Sabrina Dubash looks at problems for universal credit (UC) claimants whose first language is not English.
For claimants whose first language is not English (ENFL), accessing UC is often a marathon, not a sprint.
Not speaking the main language of the country where you live can be isolating, but together with hardship and necessity for a UC claim, the language barrier is an invisible hurdle and block for many in accessing UC and other vital support services.
What does the DWP say it will do?
There is limited guidance for DWP staff in relation to specific steps that should be taken when assisting a claimant who has ENFL. Claimants whose first language is not English are expressed as being among those with complex needs within internal DWP guidance.1See ‘UC complex needs.pdf’ at
When a claimant with complex needs contacts DWP, their customer journey must be comparable in quality and outcome to those whose needs are not complex…. [DWP should] …record what additional support they need to make sure it’s available every time the claimant needs it.
In a recent FOI request,2See ‘Complex needs overview.pdf’ at
further internal guidance3See ‘Complex needs overview.pdf’ at
Staff must not turn them away or delay the progress of the claim if the claimant has not or does not bring someone with them to translate for them. …If a claimant needs support through translation services, it must be recorded in the claimant history.
What is happening in practice?
Contrary to the guidance,4See ‘UC complex needs.pdf’ at
which states that claimants with ENFL should not be turned away or experience delays with their claims purely due to a lack of a translator, CPAG has been informed that claimants with ENFL have called the UC helpline and are not offered a translator/translation service during the call. Instead, claimants are told that UC will call them back with a translator, and a follow-up call is arranged. Cases of delays of seven weeks for a follow-up call with the relevant translator have been reported. With the additional five-week wait for the first UC payment, these gross delays are inevitably causing hardship to claimants with ENFL and arguably the DWP is breaching its duties under the Equality Act 2010 and its own guidance in not ensuring the experience for claimants with ENFL is comparable in quality to those with English language skills.
Those with ENFL are mostly likely to be Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) and from a non-white British background. As race is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010, a public body treating those within the protected group unfavourably compared to other groups of people, could constitute indirect discrimination.
Enough time for exploitation
The five-week wait to receive your first UC payment is a tough time for most UC claimants. For claimants with ENFL and no support network around them, the five-week wait is also an isolating and vulnerable period. Due to the language barrier, more often than not claimants are left unaware of the vital options available to them during this long wait, such as advance payments and local authority emergency support schemes. These claimants struggle through the five weeks and accrue debts by borrowing money from family or friends or borrowing from community loan sharks.
Organisations have reported to CPAG that loan sharks within the community play a large role in targeting claimants with ENFL during this vulnerable waiting period before the first UC payment. Many loan shark companies intentionally employ native language speakers within these communities in order to easily access and communicate with claimants struggling at this time. Isolated claimants with ENFL place a high level of trust on these native speakers, leaving them particularly vulnerable to exploitation and extortionate interest repayment plans.
On the ‘UC journey’
Claiming UC is just the start. ENFL claimants still require ongoing long-term support with their UC award.
When claimants need to report a change of circumstances on the UC award, the lack of English language skills inevitably prevents timely and accurate reporting. This has led to claimants missing out on months of crucial income to their UC award, such as the child element.
Another area of concern is that ENFL claimants may also have the additional barrier of lacking digital skills. This ‘double barrier’ is not uncommon for ENFL clients. Local community services that provide welfare benefits advice/assistance spend time and resources in assisting these claimants and it is these organisations that are bridging the gap in translation support from the DWP.5Women and Equalities Committee, Unequal Impact? Coronavirus and BAME people, House of Commons, HC 384, para 96, available at committees.parliament.uk/publications
The ‘double barrier’ poses immense difficulty in accessing and managing the UC claim. Due to this, ENFL claimants experience missed appointments and are subject to sanctions, which they are neither aware of nor understand how to challenge.
Information about deductions, regarding why and how claimant UC maximum amounts will be reduced are also not adequately communicated to ENFL claimants.
What can you do?
If you are supporting ENFL clients who have not managed to claim UC and find out that they have experienced delays due to language barriers and lack of UC translation support, we recommend assisting the client in calling UC and requesting that a translation service be used during the call, and refer to the guidance referred to within this article.
If a client has now completed a UC claim but experienced delays in claiming due to a lack of translation support, then it is advised to assist the claimant in making a complaint to the DWP for maladministration. You can do so at: . Following the DWP response, there is also the option to further complain to the Independent Case Examiner (ICE). CPAG additionally recommends informing the claimant’s local MP of this large scale yet under-reported issue.
Online claim form
UC claim form to be available in the official UN languages of French, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese and Russian and the UK’s top non-English main languages.6Office for National Statistics, Language in England and Wales: 2011, March 2013, available at ; Office for National Statistics, 2011 Census: detailed analysis – English language proficiency in England and Wales, Main language and general health characteristics, August 2013, available at
This would take large steps forward in better accessibility to UC. It would allow claimants with no or limited English language skills, with digital capabilities, to apply for UC without assistance, and somewhat relieve demand for already stretched community advice services.
•Translation services to be part of standard UC helpline rather than ‘on request’. Ensuring the UC helpline provides options to select specific languages will then inform UC that the caller requires a translator while claimants are waiting for the UC adviser to answer, rather than UC being unaware of the caller’s needs until the point of answer.
•In addition, ensure that telephone translation services are readily available, or no delays are experienced for claimants who require them.
In person at Jobcentre Plus
•Identify what BAME communities exist in a local Jobcentre Plus area and ensure that translation resources, such as translated information leaflets explaining the purposes of UC and how to claim are available and accessible at the job centre for these claimants.
•Ensure that Jobcentre Plus staff follow DWP guidance and use translation services when supporting claimants who have ENFL, and that no claimant is turned away and faces delay in claiming UC.
Please let us know about the difficulties faced by claimants with ENFL and UC by submitting cases to .
With special thanks to the Chinese Information and Advice Centre (CIAC) () and the French African Welfare Association (FAWA) () for their valued assistance.