COVID-19 legal advice hub

COVID-19 - Welfare Benefits Update

Our welfare benefits adviser provides advice to customers at this difficult time.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has meant that changes have been made across the country to a vast majority of the UK’s services, and that includes our welfare benefits system. Whether you’re already in receipt of benefits, or need to make a new application, it’s our aim to keep you up to date and provide you with as much guidance and information as possible.

The following changes have been made so far.

Jobcentre appointments

People receiving benefits don’t have to attend Jobcentre appointments for three months, starting 19 March 2020. People will continue to receive their benefits as usual, but all requirements to attend the Jobcentre in person are suspended.

People will be able to make applications for benefits online, but the Jobcentres will remain open and will continue to support people who aren’t able to make contact via phone or online.

Face-to-face assessments for sickness and disability benefits

In order to protect vulnerable people from unnecessary risk of exposure to coronavirus, the DWP has confirmed that all face-to-face assessments for sickness and disability benefits are to be suspended for three months from 17 March 2020.

Anyone with an appointment scheduled doesn’t need to attend and alternative arrangements will be made which the DWP have confirmed could involve either telephone or paper-based assessments.

New claimants to disability benefits

Health professionals will be moved onto telephone systems to help cope with demand so that new claimants have priority for telephone and paper-based disability assessments.

Temporary reforms

In force from 13 March 2020, the Employment and Support Allowance and Universal Credit (Coronavirus Disease) Regulations 2020 (SI.No.289/2020) make provision for those entitled to ESA and/or Universal Credit who are either:

  • Infected or contaminated with coronavirus
  • Self-isolating
  • Caring for a child or qualifying young person who falls into either of the above categories

This is to provide additional help with the financial impacts arising from the coronavirus outbreak. In particular, the Regulations enable the Secretary of State to exercise discretion to:

  • Remove waiting days in ESA claims
  • Determine when claiming ESA or UC, affected claimants are treated as having Limited Capability for Work (LCW) without the requirements for any medical evidence or having to undergo a Work Capability Assessment; and
  • Suspend the Minimum Income Floor for self-employed UC claimants treated as having LCW as a result of Coronavirus, and to extend the suspension period after a claimant ceases to be treated as having LCW because of Coronavirus

These regulations will expire eight months after coming into force.

Contingency Arrangements in the First-Tier Tribunal and the Upper Tribunal

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the following will apply:

  • Practice Directions for hearings to be decided without a hearing whenever possible for a period of six months although this may be reviewed at any time.
  • Where a Chamber’s procedure rules allow decisions to be made without a hearing, decisions should be made in this way, providing it in accordance with the overriding objective, the parties’ European Convention of Human Rights and the Chamber’s procedure rules about notice and consent.
  • In addition, the Direction provides guidance to Chamber Presidents on how to operate a scheme to ‘triage’ appeals and application where paper determinations are possible, including for tribunals to:
    • consider assessing a case on the papers where the parties haven’t already consented to a determination without a hearing;
    • provide a provisional decision to the parties if the tribunal considers it could decide the matter without a hearing;
    • ask the parties whether they consent to the tribunal making a binding decision on the papers that is in the same terms as the provisional decision;
    • list a hearing if one or both of the parties confirm that they require a hearing (which may be conducted remotely);
    • issue a final decision in the same form as the provisional decision if the parties consent to a paper determination, subject to exceptions including for error or change of circumstances; and
    • undertake hearings remotely where in a particular case a tribunal decides a hearing is necessary, if practicable and in accordance with the overriding objective.

In the second Practice Direction guidance to tribunals it includes:

  • If a salaried judge considers that a case couldn’t proceed, or would be subject to unacceptable delay, if Standard Composition Arrangements were applied, that judge may decide that the case shall be heard by a judge alone, or by panel consisting of fewer or different members
  • When making a decision under paragraph 6.a., salaried judges must have regard to the urgency within which a case needs to be heard and the need to ensure the case is dealt with in accordance with the overriding objective
  • Where a salaried judge decides to alter the composition requirements in accordance with paragraph (a), that salaried judge may determine which members will hear the case and can select salaried or fee paid members

Jobcentre Plus closures

In line with Government advice, to help protect customers and colleagues of Jobcentre Plus, from 24 March Jobcentre Plus doors will be temporarily closed.

