What is Universal Credit?
Universal Credit is planned to replace other benefits including Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) and Housing Benefit sometime over the next four or so years. It’s means-tested, meaning the amount of money you get depends on your income, savings and other factors.
Universal Credit is not just for people who can’t find a job or are unable to work; many people have to top up their income using benefits because their jobs don’t pay enough.
Which benefits are affected?
Over the next four or so years (the timetable is not set in stone), income-based JSA, income-related Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), Income Support, Child Tax Credits, Working Tax Credits and Housing Benefit will all become part of UC.
Universal Credit claimants will be put into one of four groups depending on how much they’re expected to do to prepare for and find work:
- No work-related requirements
This means you don’t have to be seeking work to get benefits.
- Work-focused interview only
Some people who are caring for a child will be put in this group where the only requirement is to attend work-focused interviews.
- Work preparation
If your capability for work is limited by sickness or disability, you’ll need to undertake ‘preparation activities’, such as training or work experience, but you won’t have to hunt for work.
- All work-related requirements
If you don’t fit into one of the above groups, and you’re not working at all, you’ll need to spend 35 hours a week looking for and preparing for work in order to get your benefits.
If you’re already working but need to top up your income with benefits, it’s likely that you’ll be required to hunt for more work, or better paid work, in order to get UC.
Find out more about the four groups here.
When will it happen?
The rollout began in 2013, but will be long and slow. In a few areas, single, newly unemployed people now have to claim UC. The number of areas affected will increase gradually.
Plans beyond that are a bit vague and subject to change, but it’s expected that during 2016 all new claims for the six benefits will cease and people will have to claim UC instead.
If you’re on a benefit that will become part of UC, you’ll probably be moved to UC between 2016 and 2018. But if there’s a significant change in your circumstances you’ll be moved over straight away (assuming your area already has UC).
What will change under UC?
In most cases, UC will be a single monthly payment, like a salary (although there are some exceptions if this is likely to cause you hardship). You’ll need to budget to keep track of your spending –try using a budgeting tool like these ones.
If your Housing Benefit used to be paid straight to your landlord, it will now be paid to you (although, again, there are some exceptions), so you’ll need to budget to pay your rent.
The new system is going to be mainly online. This means you need to check your emails regularly and use one email address for your benefit claim. Set up folders and save benefit emails in one place to help you keep track.
The idea of UC is to ‘make work pay’. This means that, unlike under the old system, you should get more money from taking on a bit of extra work than you would lose in benefits.
The conditions for claiming UC will be harsher, so you might well need to do more to show that you’re looking for work (even if you already work part-time) or risk losing your benefit.
How do I claim UC?
You need to claim UC online, and will then have a face-to-face interview. You can go to your local Jobcentre to claim online if you don’t have internet access at home.
If you need help with your claim, call 0845 600 0723 (Textphone: 0845 600 0743).
What do I have to do to get UC?
To get UC you need to sign a Claimant Commitment, setting out what you’ll do to prepare for and find work. Even if you already have some work, you might have to set out what you’ll do to find more work and/or money.
If you’re making a joint claim with a partner, you’ll both have to sign a Claimant Commitment.
To get UC, you need to make sure you do everything in your Claimant Commitment and follow all the directions that your advisor gives you. If you don’t then you risk your benefit being cut for a number of months. This is called a sanction. Universal Credit sanctions are extremely harsh – for example, failing to take up an offer of paid work will get your money stopped for three years.
How much money will I get?
The calculations for working out how much UC you get are complicated. They will depend on:
- Your age
- Whether you live with a partner
- Your income and savings (and your partner’s if you live together)
- Your housing costs
- Any mental or physical health problems that limit your capability for work
- Any children that you have responsibility for
- Childcare costs
- Caring responsibilities (for example for a disabled family member)
There will also be a benefit cap for UC, which again is quite complicated! Basically, if your income from UC and certain other benefits exceeds £1517 a month for a single person or £2167 a month for couples or lone parents, then the amount of UC you get will be reduced. There are various exceptions to this, especially if you’re disabled. Find out more about the Universal Credit Benefit Cap.
You can get a rough idea of how much UC you might be entitled to using this online benefits calculator.
Can I still get paid UC if I’m working?
You can still claim UC if you’re working and on a low income. Lots of people on low incomes don’t claim benefits they’re entitled to, so it’s worth checking if you’re entitled to UC.
Studying and claiming UC
There are a few circumstances where students can claim:
- If you’re under 21, in non-advanced education and have no parental support
- If you’re a foster parent or have children
- If you’re disabled and meet certain requirements
- If you have a partner who is entitled to UC
I’m aged 16 or 17, can I claim UC?
If you’re 16 or 17, you can only claim if you:
- Have limited capability for work through illness or disability,
- Have no relationship with your parents/guardians, or have no parents/guardians,
- Have caring responsibilities for a child or disabled person, or
- Are pregnant and 11 weeks or less before the due date, or within 15 weeks of giving birth
How can I appeal a decision about UC?
If you’re refused UC, or there’s a change in how much you get paid, you should get a decision letter. This will tell you what to do next if you want to challenge the decision. It’s important that you do this as soon as possible, as you’ll only have one month from the date of the letter to appeal.
You can find out more about the appeals process here.
Where can I go for help with UC?
Getting benefits is often a frustrating process. But there are lots of places you can go for help:
- Citizen’s advice volunteers know all about the benefits system and can help you understand your rights. You can visit your local bureau to get face-to-face advice and support. You must remember to bring along details of your benefits and general financial situation.
- This benefits calculator from Turn2us shows you how much benefit you should be getting – many people don’t realise how much they’re entitled to.
- Remember, if you want to challenge a decision about your benefit, you can appeal.
Unfortunately we are unable to offer benefits advice here at TheSite.
Remember to tell your benefits advisor if your circumstances change – for example, if you get a pay rise, new job or move in with a partner. If you don’t you could face a £50 fine, as well as having to pay back any extra benefit. See GOV.UK for more information.
Photo of confused girl by Shutterstock
- Use the Turn2Us calculator to work out what benefits and grants you're entitled to, or call their helpline on 0808 802 2000
- The Citizens Advice Bureau has a great Advice4Me page, which explains legal rights specifically for under-25s.
- Chat about this subject on our Discussion Boards.
- Need help but confused where to go locally? Download our StepFinder iPhone app to find local support services quickly.
By Danny Sherwood
Updated on 25-Apr-2014