So much has changed in the world of benefits since March, and it’s been extraordinary to see how fast the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) can adapt its systems to cope with these challenging times. The purpose of this short blog is to give you a summary of the main Coronavirus-related benefit changes, and some very useful website links so that you can do your own more in-depth research if necessary.
We’re going to take a look at how the Coronavirus pandemic has forced the DWP to alter the way it accepts, reviews and pays claims for the main benefits which are paid to disabled and vulnerable people who are under pension age: Employment and Support Allowance (ESA); Universal Credit (UC); and Personal Independence Payment (PIP).
Employment and Support Allowance (ESA)
Many of the people we help at Renaissance Legal are getting Employment and Support Allowance in some form. Some will receive this as well as Universal Credit, and some will just get ESA on its own, in either a means-tested or contribution-based form. The technical vocabulary of ESA is best left for another day, but the main corona-related amendments that are currently in place are these:
A person who is already getting ESA will most likely stay undisturbed for quite a while, as the DWP has said it will not be carrying out any reviews of existing awards for at least 3 months.
Anyone who was not already on ESA, who has become ill with Covid-19, or has been told to shield by their doctor, should consider whether to make a claim for the contribution based version of ESA, which is called ‘New Style ESA’. You would need to have a reasonable National Insurance record over the last two or three tax years to qualify, either as an employee or a self-employed person, and it is worth £74.35 a week if you are 25+ (£58.90 for under 25s).
In just the past week, the DWP has made the claiming process much easier as it is now possible to claim online (advisers have been asking for this for years!!)
Here is the link to the Apply page, but make sure this is the right benefit for you before you claim.
Caroline is self-employed and has an underlying health condition which means she has to shield for 12 weeks; she has received the appropriate NHS letter. She cannot do her normal work online. She has paid NI contributions as she’s been self-employed for the last 5 years. She lives with her partner who is still working full time.
There is no point in her claiming Universal Credit as her partner earns too much, but it is absolutely the right thing for her to claim New Style ESA to cover the period while she needs to shield, and if she became ill then the award would continue. New Style ESA is paid on the basis of her past National Insurance record, and her partner’s earnings are irrelevant. She can claim the benefit online, and the usual requirements for a GP’s medical certificate are temporarily waived, along with face to face medical assessments. The usually challenging verification processes are also being taken ‘on trust’, at the moment anyway.
Universal Credit (UC)
The speed with which the DWP managed to accept a surge in Universal Credit applications was quite astonishing. Hundreds of thousands of new claims have been made since the start of the ‘lockdown’, and for many people this will be their first encounter with the benefits system. Some are impressed, and others are horrified.
Universal Credit standard allowance rates have also increased by about £20 a week, for one year only. This means that UC rates (along with tax credits) are now higher than other benefits.
As with ESA, the usual requirements about identity verification and face to face appointments are temporarily suspended, and there is more flexibility around uploading documents rather than having to take them into a Jobcentre. If you are affected by coronavirus, such as being ill or being told to shield, and you don’t have enough to live on, then it’s always worth checking to see if Universal Credit is the right benefit for you.
The best place to start is looking here: www.turn2us.org.uk
Remember, as we have said in previous blogs, it is perfectly possible to get both contribution based ESA and Universal Credit at the same time but you DO NOT have to claim Universal Credit in order to access New Style ESA, no matter what you might be told on the Universal Credit helpline!
Personal Independence Payments (PIP)
We have been sent some really useful information by the DWP about how they are putting in place changes to the PIP claiming and assessment process.
As you may know, PIP is a non means-tested benefit, paid to offset some of the extra expenses of being disabled. We have written a lot about PIP in previous blogs – here are some links.
This is what the DWP told us only a couple of days ago:
- New claims will continue to be processed;
- DWP have extended the deadline to return the PIP2 to three months. This is the long ‘how does your illness or disability affect you’ form; the normal deadline to return the completed form to the DWP is one month, so this is a very helpful amendment;
- All face-to-face assessments have been suspended. Where possible and in line with usual processes, a paper-based assessment will be done, to see if a favourable decision can be made just on the paper evidence. If needed, a telephone-based assessment will be carried out. Both providers (Capita and Atos) have been conducting telephone assessments for the last few weeks;
- It is now possible for individuals to receive and return the PIP2 form electronically after the initial call to the Department. Supporting evidence can also be submitted electronically, at the same time as the PIP2, but this must be done from the email address which is registered with the DWP, as this will be used for verification. Guidance on accessing the PIP2 and how to submit it will be sent in an email following the initial PIP1 call;
- All awards that are coming up for a review soon will be automatically extended. Payments will continue and DWP will be in touch about a review in due course;
- For anyone who is currently claiming Disability Living Allowance (DLA) and who has been invited to claim PIP, no action is needed now. DLA payments will continue and DWP will be in touch in the future to discuss the claim to PIP.
While these new processes are very welcome, especially the three month deadline for returning the PIP2, and the facility to return the PIP2/evidence electronically, there are a couple of things to be careful about if you are claiming or renewing your PIP. One is that as far as we know the assessment providers, Capita and Atos, do not yet have conference call facilities when they are carrying out a phone assessment, so it is difficult for a supporting person or carer to join in the call if they do not live with the person who is claiming. If the claimant and carer are together, then it should be possible to carry out the call on speakerphone, with everyone being given the chance to speak, just as they would be in a face to face assessment.
Another point to bear in mind is that we have also heard of people only being given a few days’ notice of the intention to carry out a phone assessment. It is important that you insist on your right to be supported during the assessment, and to be given enough notice of it to enable you to prepare. Don’t be forced into agreeing to a phone assessment if it is not right for you. If you do agree to a phone assessment, then make sure you ask the assessor if your privacy is being protected, as many of the assessors are working from home.
It will be interesting to see how these improvements to ESA, UC and PIP will develop in the future. It’s also worth bearing in mind that any unresolved issues you may have with your benefits which pre-date the advent of coronavirus may take longer to be sorted out, as thousands of staff have been reassigned in order to cope with what’s happening right now.
We hope you have found this update helpful. We offer a Welfare Benefits service, so please get in touch if you would like a quote to help with a benefit problem.