Benefits and coronavirus – the end?
A number of coronavirus-related benefit measures have ended, or will end, in the late summer and autumn of 2021. But some remain, for now at least. Simon Osborne takes a closer look.
Cuts to universal credit
All awards of universal credit (UC) are cut by £86.67 a month (£20 a week) from October 2021. This is due to the ending of the ‘uplift’ to UC standard allowances, originally introduced in April 2020 but only extended in 2021 with regard to assessment periods that ended before 6 October 2021.1Universal Credit (Extension of Coronavirus Measures) Regulations 2021, No.313
The cut applies both to current and new claims. The DWP began communicating the cut (although that word was not used) in online journals from August.
For any assessment period that ends on or after 6 October, the UC standard allowances are cut to the following amounts:
•single aged under 25: £257.33;
•single aged 25 or over: £324.84;
•couple, both aged under 25: £403.93;
•couple, one or both aged 25 or over: £509.91.
UC and earnings
In the Autumn 2021 Budget, the government announced a reduction in the UC ‘taper’ from the current level of 63% to 55%. In addition, the work allowance in UC is to be increased by £500 a year. The intention is to introduce both measures by December 2021.2Autumn Budget and Spending Review 2021, HC 822, October 2021
The changes would seem not to be specifically coronavirus related. The effect will be to allow claimants who are working to retain more of their earnings before they start to reduce their UC.
Reintroduction of minimum income floor
Powers allowing the effective suspension (‘easement’) of the UC minimum income floor (MIF) rules were introduced on 13 March 2020. That power was extended until 31 July 2021. The MIF rules have therefore in general been capable of application to a UC claimant since 1 August.
More specific regulations provide for a gradual removal of existing ‘MIF easement’ provisions, so that claimants already benefitting from easement on 1 August see the MIF applied to them from a later date, with the possibility of extension of the easement for up to another six assessment periods if the work remains affected by coronavirus.3Universal Credit (Coronavirus) (Restoration of the Minimum Income Floor) Regulations 2021, No. 807
The official Explanatory Memorandum to the regulations says:
Claimants must be given at least one full assessment period (AP) notice before the MIF is applied. If a claimant had been in a start-up period on 13th March 2020 a period equal to the balance of the start-up period outstanding on that date will be granted before restoring the MIF….
…Work coaches can award up to two-months discretionary suspension of the MIF, assessed on a case by case basis, reviewed at the end of the two months. Work coaches can award up to a maximum of three suspensions, adding up to six months in total.4paras 7.4 and 7.5 Explanatory Memorandum to SI 2021, No.807
UC Trust and Protect
The DWP is undertaking a review of UC awards considered at high risk of error, due to relaxation of verification standards in some awards made since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. The exercise is named ‘Trust and Protect’. Claimants whose awards are identified as potentially high risk are contacted by the DWP (either via their online journal or by telephone) and required to supply information and evidence as part of an official reapplication of verification standards. Awards may be reassessed on the basis of the information supplied; claimants who fail to comply are at risk of suspension and/or reduction or termination of their awards.
There are no specific regulations for the exercise, and details are hard to come by. However, it is important to bear in mind that existing regulations do provide procedures and requirements on decision makers regarding grounds and time limits, both for revising awards and for suspension (including for subsequent termination).5In particular, for a revision at ‘any time’, required grounds are at reg 9 Universal Credit, Personal Independence Payment, Jobseeker’s Allowance and Employment and Support Allowance (Decisions and Appeals) Regulations 2013, and for suspension grounds and procedures (including termination for failure to provide information or evidence), they are at regs 44-48 of the same regulations.
Those are mandatory legal requirements – so are not at the discretion of the DWP, including in the Trust and Protect exercise.
WTC and changes to working hours
Working tax credit (WTC) rules allowed a claimant who is furloughed or otherwise a ‘coronavirus-impacted worker’ to be treated as still doing the hours of work that qualified her/him for WTC, but only while s/he remains such a person, and even then only until the cessation of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) – ie, until 30 September 2021. That end point has now been reached.
