Why the five-week wait for Universal Credit must end

Gemma Hope

Gemma Hope is our Director of Policy. She tells us why we have asked MPs to scrap the five-week wait for Universal Credit.

The risk of losing his home caused anxiety and worsened his health condition.

A woman with glasses and headphones on looking at the screen
Gemma talking to the Work and Pension Select Committee over Skype

I’m Gemma, Director of Policy at Leonard Cheshire. Usually, I’d be at my desk in South Lambeth Road, London, in the hustle and bustle of head office. Probably armed with a strong cuppa tea - I can’t stand coffee!

Instead, as a result of coronavirus, I find myself working from home. If you’d told me a few months ago I’d be speaking live to a committee of MPs from an “office” set up in my living room - I’d think you were having a laugh! But that’s what happened. 

Why I spoke to the Work and Pensions Select Committee

Last week, I gave evidence to the Work and Pensions Select Committee. MPs from different political parties sit on this Committee, examining the government’s policies on work, pensions and welfare. They look at what is and isn’t working and tell the government how they could improve.  

I spoke on behalf of Leonard Cheshire, sharing how disabled people are affected by the five-week wait for their first Universal Credit payment. And why this must change. 

Disabled people face higher living costs and lower incomes

Universal Credit is a benefit payment to help with living costs. It’s available for disabled and non-disabled people who are on low incomes, out of work or unable to work. But when a person applies for Universal Credit, they won’t receive their first payment immediately. Instead, they face a wait of at least five weeks – sometimes more. During those five weeks, many will struggle to pay their rent, utility bills, or afford food.

Many disabled people face higher living costs than non-disabled people, as well as lower income. They may need special equipment, pay for extra support from carers or have higher travel costs. Disabled people may also face barriers getting into work. In 2019, just half of working-age (16-64) disabled people were in employment compared to 81 per cent of non-disabled people that age. 

Extra costs and financial difficulties leave many at risk

So for disabled people who already face extra costs, this wait can plunge them into financial difficulty. Through our coronavirus survey and employment programmes, disabled people have told us they’ve been severely affected. One person received warning letters from his landlord after falling behind on rent during his five-week wait. The risk of losing his home caused anxiety and worsened his health condition. Stories like this are sadly not unusual.

The government does offer an advance payment to those who may struggle during the five-week wait. But this works like a loan and is paid back in instalments from future ­payments. Many people are concerned about falling into debt, as they worry they can’t pay it back. Some disabled people are forced to go without food or must resort to using money that should pay for their carers - this isn’t right.  

What needs to happen?

I told the Committee the five-week wait must end. And if that can’t be done, advance payments must be changed from loans to grants which don’t have to be repaid. 

We’re pleased that during the coronavirus crisis the government increased Universal Credit by £20 per week. But these increases should also be extended to out-of-work disability benefits, so disabled people are not left worse off.

You can read our calls in this policy briefing. We’re grateful to those who contributed by sharing their experiences.

I hope the Select Committee will listen to our concerns and ask the government to remove the five-week wait. If you want to see my evidence to MPs, you can watch the session online – I pop up after 10:48. Or you can read the transcript

We will continue to work hard, from home or the office, to ensure disabled people can live their lives as independently as they choose.