Coronavirus – changes to the benefits system

The government has made several significant changes to the benefits system in order to support people’s incomes during the coronavirus outbreak and to allow the DWP to focus their resources on processing claims. 

These changes include:

  • The standard rate in Universal Credit and tax credits will be increased by £20 a week for one year from 6 April. 
  • From April 2020, Local Housing Allowance rates will pay for at least 30% of market rents in each area.
  • The suspension of reassessments and face to face contact requirements.

This update covers the following issues and changes to the benefits system:

  • Surge in benefit claims
  • New outbound calls by Job Centres
  • Freeze on debt recovery
  • Voucher scheme for free school meals
  • Rent changes April 2020
  • Updates from the DWP

We are urgently raising critical issues with the DWP and we will continue to work with DWP staff to support residents through these difficult times. If your organisation is experiencing issues with the benefit system, please get in touch with us.

Surge in benefits claims

The DWP has seen a surge in people trying to make a new claim for Universal Credit. In response to this they have moved nearly all staff to work on dealing with frontline claims.

Some members have reported tenants having difficulty contacting the DWP by phone and are concerned that people were not able to make a claim in time to get their full entitlement. There is also concern that some residents may not be able to manage their claim online while self-isolating or with the closure of local services. 

The DWP has implemented easements around the Claimant Commitment and verification requirements. We are in regular contact with the government and are continuing to explore how housing associations can work with DWP to help support people with their claim and to raise concerns around people who struggle to manage.

We want to hear from members about your experience in the current crisis and the work you are doing to support tenants, so please get in touch with any issues or best practice that you would like to share.

Outbound calls by Job Centre staff

Where people are making a new claim online, DWP has tried to reduce the need for them to call. The work coach at the Job Centre will now call in due course to complete any action required to maintain the claim.  In some cases, the DWP is able to put a note in the Universal Credit journal first thing in the morning to tell people that the DWP will be phoning them today. If the DWP is unable to get through after a number of attempts then a message will be put on people’s journals advising them to phone DWP to book an appointment.

DWP to stop debt recovery including for rent arrears

The DWP are stopping debt recovery activity as soon as possible. This includes all benefit-related overpayments, Tax Credit debts, rent and utility arrears. Many activities will cease immediately but others may take longer to implement. The suspension of debt recovery action is in place until further notice.

What this means:

  • Deductions from Universal Credit and Legacy for benefit overpayments, Social Fund loans and Tax Credit debts managed by DWP Debt Management will be suspended. This action will commence immediately but an IT solution will need to be implemented to stop some deductions for Debt Management.
  • The recovery of Advances by deduction from Universal Credit payments will continue.
  • Local Authorities will suspend referral of Housing Benefit overpayments.
  • Recovery from estates will temporarily cease.
  • For people who are not in receipt of benefits, DWP has said that it has directed private sector debt collection agencies to stop their activity for Debt Management customers and are suspending voluntary debt repayments and recovery by Direct Earnings Attachments.

Voucher scheme launched for free school meals

A voucher scheme has been launched for children who are unable to access free school meals in England due to the coronavirus outbreak.

The government has said that schools can continue to provide meals for collection or delivery themselves but, where this is not possible, the scheme will allow schools to provide £15 weekly vouchers to families electronically, or as a gift card to use at a range of supermarkets.

For more information, visit the government’s website.

Rent changes April 2020

If rent is changing, then tenants who receive Universal Credit must notify the DWP of the new amount they will be paying. Tenants will receive a “to-do” item in their journal on the week beginning 6 April to tell them to do this (regardless of whether the rent is changing or not). This is the same system that DWP announced at the end of February and we have not received any notification of any changes. 

Rent changes normally trigger a need for verification by the social landlord. The NHF has raised with DWP the need to reduce the burden of verification requests at this time and we have requested that DWP should take a risk-based approach and apply a tolerance before verification is required.

Key resources

From the DWP

Other resources

  • Rights Net has made its news free for non-subscribers. You can find daily updates on welfare rights and housing law.  

Who to speak to

Sue Ramsden, Policy Leader