The assessment cycle and statement
DWP describes Universal Credit as a ‘single monthly payment’. 1 This seemingly simple concept generates a lot of complexity when it comes to explaining how a payment has been calculated and how it interfaces with the messy reality of people’s working lives.
As noted earlier, the total amount of money owed to a claimant is calculated at the end of a month-long ‘assessment period’ that starts from the original application date. Payments are made seven days after the end of that period. The exception to this is Scotland, where devolved powers enable claimants to request payments to be made every two weeks.2
Shortly before the payment is made, a statement appears in the digital account. It can be accessed from the homepage and includes a high-level breakdown of how the payment has been calculated.3 This means that claimants do not know how much they will be paid until a statement appears in their digital account.4 In addition to explaining how a payment has been calculated, the statement has an additional function: a printout or screenshot of the statement can be used as proof of entitlement for things like free NHS prescriptions.5
From a visual design point of view, the statement is clearly designed, highlighting important dates, amounts and a breakdown of how the calculation was made. The breakdown details any income from employment along with the different elements of the Universal Credit payment - for example, how much a claimant is receiving because they have a child. It also includes the date and time that the payment will be made, along with any deductions or sanctions.
Despite the clarity of the visual design, the complexity of the assessment cycle and the hyper-means-tested nature of Universal Credit mean that the challenge of making the calculation actually understandable is significant. The Child Poverty Action Group has documented many issues with the design of the statement and found that DWP staff are often unable to explain how a claimant’s payment has been calculated.6
Mirroring the world of work?
The seven day payment period at the end of the assessment period appears to be arbitrary, imposed by the department to give it time to calculate the amount owed to claimants and for the payment to reach their bank account. In addition to delaying when claimants will receive their first payment, it means that they must hold a complex mental model in their heads consisting of four separate dates:
- the start and end dates of the month-long assessment period
- the date of payment
- and the date the statement will become available
Despite the aspiration for Universal Credit to “mirror the world of work”, this is clearly a more complex arrangement than PAYE employment.
This is further complicated by the reality that claimant’s pay may be irregular or misaligned with the Universal Credit cycle. By DWP’s own estimates, 25% of people are not paid monthly by their employers.7 This means that many people are receiving multiple pay cheques in a single Universal Credit payment cycle. In turn, this causes unpredictability for claimants and more complexity in the mental model they must maintain. Both the guidance that DWP publishes to advise claimants on how to manage non-monthly earnings and the guidance for DWP staff are hard to understand, even for someone familiar with the details of the policy.8 9
According to DWP’s data, in April 2019 6% of claims were not paid in full and on time (although this is a significant decrease from 16% in April 2018)10 This, plus the complexity of the calculation and monthly cycle means it is important that there are clear routes for claimants to hold DWP to account if they think there is something wrong. If a claimant feels that there is a mistake with a payment, the statement explains the steps they can take. Firstly, they can request a written explanation of the calculation, although it is unclear how the written explanation differs from the statement. The second option is to appeal.
In the first instance, appeals must be made to DWP itself using a process called “mandatory reconsideration”. This is a rule that applies to any decision made by DWP, for example, a sanction decision. Only once this process has been completed is it possible for claimants to appeal to the Courts and Tribunal Service (HMCTS).11 These steps are explained in the statement. However, it is important to note that there are no links to forms or further information and it explains that requests for written explanations must be done by phone or post. Guidance on the GOV.UK website explains that it is possible to request a mandatory reconsideration via the journal, but this is not explained as part of the statement and there is no dedicated online form for requesting one.12 13
Appeals to HMCTS must be done via a printed form.14 This means that digital routes for claimants to raise a concern about a decision by DWP are either absent altogether or, to some extent, obfuscated. The question of which parts of the system have been digitised and which have not, and how this affects the application process, is covered in the next section.
In most circumstances - see example of Scotland below for where this is different ↩
“Money Guidance and APA”, http://data.parliament.uk/DepositedPapers/Files/DEP2019-0980/81._Money_guidance_and_APA_v24.0.pdf ↩
“Using your online account”, Understanding Universal Credit, https://www.understandinguniversalcredit.gov.uk/already-claimed/if-you-have-an-online-account/ ↩
See this FOI request for a more recent example of a statement than shown in the Universal Credit in Action video: “Proof of universal credit - a Freedom of Information request to Department for Work and Pensions”, WhatDoTheyKnow, 21st May 2018, https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/proof_of_universal_credit ↩
“NHS Prescriptions and Universal Credit - YouTube”, NHS Prescriptions and Universal Credit - YouTube, 2nd February 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=12vSM2UqmwU ↩
Child Poverty Action Group, “Computer says no!”, May 2019, p22, https://cpag.org.uk/news-blogs/news-listings/universal-credit-claimants-left-dark-about-their-entitlements, retrieved 27th October 2019 ↩
Universal Credit, “Personal Budgeting Support and Alternative Payment Arrangement”, p3, November 2014, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/378300/personal-budgeting-support-guidance.pdf ↩
Department for Work and Pensions, “Universal Credit: different earning patterns and your payments (payment cycles)”, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/universal-credit-different-earning-patterns-and-your-payments/universal-credit-different-earning-patterns-and-your-payments-payment-cycles#if-youre-paid-every-4-weeks ↩
“Surplus, fluctuating and irregular earnings plus payment cycles”, http://data.parliament.uk/DepositedPapers/Files/DEP2019-0980/124._Surplus_fluctuating_irregular_earnings_plus_payment_cycles_v2.0.pdf ↩
Department for Work and Pension, “Universal Credit statistics: 29 April 2013 to 11 July 2019”, 13th August 2019, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/universal-credit-29-april-2013-to-11-july-2019/universal-credit-statistics-29-april-2013-to-11-july-2019, retrieved 27th October 2019 ↩
Citizens Advice, “Appealing against a Universal Credit decision at a tribunal”, Citizens Advice, https://www.citizensadvice.org.uk/benefits/universal-credit/problems-with-your-payment/appealing-a-universal-credit-decision-at-a-tribunal/ ↩
HM Government, “Challenge a benefit decision (mandatory reconsideration)”, GOV.UK, https://www.gov.uk/mandatory-reconsideration/how-to-ask-for-mandatory-reconsideration ↩
“Mandatory Reconsiderations”, http://data.parliament.uk/DepositedPapers/Files/DEP2019-0980/76._Mandatory_Reconsideration_v4.0.pdf ↩
HM Courts & Tribunals Service, “Form SSCS1: Appeal a social security benefits decision (Notice of appeal)”, GOV.UK, 14th December 2018, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/appeal-a-social-security-benefits-decision-form-sscs1 ↩