Around 25,000 people in weekly paid low paid work who top their wages up with Universal Credit will get less benefit or none at all in the month leading up to Christmas.
Universal Credit is supposed to make work pay. It uses real time information passed to Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs (HMRC) by employers to adjust the benefit each month according to how much income is earned. So the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) should know immediately if income changes in the month it is assessed over.
The underlying problem for weekly paid people is that weekly into monthly doesn't go exactly and they tend to budget weekly when the bulk of their money comes in, not monthly as the Department would like them to.
Jane lives in Altrincham with her daughter Zoe aged 5. After her well-paid partner left her she claimed Universal Credit on 9 September 2017. Her assessment period started seven days later (the infamous waiting period) and thus ran from 16 September to 15 October. She then had to wait seven days for the benefit to be credited to her bank account. It arrived on 22 October and will do so on the 22nd of every month.
She is paid weekly and her earnings are constant so she expects the same amount of UC each month. In fact the amount she gets each month will depend on her income in the assessment period which runs from 16th to the 15th of the month.
Jane works 40 hours a week at £12.50 an hour. Her Mum looks after Zoe outside school hours. In October and November she got £220 UC which was a great help. Her December payment is due on 22 December and she is glad it will come just in time for a late Christmas shop and stop her getting overdraft charges. Her employer pays her weekly on a Friday. In assessment period leading up to her her December payment she is paid on 17 and 24 of November and 1, 8, and 15 of December. Those five pay packets mean her income is 25% more than it was in the four pay packet months of October and November. That is enough to stop her entitlement to Universal Credit in December.
Although she has had extra income from her job in that assessment month her weekly pay is always earmarked to pay £520 a month rent, food, utility bills, council tax, and travel to work costs. She was counting on the usual Universal Credit payment to top up her earnings on 22nd to give her a bit more for her children after Christmas. When it is zero Jane has to abandon those plans as she budgets weekly and is not sure why the payment has stopped.
Chris is 22 and moved to Southend-on-Sea in the summer to get a job working 38 hours a week on £7.05 an hour minimum wage. Chris had been homeless and in a hostel for some months. He rents a one bedroom flat which is allowed in those circumstances under Universal Credit rules. After tax his pay is £245 a week, nearly half of which goes to pay his rent. So when he is told he can get Universal Credit he is very pleased. He claimed it on 9 September too and was puzzled he had to wait so long for any money. But nearly £140 arrived in his bank account on 22 October and was very helpful, not least to pay back some money his work mates had lent him during his six week wait. The same amount arrived on 22 November and friends told him he would now get that every month. But it did not arrive on 22 December. He thought it was late over Christmas but it was still not there when he went back to work on 27th.
By the end of the week his boss said he should call the Universal Credit helpline and kindly let him use the office phone in his lunch hour. He was told the lack of a payment was correct as he was no longer entitled to Universal Credit. He now has to reapply for his benefit before 15 Jan to make sure he gets his next payment on time on 22 January. He has to do that online. When he first claimed he used the local library. When he finally gets a time slot to use a computer there he is told he needs his username and password which he cannot remember. After two goes he answers his security questions and can eventually log on and re-claim. Not everyone would be so lucky
Why it happens
The experiences of Jane and Chris are not errors. They happen because Universal Credit is assessed over a period of a month - from the nth day of one to the (n-1)th day of the next (If the assessment period begins in the last days of the month, then it assessed from the end of one month to the end of the next). So the assessment period can be 31, 30, 28, or 29 days. The money is paid into a bank account seven days later. In four out of the twelve months in the year people who are paid weekly will have five paydays. In the other eight they will have four paydays. When their income in the assessment period changes that alters the amount of their universal credit. In the periods when they have five paydays the benefit will be reduced and in some cases it will disappear altogether.
Neil Couling, the Director General of Universal Credit agrees. Responding on Twitter @neilcouling when I first reported this story, he tweeted
- This so called problem would have occurred at Christmas 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016. In fact it is just the system working as intended, adjusting to changes in household income.
