Universal Credit is about to go into full service in Oxfordshire and at Headway Oxfordshire we have some concerns about the issues that this will cause for People with Brain injuries and for Headway as an organisation.
A key and essential element of our support work (and part of our organisational aims and objectives) is to provide advice and advocacy to those affected by brain injury. Without this support, many people with Brain injuries become homeless and/or end up in serious debt. Since the recent cuts in statutory funding and changes in benefits and social care support, we are seeing a considerable increase in “crises scenarios” arising and demand for this element of our work. At the same time Headway Oxfordshire has had all of its statutory funding withdrawn as a consequence of arbitrary decision making during local government cuts. Part of the consequences of these cuts to our organisation has been the reduction of our Community Support Team from 4 to 2 workers.
Against this backdrop of increasing demand and dwindling resources, we are already witnessing the damaging consequences of an inappropriate and inequitable assessment system for access to Social Security benefits. People with Brain Injuries often have ‘hidden’ Cognitive and Psychological disabilities that the current system of Health Assessment fails to recognise and only after mandatory reconsideration and appeal do we successfully get people onto the current Employment and Support Allowance.
To compound this injustice those affected by brain injury will now be further unfairly disadvantaged by the introduction of Universal Credit for the following reasons:
- Applications will have to be made on line, this is a difficulty because:
- The majority of our clients are unable to use a computer.
- The vast majority do not have and are unable to afford a smart phone, laptop or other device.
- There only access to a computer would be at a library and most cannot travel independently to a library.
- The vast majority of our clients have memory problems and the system relies on them remembering their password. We have been told that we are not allowed to know this or record it for them – which means that even if they can access a computer and internet, they will find it hard to log in to their account.
- If Headway Oxfordshire is going to assist people who do not have their own computers or internet access, then this will be an additional cost for the organisation to ensure that their staffs have a tool that they can make applications on and a way of having internet access on this, whilst in the community.
A telephone service to access Universal Credit.
2. Ongoing communications will be via a messaging service, this is a difficulty because:
- As above, our clients do not have the ability to access such a service, because of their cognitive abilities and the lack of infrastructure.
- Headway relies on our clients having letters physically posted to them, so that we can either see these when we visit or clients call us when they receive a letter that they do not understand and this prompts us to visit. We would then telephone the Department of Work and Pensions and assist in sorting out the issue there and then. If there is no physical letter and we do not know that there is a problem, then we cannot solve it.
- If we have to rely on electronic written messages going back and forth from the Department of Work and pensions, these are unlikely to appear on the 1 hour that we might be at the clients home – so we might have to visit on several occasions. This will increase the number of visits we have to make to clients and have extremely serious implications for our clients, as their benefits may stop, include their housing benefit and subsistence money. The statistics for Housing Arrears in those areas of the country where there is full services already make worrying reading.
An enquiry line that can give people quick answers to queries.
Letters to be sent to those who cannot access their online account.
3. The 6 week assessment process, this is a difficulty because:
- Most of our clients will have spent several months in hospital and / or will have been living on statutory sick pay and / or will have had no money and will not have the reserves to manage 6 weeks without any payment.
- We understand that you can apply for a hardship payment – but this will mean additional work for Headway staff.
- During the assessment period, claimants will be expected to meet the full conditions for Universal Credit – regardless of whether they are able to work or not. Our understanding is that this will generally involve going to the job centre fortnightly and to be seen as looking for work. The vast majority of our client group would be unable to do this. The 2 Community Support Workers will not be able to assist all the clients that we have to meet these conditions. We generally have 4 new referrals a week – 80% of which will need support in getting benefits – the work that supporting them to apply for and get through the universal credit system is going to be immense.
When people have a medical note from the Doctor, saying that they are unfit for work, they do not have to meet the conditionality aspects of Universal Credit, whilst they are waiting for the assessment period to finish.
Health Assessments will be provided by a medical professional who have an understanding of brain injury, to reduce the number of times we have to go to appeal.
Increase the funding for Headway Oxfordshire and specialist benefit advice services in Oxfordshire.
Reduce the 6 week period for all Universal Credit claimants.
4. Payments being made 4 weekly, including payments for Housing, this is a difficulty because:
- Many of our clients have difficulties with memory, information processing and planning. This makes it very hard for them to budget, understand the benefit system and understand their obligations – for example, to pay for their housing. Some people with Brain Injuries have difficulties that mean that they are impulsive and / or easily manipulated by others in the community – this means that money can disappear quickly. In the past, this did not put peoples housing at risk – but it will do now.
- In the past, many more of our clients were supported by Money Management services at Social Services, but this service now has a long waiting list and has been subject to cuts, so that our clients are left with little support. We are aware that it is possible to get peoples Housing element paid directly to their landlord and that you can ask for payments to be made fortnightly – but again, this is likely to have an implication for the number of hours it will take our Community Support workers to assist people to get their benefits in place.
Requests for direct payments to landlords and weekly / fortnightly payments to be a simple tick box on the form, not something you have to make a case for separately.
Headway Oxfordshire are calling for changes to be made so that the Universal Credit system does not cause the unintended hardships that we can foresee for our clients and our organisation.
Read more about general concerns over Universal Credit at the Guardian Online here