On 16 March, the Minister for Communities Deirdre Hargey quickly introduced a set of changes to working practices during the pandemic. For many already in receipt of benefits, this amounted to a temporary lifting of what they had experienced as onerous and punitive conditions for receiving the support to which they were entitled. Some of the changes to practice were announced initially for a 3-month period, meaning that in theory they would expire at the end of June; others came later, or with no explicit timescale attached.
The Communities Minister announced that all routine appointments at local Jobs & Benefits offices had been postponed, and that people due to sign on would be excused from doing so. The Department for Communities advised people already receiving benefits that their payments would continue through the pandemic period (if need be through an extension of end date), and that rather than attending the office for appointments, communications would happen online, by phone or would be rescheduled. Importantly, it assured people that they would not be penalised as a result of a postponed appointment or for not attending the office.
Universal Credit and Employment and Support Allowance applicants were informed they would be treated as “having limited capability for work from the start of your claim without a fit note, an assessment or some form of statutory public health notice”. Work search and work availability requirements for Universal Credit and Job Seeker’s Allowance applicants were waived. Previously mandatory reviews and reassessments for Personal Independence Payments, Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit, Disability Living Allowance for both children and those aged 65+, and Attendance Allowance were suspended.
Carers were told that they would continue to be paid Carer’s Allowance, even if they had temporarily ceased to care for a severely disabled person due to either of them self-isolating or being infected with COVID-19. During the pandemic, emotional support would also count towards the 35 hours a week carers’ spend providing care for someone who is ill or has a disability. Importantly however, unpaid family carers across the UK reported feeling unsupported in the midst of the state’s Covid response, many saying that if anything the lockdown and enforced social distancing measures have increased the burden on them and calling for additional support.
Following a Department of Work and Pension policy shift on 3 April, on 13 May the Department for Communities announced that collections of benefits over-payments and loans would be suspended for three months.
Changes to payments
As it became clear that increasing numbers of households would be signing-on due to the pressures of the Covid-19 response lockdown, authorities announced changes to the standard Universal Credit allowance and the basic element in Working Tax Credit from 6 April that would result in an additional £20 per week for the next calendar year, for both new and existing claimants to either (they cannot be claimed simultaneously). This was additional to the usual annual uprating of benefit payments; for a single Universal Credit claimant aged 25 and over, this translated to a rise from £317.82 to £409.89 a monthi. However, it should be noted that this increase in payment does not apply to benefit claimants on JSA or ESA, a discrepancy highlighted by the government's own Social Security Advisory Committee (SSAC). In a letter to the Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey MP the Committee described this situation as ’increasingly untenable’.
Administrators of the programme also temporarily relaxed its Minimum Income Floor, which previously was used to work out a person’s award based on the assumed level of earnings for their age group and number of work hours, using instead people’s actual earnings. Applications were to be made online (assuming a level of internet access and digital literacy that not all, clearly, possessed).
Among the serious criticisms of the Universal Credit programme since its inception has been the long delay in receiving payments, which has caused hardship to many households.
Among the serious criticisms of the Universal Credit programme since its inception has been the long delay in receiving payments, which has caused hardship to many households. Authorities had previously set up a system for people to request advance payments while waiting for their claim to be processed. In normal times these were to be repaid promptly, though during the pandemic provision was made to defer repayments.
People with a disability or health condition affecting their ability to work – or who were self-isolating or shielding - were also informed that they were eligible for new style Employment and Support Allowance. Those who had lost a job were advised to apply for new style Jobseeker’s Allowance.
From 25 March, the Department for Communities offered an emergency Discretionary Support grant payment to assist with short-term living expenses where a member of a household had been infected by COVID-19 or told to self-isolate. The department said that the award would be calculated based on individual circumstances, with no limit on the amount. On 21 April the Department for Communities reported that over £1 million in emergency financial support had been distributed to more than 5,000 households. It set out changes to Discretionary Support legislation -- an Annual Income Threshold of £20,405 for recipients – as well as eligibility and mechanisms for a range of other benefit grants and emergency advances.
Asylum seekers and others with No Recourse to Public Funds
As mentioned above with regard to skilled migrant workers such as NHS staff, who also have No Recourse to Public Funds, they are excluded from a range of benefits including sick pay if they were to call ill with Covid-19 in the course of carrying out their work.
Others with No Recourse to Public Funds include asylum seekers; while evictions from asylum accommodation have been paused during the pandemic, the basic weekly support package of £37.75 per week for essentials has not been increased, despite the government’s admission, in the context of the Universal Credit rise, that household prices have increased. This causes additional harm to people who have already run a gauntlet of suffering, first in their home countries, then in transit, and finally under the UK Home Office’s punitive asylum system.
A range of bodies, including for instance the Local Government Association in England, the Welsh Local Government Association and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA), have called for a removal of the No Recourse to Public Funds condition during the pandemic.
Tomorrow, in the concluding article of this series, Paige Jennings will outline key recommendations to expand and sustain both the income and social security policy changes.
Paige Jennings is a policy officer for PPR. She has worked in human rights and development roles in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, for a range of local, international and United Nations organisations. She has been an Amnesty International researcher and has written for Minority Rights Group, Child Soldiers International, UNDP and UNHCR.