From the end of the CJRS, there is a further eight weeks for claimants satisfying the above at that point to return to the relevant numbers of hours at work (a four-week run-on of payment of WTC remains where that is not satisfied). The rules are written in a complex way, but an Explanatory Memorandum to a relevant set of regulations summarised the official intent:
Where a claimant remains a furloughed worker or a coronavirus-impacted worker until the cessation of the CJRS, claimants will have a period of time (eight weeks after the cessation of the CJRS) to return to working sufficient hours to satisfy the eligibility criteria. Furloughed and coronavirus-impacted workers who have a permanent change before the CJRS ends do not have access to the additional eight weeks.6para 7.12 Explanatory Memorandum to the Tax Credits, Childcare Payments and Childcare (Extended Entitlement) (Coronavirus and Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2020, No.1515
Ending of other measures
A number of specific coronavirus-related benefit measures either have ended or will end shortly:7See the changes in Social Security (Coronavirus) (Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2021, No.476 and, regarding carer’s allowance in Scotland, Carer’s Allowance (Coronavirus) (Breaks in Care) (Scotland) Amendment Regulations 2021, No.140; extension of the ESA measures to 24 March 2022 by virtue of The Employment and Support Allowance and Universal Credit (Amendment) Regulations 2021, SI 2021 No.1158.
•employment and support allowance: treated as having limited capability for work/ waiting days not to apply in coronavirus cases – now to end following a change of mind by the government, on 24 March 2022 rather than 12 November 2021;
•jobseeker’s allowance: not treated as having limited capability for work/days with coronavirus not days for temporary period of sickness – ended 31 August;
•carer’s allowance: temporary breaks in care allowed in coronavirus cases – ended 31 August;
•UC: prisoner on temporary release, England and Wales, may qualify – ended 31 August.
Little change – medical assessments
It remains that in practice DWP medical assessments are largely being conducted by telephone, with some starting to be done by video link and a few resuming face-to-face contact. All these methods of conducting assessments are provided for, with specific reference to telephone and video, by amendments to relevant legislation, introduced on 25 March.8Social Security (Claims and Payments, Employment and Support Allowance, Personal Independence Payment and Universal Credit) (Telephone and Video Assessment) (Amendment) Regulations 2021, No.230; Social Security (Industrial Injuries Benefit and Personal Independence Payment) (Telephone and Video Assessment) (Miscellaneous Amendments) (Scotland) Regulations 2021, No.97
Little change – appeals
As with medical assessments, in practice most hearings are currently being conducted by telephone, with some by video link and a few by resuming face-to-face contact. Contingency arrangements introduced at the start of lockdown (in the form of a ‘practice direction’), regarding deciding cases on the papers alone following a ‘triage’ by the judge or via a remote hearing as a default during the coronavirus pandemic, were extended until 18 September 2021.9Amended General Pilot Practice Direction: Contingency Arrangements in the First-Tier Tribunal and the Upper Tribunal, March 2021, available at judiciary.uk; Amended Pilot Practice Direction: Panel Composition in the First-Tier Tribunal and the Upper Tribunal, March 2021, available at judiciary.uk
No change – statutory sick pay and Scottish benefits
Statutory sick pay (SSP) rules have been amended several times to provide for a claimant to be treated as incapable of work, for SSP purposes, for specified periods of time in coronavirus cases. See the table in Bulletin 281, p4, for a summary. Those rules remain in force for now.10Expiry dates in some early amendments were removed by the Statutory Sick Pay (Coronavirus) (Suspension of Waiting Days and General Amendment) Regulations 2020, No.374.
For Scottish benefits, rules allowing extended time for applications, requesting redeterminations and submitting appeals in coronavirus cases remain for now, despite the technical expiry of the amending legislation that introduced the changes.11The substantive provisions are in sections 52A and 52B of the Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018; the relevant amending legislation expired with the application of the Coronavirus (Scotland) Acts (Early Expiry of Provisions) Regulations 2020, No.249 and the Coronavirus (Extension and Expiry) (Scotland) Act 2021.