Universal Credit: From warm home discounts to free NHS prescriptions – how to get extra help this winter

MILLIONS of Universal Credit claimants could be missing out on extra financial help to ease the stress of bills and other expenses this autumn and winter.

This time of year can be financially tough for families who are struggling to make ends meet, with Christmas coming up and the additional cost of keeping your home warm.

 

Many people's finances have also taken a hit this year due to the impact of the coronavirus crisis on job and pay packets.

There are now 5.6million people on Universal Credit, according to the latest government data, with 2.4million alone joining the scheme between March 13 and May 14 this year.

Around 9.6million people have also been placed on the government's furlough scheme, which protects 80% of wages, up to £30,000 a year, for those unable to work during the pandemic.

But many of these households might not realise they could be entitled to additional help with winter bills – and some help is even available all year round.

Here's what you need to know.

Cold weather payment

Keep an eye on your thermostat this winter, because you might get a cold weather payment.

You can get £25 every time the average temperature in your area drops to, or is forecast to be, zero degrees celsius or less over seven consecutive days.

The scheme is due to start again on November 1 and will run until March 31, 2021.

To get cold weather payments, you must be claiming Universal Credit, pension credit, income support, income-based jobseeker's allowance, income-related employment and support allowance, or support for mortgage interest.

If you claim Universal Credit, income support, income-based jobseeker's allowance, or income-related employment and support allowance, you must also have one other reason to receive it.

This typically means you must have a child under the age of five living with you, or you have a disabled child, or you have a disability or health condition that means you struggle to work.

See Gov.uk for the full eligibility breakdown.

The good news is you don’t need to apply for the cold weather payment as it’s paid automatically. But you should tell JobCentre Plus if your circumstances have changed meaning you could now be eligible if you weren't last year.

Warm home discount

The warm home discount is a government scheme that pays £140 towards your energy bills.

It's paid directly to your energy supplier which will then take the money off your bills.

If you have a pre-payment meter, you'll be sent a £140 voucher that you can use to top up your account.

The discount applies between September and March and there are two ways you can be eligible for the payment:

  • if you get the guarantee credit element of pension credit you'll be in what's called the "core group"
  • if you're on a low income and meet your supplier's criteria you'll be in what's referred to as the "broader group".

Universal Credit claimants might qualify for the "broader group" but each energy supplier has different criteria, so you'll need to contact your energy provider to see how it awards the discount.

All of the Big Six energy suppliers have opened their applications for the 2020/21 winter, so it's best to apply as early as possible as the number of discounts suppliers can give are limited.

You can use the following online forms to apply:

  • British Gas
  • EDF
  • Eon
  • Npower
  • Scottish Power
  • SSE (owned by OVO Energy)

Free energy saving improvements

You might be able to get help for energy-saving improvements to your home if you claim certain benefits, including Universal Credit, and live in private housing.

Renters who live in social housing with an energy efficiency rating of E, F or G may also be able to apply.

This could see you get free or discounted insulation work, for example to your loft or cavity walls, or replacements or repairs to your boiler, or other upgrades to your heating.

Whether you can get help is down to your energy provider's so-called Energy Company Obligation (ECO) scheme, which is a government obligation placed on the largest energy suppliers to support households install energy improvements.

There is no need to pay for an assessment for this, and you can decide not to go ahead if your provider asks you to pay more than you can afford, or more than you want to.

You can check if your provider is signed up using the Simple Energy Advice website, which also has a tool to check if similar local schemes are running in your area.

Meanwhile this year the Government has launched the Green Homes Grant scheme, which sees people on low income households and benefits improve their home with vouchers up to £10,000.

The government says the initiative could save households more than £200 annually on energy bills, as well as reducing their carbon footprint by cutting 700kg of CO2 a year.

The vouchers cover home improvements, such as insulation and draught-proofing your home.

Free NHS prescriptions

Winter is the time of year where illnesses are rife, but you might be able to claim free NHS prescriptions if you're getting Universal Credit.

One of the following must also apply:

  • You had no income or net earnings of £435 or less in your last Universal Credit assessment period.
  • You had no income or net earnings of £935 or less in your last Universal Credit assessment period, and had a child element included in your award or had limited capability for work or work-related activity.

It's worth noting that if you're in a couple, the net earnings applies to your combined income.

To prove you qualify for free prescriptions, you must bring a copy of your Universal Credit notice when going to get your prescription.

Some health forms don't have a tick box for Universal Credit, so the GOV.uk website recommends ticking the box for Jobseeker's Allowance instead.

Advance payments

We've seen how some families have been plunged into debt during the five-week wait for their Universal Credit payment.

That's why The Sun has been calling for this time frame to be cut to just two weeks as part of its Make Universal Credit Work campaign.

The DWP has also announced it has changed its rules around payments and people's salaries.

Brits can now have a salary payment manually moved to a different assessment period.

From November, if a worker is paid twice in the same month, the benefits system will register one in the following assessment period to stop them from being left out of pocket.

