Everyone needs good advice, whoever you are.

Universal Credit: What you need to know as job-hunting rules restart

From 1 July people claiming Universal Credit will begin to see a return of job-seeking requirements, which have been paused since 30 March due to Covid-19. 

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has said work coaches will be calling all claimants to help them prepare for work, although what people will need to do will depend on their Claimant Commitment. This is a document people need to agree to as part of getting Universal Credit.

The types of job-seeking activities people will be asked to do will vary depending on factors such as their health, current circumstances and which “conditionality” group they have been placed in. There are four groups, which set out the tasks they’re expected to complete in order to receive their full benefit payment. 

People who are in the All Work-Related Requirements Group usually have to, in the government’s words, do “all they can” to find a job or earn more. It promised they would not be penalised if they could not look for a job up until 30 June. From 1 July, the government has said it will take a “common-sense” approach to the job-hunting rules. 

Given many people have claimed Universal Credit for the first time during lockdown, Citizens Advice has set out the answers to some common questions its advisers are seeing: 

  1. What do I need to do to receive my Universal Credit?

    After applying for Universal Credit you should have been put in one the four “conditionality” groups. You can check which group you’re in by logging into your Universal Credit account online and checking your Claimant Commitment. This will tell you which group you’re in and what tasks you'll have to do regularly to get Universal Credit.These tasks could include writing your CV, signing up for job alerts or applying for vacancies.
    Some claimants who have not had a Jobcentre interview may not have a Claimant Commitment yet. The Department for Work and Pensions has said it will be calling all claimants to help them prepare for work, so people should expect to be contacted to set up the Claimant Commitment. The tasks you need to complete will depend on your Claimant Commitment.

  2. Does everyone claiming Universal Credit have to look for work?

    Most people will probably be put in the All Work-Related Requirements Group if they’re able to work. Depending on your circumstances, however, you might be put in a different “conditionality” group, say if you have children under the age of three, or are pregnant or disabled.
    In some cases you won't have to take any steps to prepare for work or improve your skills, in other cases you may have to have interviews with your work coach. You can check which group you’re in, and what you must do to receive your full Universal Credit payment, by logging into your Universal Credit account online. 
  3. What happens if I don’t meet the requirements?

    Failing to carry out the tasks set out in your Claimant Commitment could mean your Universal Credit payment is temporarily reduced, which is known as a sanction. The amount your Universal Credit will be reduced depends on factors such as how long the sanction lasts, and how quickly you complete the outstanding tasks. See gov.uk for more information.
  4. What if there are no jobs available?

    It’s very tricky for many who are job hunting at the moment, and it’s clear that finding jobs to apply for will be harder than usual. In order to show how you have completed the to-do list set out in your Claimant Commitment, try and keep a diary of the tasks you’ve done and how long they took, e.g. signing up to a recruitment agency. 

  5. Do I have to go to the Jobcentre to carry on claiming Universal Credit? 

    Usually you would need to go to the Jobcentre to have regular meetings with your work coach. You should agree with your work coach which tasks need to be done as part of the claimant commitment. The government cancelled all face-to-face appointments in March but has said that it will start to reopen Jobcentres from July. The DWP says people can make an appointment with their work coach if they can’t get the help they want online or over the phone. 

  6. How do I challenge a Universal Credit decision?

    You need to tell your work coach as soon as possible if you’re in the wrong “conditionality” group. Explain which exceptions apply and show them any evidence you can - for example a letter from your doctor if you’re sick, or the birth certificate for a child you care for.
    If your work coach won’t change your work-related activity group, you can complain to the Department for Work and Pensions. If you get a sanction even though you’ve explained your situation to your work coach, you can challenge the decision by asking for what is called a mandatory reconsideration.

...Continue
Charities call for council tax reform ahead of August debt D-Day
  • Government changes risk creating debt D-Day of 23 August

  • Over 1.3 million households likely to have built up council tax arrears because of coronavirus

  • Carers and people who’ve been shielding likely to be hit hardest

The UK’s three largest debt charities - Citizens Advice, Money Advice Trust and Stepchange - have today written to the Local Government Minister [ 180 kb] to call for urgent action on council tax. The charities are urging the government to implement simple measures that could protect millions of people from the prospect of spiralling council tax debt 

Following legislation which comes into effect on Wednesday 24 June, the ban on face-to-face bailiff collection will now come to an end on 23 August. This is the same day as protections from eviction end for people in the private rented sector and comes at a time when redundancies are expected to rise.

The charities are warning of potentially huge problems for those behind on council tax. Outdated government regulations mean councils often resort to bailiffs to collect outstanding debts. These rules drive councils to using court-based enforcement to recover council tax arrears, which is both harmful and inefficient. In 2018-19, the use of bailiffs added £200 million of fees to people’s debts, but councils recovered less than 30p out of every pound of debt referred. Councils are also the largest users of bailiffs – 1.4 million council tax debts were passed to bailiffs by councils in England and Wales in 2018/19.

According to figures from the Local Government Association, over £500m of council tax has gone unpaid during the coronavirus outbreak, a figure which could mean over 1.3million households in council tax arrears. While many councils have been supporting residents during the pandemic, their precarious financial position - and the government’s restrictive rules - may leave them little choice about calling in the bailiffs in August.

Research from Citizens Advice has shown that council tax arrears have hit some groups particularly hard. People who are behind on their council tax because of Covid-19 are twice as likely to have been shielding or at increased risk of the virus. They are also four times more likely to be caring for older family members.

