Ruth Lister drew attention, in the House of Lords last week, to the impact of the Decisions and Appeals Regulations on changes of circumstances. I missed the point first time around, but it’s important, and it has a particular implication when it’s taken into account along with other rules. Universal Credit is intended not just to be paid monthly but to be assessed monthly. Those ought to have been separable, and in one sense they are – the payment that a claimant receives is intended to cover them for the following month. However, the government is determined to have benefits assessed in ‘real time’, so entitlements for the month will change if circumstances change at any point during that month. The DWP memorandum explains:
Universal Credit is a dynamic benefit which is calculated on the basis of a wide range of personal circumstances and which is assessed and paid monthly. We therefore propose an approach to changes of circumstance which seeks to ensure that, at the end of each assessment period, the claimant is paid the amount we think they will need to manage over the coming month (next assessment period). We propose to achieve this by treating changes of circumstance which affect the amount of the award as if they occurred at the beginning of the assessment period, for the purpose of the award calculation. This is termed the “whole month” approach.
Claimants are expected to repay any overpayment, no matter what the circumstances in which it occurs.
This means that if someone’s relationship breaks down during the course of the month, their payment at the end of the month will be reduced – in some cases, immediately; if the system hasn’t caught up, they will have to repay anything they are not entitled to. That’s difficult enough. Beyond that, though, the combined effect of this rule with the under-occupancy rules also implies that, in cicumstances where a partner removes children from the house, entitlement to help with rent will be also cut instantly. That is likely to present major problems for people who will have no reasonable opportunity or ability to adjust their expenditure to their income.