Customers can access support online through the DWP website where telephone services are also listed (or for UC customers, through the UC digital account).

Customers needing to speak to DWP about an existing claim should call:-

  • Universal Credit - 0800 328 5644
  • Jobseekers Allowance, Employment & Support Allowance & Income Support - 0800 169 0310

All local office Jobcentre Plus Centres can be contacted but in EMERGENCY ONLY matters.

Universal Credit and Tax Credits increase

On Friday, 20 March 2020 the Chancellor announced that the standard rate in Universal Credit and Tax Credits will be increased by £20 a week for one year from 6 April. Click here for helpful tips when applying for Universal Credit.

Housing assistance

The Government announced a package of measures to protect tenants and landlords affected by coronavirus. Renters will receive nearly £1bn additional support, through increases in housing benefit and Universal Credit.

From April 2020, Local Housing Allowance rates will pay for at least 30% of market rents in each area.

Other measures to protect tenants and landlords include:

  • Emergency legislation to suspend new evictions from social or private rented accommodation while this national emergency is taking place.
  • No new possession proceedings through applications to the court to start during the crisis.
  • Landlords will also be protected by extending the three-month mortgage holiday to Buy to Let mortgages.

As a result, no renter in either social or private accommodation will be forced out of their home during this difficult time.

DWP suspending debt recovery

DWP are suspending debt recovery activity as soon as possible and until further notice. This includes all benefit-related overpayments, Social Fund loans and Tax Credit debts. Many activities will cease immediately but others may take longer to implement. What this means is:

  • They will not seek debt recovery by deducting Universal Credit for benefit overpayments, Social Fund loads and Tax Credit debts managed by Debrt Management. This action will commence immediately but an IT solution will need to be implemented to stop some deductions for Debt Management.
  • Local Authorities will suspend the referral of Housing Benefit overpayments.
  • Recovery from estates will temporarily cease.
  • For those who are not on benefits, the DWP have 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.

The transfer of Tax Credit debt from the HMRC has already been suspended.

Please note the deduction of Universal Credit payments for the recovery of Advances will continue.

Those entitled to free school meals

A voucher scheme has launched for children unable to access free school meals in England due to the COVID-19 crisis. Where it's not possible to provide meals for collection or delivery, schools can now issue a weekly shopping voucher worth £15 for each eligible child electronically, or as a gift card for those without access to the internet to use in a range of supermarkets.

Changes to the applications for Jobseeker's Allowance (JSA) and Universal Credit

Guidance has been issued in relation to recent miscellaneous changes to social security made in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. In particular, amendments to Regulations 2020 which include:

  • The lifting of work search and work availability requirements in Universal Credit and JSA
  • Disregarding periods of sickness relating to coronavirus for the purposes of calculating short periods and extended periods of sickness in JSA

Please note, the above changes currently cease to have effect on 12 November 2020.

In relation to Universal Credit, it's also advised that the regulations provided for the Secretary of State to have discretion to make variations to the application of the minimum income floor for self-employed claimants, and to increase the standard allowances for the period 6 April 2020 to 5 April 2021. The standard allowances have been increased to:

  • £342.72 for single claimants under 25
  • £409.89 for single claimants aged 25 or over
  • £488.59 for joint claimants both under 25
  • £594.04 for joint claimants where either is aged 25 or over

Contact details are as follows:

  • For new claims to Universal Credit: https://www.gov.uk/apply-universal-credit
  • For new claims to New Style Employment and Support Allowance: 0800 328 5644
  • For new claims to New Style Jobseekers Allowance: 0800 055 6688

Changes to Carer's Allowance

The DWP has confirmed the introduction of two temporary Carer's Allowance amendments in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. The DWP sets out the following measures designed to 'help unpaid carers through the current emergency':

  • Carers will be able to continue to claim Carer’s Allowance if they have a temporary break in caring, because they or the person they care for gets coronavirus, or if they have to isolate as a result
  • The provision of emotional support to a disabled person will now count towards the Carer’s Allowance threshold of 35 hours of care a week

PLEASE NOTE: this information was correct at the time of publication on 8 April 2020

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