Almost 15,000 people across Preston, Chorley and South Ribble applied for Universal Credit between March and May 2020, amid a nationwide surge in demand for financial support as the Covid crisis struck.
At the time, the usual process of verifying claims for the benefit - which involves presenting corroborating evidence of identity and personal circumstances - was suspended because applicants were unable to produce the necessary documentation in person at a Job Centre.
It was replaced by a system called Trust and Protect, which allowed the applications to proceed without the normal confirmatory checks. However, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has now set up a team tasked with examining all claims made under this fast-track process since last spring.
If a claimant cannot be contacted within three attempts by officials seeking to verify their claim, their payments could be suspended or altered.
The Lancashire branches of the Citizens Advice charity are now urging Universal Credit recipients not to ignore phonecalls that could be crucial in ensuring that they do not lose access to the benefit.
“The big thing people need to do is answer calls from withheld numbers,” said Joanna Young, who supports claimants in the county.
“I don't like doing it [myself], but if the DWP tries to call you three times and you don't answer the phone, that might be that.”
Anyone claiming the benefit is also being reminded to check their online DWP journal, if they have one, for messages - as well as keeping an eye on the post for any correspondence from the department.
Ms. Young added that unexpected changes to Universal Credit payments could cause a “domestic disaster” in some cases.
“For a lot of people, if they are getting by on Universal Credit, they are only just getting by - so it only takes one tiny thing to tip people who are just about managing into complete catastrophe.
“The impact that has on people emotionally is enormous,” she warned, adding that the charity has alerted foodbanks in the county to the fact that they could see increased demand as a result of the verification process.
Ms. Young said that some claimants - particularly the most vulnerable - might struggle to provide the required evidence even if their applications are valid, because they lack the necessary digital skills or even equipment such as scanners.
“Job Centres, libraries and town halls are not easily accessible at the moment because of the pandemic - that is making it really hard to get basic information from a bit of paper into someone's hands.”
Meanwhile, in a potential double whammy, anybody found to have been overpaid will not only have those payments stopped, but will see cash handed out as a result of an ineligible claim clawed back by the DWP.
Citizens Advice is reassuring people that it is on-hand to help and has been told by the department that repayment options will be discussed with anyone found to have received money to which they were not entitled.
“A lot of people will have applied in good faith and then they will have been found not to have been eligible - it’s a complex benefit,” said Jenny Duthie, the charity’s Specialist Project and Development Manager in Lancashire.
“We haven’t got an argument with people not getting a benefit that they’re not entitled to, but it could cause real difficulty. Some of these people may have gone back to work or found work, but if their claim is [judged] not to have been valid during this period, they will still have that overpayment [to be repaid].
“A lot of the people we deal with are very vulnerable and are not able to make a digital claim, they have to do a telephone claim - so they won't have a [DWP] journal to start with to be told about this.”
Anybody in need of help verifying their Universal Credit claim or who has had their payments stopped or clawed back can contact Citizens Advice in Lancashire for independent support. The charity’s advice line is 0800 144 8848 (open weekdays between 9am and 5pm).
A spokesperson for the DWP said: “Universal Credit is designed to be as accessible as possible and has provided a vital safety net for six million people during the coronavirus pandemic.
We are in the process of reviewing all claims to make sure that everyone receives the support to which they are entitled.”
Anyone unable to afford the repayment rate on a Universal Credit overpayment is being encouraged to contact the department to discuss their particular situation.
The department has also produced guidance to help ensure claimants are aware of the importance of reporting accurate dates and information.
CENTRAL LANCASHIRE UNIVERSAL CREDIT CLAIMS (MARCH-MAY 2020)
This is the number of residents in each Job Centre area whose Universal Credit applications made at the start of the pandemic are now being verified.
Preston - 8,809
Chorley - 3,745
Leyland - 2,002
Source: Department for Work and Pensions, via Citizens Advice