The rule change comes after the Court of Appeal found that the "irrational and unfair" system pushed four single mums into poverty and forced them to rely on foodbanks.

In the meantime, families who are struggling this winter and beyond can apply for an advance loan.

You can borrow up to 100% of your estimated payment to see you through the transitional period, but remember – you will be expected to pay it back.

The money is interest-free but repayments will come out of your Universal Credit payments for up to a year until the full amount has been reimbursed.

Make sure you'll be able to afford to pay the repayments before considering an advance payment.

You can apply for an advance payment in your online account, through your Jobcentre Plus work coach or by calling the Universal Credit helpline on  0800 328 5644.

Hardship payments

If you've been sanctioned, you might qualify for a hardship payment.

A sanction is where you've had your Universal Credit payments stopped or reduced if you've failed to meet your responsibilities or what you’ve agreed in your "claimant commitment".

But if you've been sanctioned you might qualify for a hardship payment to cover the costs of rent, heating, food or hygiene needs.

According to charity Citizens Advice, the hardship payment is roughly 60% of the amount you were sanctioned by in the last month.

Like the advanced payment, you'll need to pay a hardship payment back through your Universal Credit payments.

To apply, contact the Universal Credit helpline on 0800 328 5644.

Find out more about how you can appeal unfair benefit and Universal Credit sanctions.

Alternative payment arrangement

Your landlord might be able to apply for an alternative payment arrangement (APA) if you're falling behind on your rent.

The type of help you could get includes:

  • Getting your rent paid directly to your landlord.
  • Getting paid more frequently than once a month.
  • Receiving split payments, if you’re part of a couple.

You'll need to talk to your work coach at the JobCentre Plus to apply for an APA.

The Sun wants to Make Universal Credit Work

UNIVERSAL Credit replaces six benefits with a single monthly payment.

One million people are already receiving it and by the time the system is fully rolled out in 2023, nearly 7 million will be on it.

But there are big problems with the flagship new system – it takes 5 weeks to get the first payment and it could leave some families worse off by thousands of pounds a year.

And while working families can claim back up to 85 per cent of their childcare costs, they must find the money to pay for childcare upfront – we’ve heard of families waiting up to 6 months for the money.

Working parents across the country told us they’ve been unable to take on more hours – or have even turned down better paid jobs or more hours because of the amount they get their benefits cut.

It’s time to Make Universal Credit work. We want the Government to:

  1. Get paid faster: The Government must slash the time Brits wait for their first Universal Credit payments from five to two weeks, helping stop 7 million from being pushed into debt.
  2. Keep more of what you earn:The work allowance should be increased and the taper rate should be slashed from 63p to 50p, helping at least 4 million families.
  3. Don’t get punished for having a family: Parents should get the 85 per cent of the money they can claim for childcare upfront instead of being paid in arrears.

Together, these changes will help Make Universal Credit Work.

Join our Universal Credit Facebook group or email [email protected] to share your story. 

Budgeting loan

If you've been hit by an unexpected expense or a sudden change in circumstance, you might be able to get a budgeting loan.

This only applies in cases of emergencies, such as a broken down boiler or covering the cost of a funeral, as well as if you need help covering the costs of a new job.

What you get depends on whether you have savings of over £1,000 and can pay the loan back. But typically you can borrow:

  • £348 if you’re single
  • £464 if you’re part of a couple
  • £812 if you have children

You must also:

  • Have been getting Universal Credit, employment and support allowance, income support, jobseeker’s allowance or state pension credit for six months or more, unless you need the money to help you start a new job or stay in work
  • Have paid off any previous budgeting advance loans

Like the hardship payments and advanced payments, this will be paid back through your Universal Credit payments, although another payment means might need to be set-up if you don't get Universal Credit.

Contact your local Jobcentre Plus work coach to apply.

Flexible support fund

You may also qualify for a Universal Credit flexible support fund payment that you don't have to pay back.

The money is issued on top of other benefits and can be used to help cover the costs of things such as childcare, uniforms, or work tools as long as they help you get a job.

There's no set maximum amount that can be awarded and it will vary from case to case.

Unlike an Advance Payment, the money you receive is a grant rather than a loan, so you will not have to pay it back.

The fund is available to anyone who receives help from the job centre, from the moment that you start a claim.

Unfortunately, claimants don't have an automatic right to receive the help as it's up to the discretion of the adviser – but it's worth asking.

Charity grants

Charities often help those in need, and you may be eligible for a charitable grant to support you.

These grants are given by charitable funds, and do not have to be paid back.

You can use charity Turn2us' online grant search to find what grants you can get.

To see what's available, you'll need to pop in your post code, age and gender, then pick a category for the type of help you're looking for.

Meanwhile, the energy price cap, which helps households save up to £100 a year on gas and electricity bills has been extended.

Thousands of people on Universal Credit will get up to £405 disability top-up payment from October.

Meanwhile Brits lose up to £800 a year holding multiple pensions – here’s how to combine yours.

 

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