The latest figures from the Department for Work and Pensions (15 November 2017) show there are 250,000 people on Universal Credit who work and the DWP has told me that 67,000 of them are paid weekly. Every month about a third of those weekly paid people will find that they have five pay days taken into account and their money will be reduced. The DWP has confirmed it will happen to 25,000 claimants in December, as it will every month. For some, like Jane and Chris, the rise will be enough to wipe out their entitlement to Universal Credit. Others will just get less Universal Credit. The Department points out that their wages and their total income will be higher in five week assessment periods. That is strictly true. But as the first payday arrives on the 17th and the next on the 15th of the next month it is not much help when juggling regular outgoings on a limited weekly budget, especially over Christmas.
The DWP has also said in a @dwppressoffice tweet
- UC payments adjust to people’s earnings so they get a stable income each month including over Christmas
The problem is recognised in the official explanation of payment cycles which confirms that people paid more frequently than monthly will face reduced or missing Universal Credit payments in some assessment periods.
- You will need to be prepared for a month when you get 5 wage payments in one assessment period and budget for a potential change in your monthly Universal Credit payments.
If the benefit does vanish, the method for re-claiming is different depending on the Jobcentre where the claim was first made.
- In Live Service areas (also called Gateway areas) the claim should just be rolled over automatically. It only ends if an individual is above the income limit to get some benefit for more than six consecutive months. Live Service areas will disappear by the end of 2018.
- People in Full Service areas - like Jane and Chris - will have to reapply. This should be a simple online process and if done promptly the claim should be accepted and they should keep the same assessment period and payday.
Other payment periods
The problem does not just affect those who are paid each week. People paid fortnightly will have two months in the year in which they get three pay packets instead of two. Anyone who is paid four weekly will get two pay packets in a single month once a year. Even those paid monthly can be affected if their firm brings forward a payday to before a Bank Holiday, such as Christmas or Easter, and that means there are two monthly payments made in one assessment period. Tax rebates and payments from the Student Loans Company can also affect one month's benefit. In all those cases it is more likely than with weekly payments that the Universal Credit will be wiped out and a re-claim will be required in Full Service areas.
- Take the 31 possible UC payment days in the month before Christmas from Friday 24 November to Saturday 23 December
- Look at the corresponding 31 assessment periods which begin with 18 October to 17 November and end with 17 November to 16 December.
- Count the number of work paydays (assumed to be Fridays) in those 31 assessment periods. There are 12 assessment periods with five Fridays and 19 with four Fridays.
- The proportion of assessment periods with five Fridays is 12/31 = 38.7%. With a total of 67,000 weekly paid Universal Credit claimants that gives the figure of 25,935 whose assessment period will have five paydays in it.
- Using different paydays there are either 10 (Sunday, Monday, Tuesday),11 (Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday) or 12 (Friday) assessment periods with five paydays. Friday is the most common payday so I used Friday. Using other paydays the number of those affected is 21,613 for 10 and 23,774 for 11. Those results are not unexpected. With 67,000 weekly paid and each being affected one month in four a simple average gives 22,333 affected each month.
- The main assumptions are that weekly pay is constant and people are equally likely to apply on any day of the year.
There will be a very few people among those who have a 'work allowance' whose income from their job is so low that the extra week's pay will not reduce their Universal Credit.
People who lose all their UC payment in five week months but get some in four week months will end up over the year with more UC than if they were paid the same annual income but monthly. At lesat, they will if the make sure they reclaim the UC in time.
The DWP cannot at the moment say how many of those affected by the five week problem will lose all their Universal Credit and how many will lose only some of it.
The loss of Universal Credit in a month can affect entitlement to other benefits such as council tax support, free school meals, and free or cheaper NHS services. Some older NHS forms may not have a 'universal credit' box to tick to get the help even if it is available. If the DWP takes a third party deduction for rent arrears or other items these will also stop if there is no UC in a month to deduct it from.
In Scotland people in Full Service areas who claimed from 4 October 2017 can choose to be paid twice a month.
All employers do not pass the information on pay on to HMRC immediately and that can mean Universal Credit is - wrongly - assessed on reported income rather than income actually received.
Jane and Chris are exemplars, not real case studies. The numbers are rounded and may differ by a pound or two from the actual amounts they would get. All the figures have been checked with two or three sources. It is assumed that neither of them has savings or other income.
Jane and her erstwhile partner did not claim tax credits before he left her. Jane will also get Child Benefit and possibly maintenance from Zoe's father. Neither would affect her Universal Credit payment. Neither Chris nor Jane is entitled to help with their council tax - their incomes are too high.