Central government reform is needed to resolve this problem before the bailiff ban is lifted. The charities are calling for simple changes to the council tax regulations to give councils more flexibility to recover debts outside the court process. This decision can be enacted by ministers without taking up precious parliamentary time and has been supported by local councils.

Dame Gillian Guy, Chief Executive of Citizens Advice, said:

“The government now has a two-month window of opportunity to make changes to council tax collection that will help millions of people facing the prospect of spiralling debt. Over the last few years, Citizens Advice has helped hundreds of thousands of people with council tax arrears.

“Using bailiffs to collect debts is a blunt tool that’s extraordinarily damaging to those on the receiving end, and economically ineffective for councils.  Former government ministers, backbenchers, charities, campaigners and councils themselves are lining up to call for change on this issue. 

“People struggling with their council tax bills could now face a nervous summer waiting for the knock at the door. The government must take the opportunity to act to help people avoid this.”

Joanna Elson OBE, chief executive of the Money Advice Trust, said:

“There is an urgent need for changes to the way that council tax is collected before bailiff visits are allowed to resume.  The government must act to change the rules to ensure local authorities collect council tax debts in a fair and compassionate way, giving people the time they need to repay without unnecessarily resorting to bailiffs.

“Sadly, millions of people have already fallen behind with their bills – these changes are needed now to prevent a bad financial situation being made worse by heavy-handed debt collection practices.”

Phil Andrew, chief executive of StepChange Debt Charity, said:

“As things stand, there is a fundamental disconnect between the way in which enforcement against debts like council tax is being restarted and the way in which regulated lenders are expected and required to behave by the FCA, with a clear focus on realistic affordability and fair treatment. It’s simply not right that, after everything we’ve experienced through the pandemic, the resumption of council tax debt collection and enforcement seems set to resume on a “business as usual” basis.

“Improving council tax debt collection needs to be part of the Government’s wider post-Covid financial recovery strategy. If ever there was a time to grasp the nettle and reform the outdated mechanisms that hinder local authorities from adopting a more compassionate, flexible and realistic way of reaching affordable repayment plans on council tax, now is surely that moment.”

...Continue
Three months of a pandemic: Citizens Advice data shows furlough is the most popular advice topic - but redundancy concerns on the rise

Citizens Advice is warning its data shows that people are becoming increasingly concerned about redundancy as the nation moves into a new phase where government support packages are scaled back.

For 66 days straight, the charity’s page on being furloughed was the number one viewed on its website. But over the last month it’s become clear that people are increasingly worried about redundancy.

The charity’s main redundancy webpage overtook furlough to be the most viewed page on 5 June and while it’s now the number two viewed page,  three other redundancy advice pages now also sit in its top 10 most viewed web pages. 

Searches on the charity’s website also show this evolution of people’s concerns. In the first month, (11 March - 10 April) the top search term was coronavirus, in the second month, furlough, and last month, redundancy. 

Citizens Advice has also found that people are no longer concentrating on the same handful of issues as they adapt to changing coronavirus challenges.

Since Covid-19 was declared a global pandemic three months ago, the advice pages on the charity’s website have been viewed more than 15.8 million times, a 24% increase on the same period last year.

In the first month the charity saw a lot of changes in what people were looking for advice on - from flight and accommodation cancellations to sick pay and what to do if you can’t pay your bills. 

By mid April, when the lockdown was well underway and government interventions in place, Citizens Advice saw the top five issues become very clear. Furlough, self employment, benefits, not being able to pay bills, and Universal Credit were consistently the most viewed pages.

But over the last month, as things are moving towards a new phase, the data shows the pattern reverting to being more volatile.

In the last four weeks, as well as redundancy page views being on the rise, pages on ending your tenancy have crept into the top six most viewed. While numbers are lower, the page on divorce has been in the top five most viewed pages on Sunday’s since mid-May.

As lockdown measures continue to be relaxed, and government interventions start to wind down, Citizens Advice expects to see continual changes as problems re-emerge. The charity anticipates it will see issues similar to the start of the pandemic like people struggling to pay bills and seeking advice on sick pay and benefits.

Dame Gillian Guy, Chief Executive of Citizens Advice, said:

“People are going to feel worried and stressed as the effects of coronavirus continue to be felt in the weeks, months and even years ahead.

“Our data gives an early warning of the different challenges coming down the road as people navigate the economic consequences of Covid-19.

“As more and more companies lay off staff, we’ve seen people searching for advice on redundancy ramp up over the last month.

“With lockdown measures continuing to ease and protections on jobs and bills starting to be scaled back, it’s vital government listens to these worries and adapts their policies accordingly." 

GRAPHS

MONTH ONE: RAPIDLY CHANGING CONCERNS

March-April Website Trends

MONTH TWO: CONCERNS BECOME MORE CONSISTENT 

Apr-May Website Trends

MONTH THREE: ISSUES BECOME MORE VARIED AND DEMAND FOR REDUNDANCY ADVICE RISES

May - June Website Trends

...Continue
Citizen Advice welcomes new funding for debt advice

Responding to the announcement of additional funding for the debt advice sector, Dame Gillian Guy says:

“As coronavirus continues to take its toll on household incomes, it’s likely many people will be falling into debt. It’s vital they’re able to access free, impartial and confidential advice to help them manage their finances in this tough situation. That’s why today’s announcement of much-needed funding for debt advice is good news. 

“We'll continue to work with the government, the Money and Pensions Service, and our partners in the sector to ensure people struggling with debt get the help and support that they need.”

...Continue