article, Carolyn Lochhead discusses research that reveals how Universal credit has a significant impact on mental health

Carolyn Lochhead manages public affairs and communications at mental health charity SAMH (Scottish Association for Mental Health). In this article, she reveals the findings of a report that underlines the charity’s report concerning Universal Credit and the impact it has on mental health.

SAMH’s new report “It Was A Confusion” finds that Universal Credit is not working for people with mental health problems. SAMH believes that no one should be transferred to Universal Credit until the issues it identifies have been addressed.

SAMH has made a set of recommendations to the UK Government, including rethinking the assessments process, better guidance for Work Coaches and scrapping Digital by Default.
The introduction and roll out of Universal Credit is the most significant change to the UK social security system in the last 20 years. As Scotland’s largest mental health charity we have been increasingly concerned about the impact this change has had on people with mental health problems.

To better understand the effect of Universal Credit on people with mental health problems and make recommendations to UK policymakers, we published the report: “It Was A Confusion”: Universal Credit and Mental Health: Recommendations for Change. To inform the report we analysed the latest literature on Universal Credit, held a seminar with sector colleagues and interviewed three people with experience of Universal Credit.

So what did we find?

Far from simplifying the UK’s social security system – an aim SAMH supports – the introduction of Universal Credit has added to the complexities faced by people with mental health problems. This is causing hardship and emotional distress to people attempting to engage with the system. We found problems across the Universal Credit journey, from applying for the benefit to being assessed, the conditionality regime and managing a claim. Below are some of our main findings.

Applying for Universal Credit and Digital by Default

People applying for Universal Credit are expected to apply and manage their claim online. We found only limited safeguards allowing people to make alternative claims by phone. This digital by default approach results in significant problems for people without digital literacy or access to the internet and IT equipment. Findings from the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) itself found that 24% of people with long term conditions (including mental health conditions) could not register for Universal Credit online; with 53% needing support to set up a claim.

Assessments for disability components

Where someone has a disability they may be eligible to receive the limited capability for work and work-related activity components of Universal Credit. We found that assessment for these components, mainly through a face to face Work Capability Assessment (WCA), does not work for people with mental health problems. Assessors can lack expertise in mental health, sometimes resulting in stressful stigmatising behaviour causing distress to people being assessed.

People waiting for assessment can still be forced to comply with work-related activities, such as job searching, even when they are unwell. This is different from the legacy Employment Support Allowance (ESA) system where conditionality is not applied until after someone has the results of their WCA.

Managing a Universal Credit claim

The case studies and literature highlight difficulties for people with mental health problems successfully managing their claims, resulting in the risk of receiving a benefit sanction. Issues included the built-in five-week wait for a first Universal Credit payment, resulting in rent arrears; inconsistent payments for people with varying incomes; and complying with the conditionality regime.

The Universal Credit system relies on work coach discretion when setting job searching and work-related conditions. The onus is on the person in receipt of Universal Credit to disclose their mental health problems which can be very challenging, particularly as work coaches are not specialists in mental health.

What is SAMH recommending?

The report makes 18 recommendations to the UK Government and jobcentres to improve the Universal Credit system for people with mental health problems. These recommendations cover the full Universal Credit journey from application to managing a claim.

Fundamentally, we are calling on the UK Government to not transfer anyone onto Universal Credit from the legacy benefit system until flaws with the system are fixed.

The recommendations include:

• Scrapping Digital by Default;
• Ensuring no one has to undertake work-related activities while waiting for a WCA and its outcome;
• Abolition of the unjustified five-week waiting period for first payment;
• Introducing a non-repayable assessment grant for new Universal Credit claimants, to replace advanced payments;
• Jobcentres to proactively gather information about the person’s health, prior to setting their Claimant Commitment;
• Strengthened DWP guidance to Work Coaches over setting appropriate conditions for vulnerable claimants, including people with mental health problems and;
• Scrapping benefit sanctions for people with mental health problems.

We believe that these changes, with the other recommendations in the report, will radically improve how Universal Credit works for people with mental health problems.

Far from simplifying the social security system and supporting people with mental health problems, the current regime is actively causing distress and financial insecurity.

This has to change.


Carolyn Lochhead

Interim Head of Communications and Public Affairs

Scottish Association for Mental Health (SAMH)
Tel: +44 (0)141 530 1000

Tweet her @samhtweets


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