Sheffield’s Health and Wellbeing Board chairs have written to The Secretary of State about their concerns around the negative impact of universal credit on people’s health.

Dear Secretary of State

UNIVERSAL CREDIT AND HEALTH AND WELLBEING IN SHEFFIELD

On 28th February, Sheffield’s Health & Wellbeing Board received a presentation on the impact of Universal Credit in our city, following its implementation from November 2018.  We heard from local Sheffield Citizens Advice, Sheffield City Council and local MPs offices about the broad context of welfare reform and design of Universal Credit itself, work undertaken in Sheffield to prepare for Universal Credit and mitigate the impact on our most vulnerable residents, and early reports on the impact on people.  We also heard from the local DWP Partnership Manager about the operational mechanics of implementing Universal Credit in Sheffield.

It was heartening to hear a story of real partnership working in Sheffield, focused on supporting those who are most in need, from those at the frontline of delivery including local DWP staff.  However what we heard left us with a number of concerns, reflected below:

  • It is clear that Universal Credit, and the broader welfare reforms undertaken from 2010 onwards, are impacting on the most vulnerable people in Sheffield, with particularly severe impacts on mental health;
  • Of the 20 welfare reforms carried out since 2010, 19 have been regressive in their impact in our city;
  • All told the changes to welfare provision since 2010 will by 2021 see £252m being taken every year from the pockets of those in Sheffield who are worst off and can least afford it;
  • Fully 15% of this loss can be ascribed to one reform alone: the benefits freeze imposed in 2015;
  • Through Universal Credit, we are seeing the extension of conditionality to benefits to which that did not used to apply.

Beyond these, we also have a number of concerns about the process involved in Universal Credit, and the support for those involved in it:

  • The process of transition onto Universal Credit appears to be particularly troublesome, with some Sheffield residents receiving conflicting advice about their status and entitlements;
  • We heard that the digital aspect of Universal Credit is a key barrier that impacts directly on some of the most vulnerable people;
  • Those providing support to people transferring onto Universal Credit made clear that this has had detrimental impacts on their mental health, findings that are confirmed by recent reports on demand for mental health services and academic research;
  • While it is positive that the Government are making arrangements to fund Citizens Advice to provide support for claimants, it is concerning that this offer is at this stage in place for one year only, with all the implications for sustainability that brings;
  • Beyond this, we are concerned to hear that this support offer only applies up to an individual’s first payment; the consequent lack of ongoing support for claimants can only result in increased demand from local public services that are already stretched;
  • This was reflected in the discussion that followed the initial presentation, during which we heard about increased demand for primary care and mental health services that could be directly linked to Universal Credit and welfare reform more broadly.

While it was heartening to hear about the robust delivery arrangements and strong partnership working that has developed in Sheffield, and that we are working collaboratively with DWP colleagues in this, the impact on the health and wellbeing of Sheffield’s population is plain and clear and can be demonstrated in many ways.

We take our responsibility for the health & wellbeing of the people of Sheffield very seriously.  With this in mind, we are writing to urge you to put in place the following:

Urgent improvements to the Universal Credit system:

  • Increased resources for the Universal Credit telephone helplines
  • Transparent and workable arrangements for “Non-Digital” claimants, including telephone facilities for claimants in Job Centres, and a route back to this for those on the digital system who find it unworkable
  • A quick and easy system for registering the effective date of a claim at first contact
  • Make Alternative Payment Arrangements available on request
  • An option to have the housing benefit portion of Universal Credit paid directly to landlords

Increase the support available to those on Universal Credit:

  • Commitment to ongoing funding for advice and support services
  • Funded expansion of the offer to include all of UC, not just up to first payment
  • Package of funding to support expansion of primary care and mental health support to those affected

Improve the living standards of low-income households:

  • End the freeze on benefits and tax credits and increase them in line with inflation

Beyond these, we also support the requests made by Citizens Advice in their report published in February of this year, Managing Money on Universal Credit, and also note that these asks cover much of our concerns outlined above:

  1. Explore ways to get payments to people more quickly
  2. Ensure Universal Credit provides enough to live on
  3. Help people to budget by designing Universal Credit around real lives

Yours sincerely

Cllr Chris Peace Cabinet Member for Health & Social Care at Sheffield City Council and Dr Tim Moorhead, Chair of NHS Sheffield Clinical Commissioning Group