Universal Credit: Council health chief warns government over ‘one size fits all’ reform

Cllr Janet Burgess

Concerns: Cllr Janet Burgess. Photograph: Islington Council

Concerns surrounding access to Universal Credit for people with learning disabilities are not being fully addressed by central government, according to Islington Council’s deputy leader.

Councillor Janet Burgess, who is also executive member for health and wellbeing, recently heard from health workers and people with learning disabilities at a meeting of the Islington Learning Disability Partnership on 31 July.

It prompted her to write to Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Esther McVey to point out the potentially daunting complexity of applying for Universal Credit.

The letter says that computer access and the level of computer literacy required to fill out the online form could have a significant impact on people with learning disabilities adapting to the new system.

An Islington Council spokesperson said: “People with learning disabilities have high needs and are a vulnerable group, and Universal Credit represents a big change that they may struggle to adapt to.

“At the most recent meeting of the Islington Learning Disability Partnership, Cllr Burgess agreed it was essential the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) was fully aware of the unintended impact of the roll-out of Universal Credit on people with learning disabilities, so it can look to make necessary changes.”

In response to Cllr Burgess’ letter, a DWP spokesperson said: “Support is available for people with learning disabilities making a Universal Credit claim, including face-to-face guidance and the Universal Credit helpline.

“For anyone unable to manage their own affairs, support workers or appointees can make a claim on their behalf. For anyone with mobility issues, a visiting service is available.”

The DWP added that jobcentres have wi-fi and computers available for people to manage their Universal Credit account, and that all work coaches delivering Universal Credit receive training on supporting claimants with health conditions.

However, speaking to the Citizen, Cllr Burgess said: “We hope to receive a formal and fuller response from the DWP in due course. This initial comment does not really address the concerns raised in the letter.

“People with learning disabilities can find it daunting to log onto a computer in a Jobcentre, which is why the community is asking for application forms to be printable.

“Also, people with learning disabilities may not be comfortable calling a helpline and speaking to a stranger, and would prefer to speak to someone in a quiet one-to-one setting.

“Although it is good that work coaches delivering Universal Credit receive training, this needs to be extended to specific training on supporting people with learning disabilities for all Jobcentre staff.”

“Both the DWP and the central government must recognise that Universal Credit cannot be a ‘one size fits all’ scheme.

“The DWP should consult with representatives of the learning disabilities community so that Universal Credit does not unintentionally leave them behind.”

Universal Credit is a single monthly payment combining six former benefit payments: child tax credit, housing benefit, income support, income-based jobseeker’s allowance (JSA), income-related employment and support allowance (ESA), and working tax credit.

All new benefit claimants in Islington, as well as existing benefit claimants who have experienced a change in their circumstances, were transferred to Universal Credit on 20 June 2018.

Islington Council states on its website that all other benefit claimants will also be transferred “probably by 2023”, though they have not received confirmation from the government when the change will start.