Published: 17 Nov 2021  |  Category: Welfare benefits  |  Stage: We are writing our application

Introduction to Universal Credit

Learn what is Universal Credit and how to apply for it

Note: Universal Credit will be paid from the day the application is fully submitted. The first payment will be made at least 5 weeks from the date the application is fully submitted. Make sure you help the family you welcomed to apply as soon as possible after the arrival to ensure they don’t loose out financially.

One of your key tasks after the arrival of the refugee family will be supporting them to apply for and receive the correct amount of benefits as soon as possible. This section of our website is not aimed at making you a benefits expert. Our goal is to explain the basics and highlight some of the key issues that your Group may encounter when navigating the Universal Credit application.

Refugees have access to the same benefits as any British citizen. This means that the adults will receive money for themselves, for their children and separately towards their housing costs. Managing finances on benefits is much more difficult than many families arriving in the UK expect. For example, an adult couple usually receives a total of £117 per week (excluding their housing costs). You can read more about managing financial disappointment on this page.

There have been negative news reports on Universal Credit as it was rolled out across the country. While it’s fair to say that the system is far from perfect it has improved a lot over time. Even if you have never accessed or navigated the benefits system before, Universal Credit should not be a cause for concern, there is plenty of advice available and you are not expected to be an expert.

Your role

Although you will be supporting refugees through the process of applying for benefits, you should not feel that you need to become an expert in benefits advice. We advise groups to signpost the families they work with to local specialist support services, such as Citizen’s Advice, as much as possible, especially in case of any difficulties or problems. This will help you ensure that the family is able to address potential benefit issues independently of your Group.  Your role through this process may be that of advocate, rather than adviser.

Ensure that in all of your actions, you seek the consent to act from the family you support. It may be that they would like your assistance by having access to their Online Journal for benefits – ensure that you discuss what your role is in this, how long it will be for and how you will support the family members to carry this out on their own behalf.  Regularly review what you are doing and help family members to build their confidence in acting independently.

It is best to contact local advice services in your area during the planning process so that you are aware of the support they can provide even before the family arrives.

What is Universal Credit?

Universal Credit is a social welfare benefit for people out of work or working and on a low income. It brings together several previously separate benefits in one monthly payment paid in arrears. There is no limit of how many hours someone can work if they are claiming Universal Credit. Instead the amount a family receives will gradually reduce as they earn more. There are still some benefits which are not included in Universal Credit and you will need to help the family you support to apply for them separately. You can find an outline of those benefits at a separate resource.

Application process

You will need to help the family you welcomed make an online application for Universal Credit. The first payment will only be made 5 weeks after the initial application, so make sure you do this as soon as possible after the arrival of the family.

Before starting the application you will need the following:

  • Email addresses for each adult. Not every refugee arriving in the UK will have their own email address. Check whether this is the case and support those who need it to set this up.
  • A UK phone number for each adult.
  • Information about housing and rent. Gather the following:
    • Exact amount of the rent
    • Exact amount of any service charge (if applicable)
    • Frequency of the rent and service charge payments e.g. weekly
    • Landlord’s name
    • Landlord’s full address
    • Landlord’s e-mail address
    • Landlord’s contact phone number
    • Number of bedrooms in the property

There is other information that would usually be needed, but which may be difficult to access initially:

  • National Insurance Number – each adult arriving in the UK through the resettlement scheme is automatically allocated a National Insurance Number. The number is on the back of the Biometric residence permit (BRP). The family you support may not receive their BRPs before the initial Jobcentre appointment. If that’s the case you will can input a dummy national insurance number (e.g. AB123456A) and update it to the correct one as soon as the family receives their BRPs.
  • Bank account details –  It would be ideal for the claimants to have their bank account details at the initial Jobcentre appointment, but, again, it is possible your Group will not be able to open a bank account and have the details within 3 working days (and that’s not a cause for concern!). In this case you can also input a dummy account number (e.g. sort code: 00-00-00, account number: 12345678) update it as soon as you get the correct details.  It’s crucial that you remember this must be changed prior to the first payment being processed.   

If you want to know more about the application process and see the online application form – the understanding Universal Credit web pages provide a step-by-step guide. You will find the online application form here.

Please note that the final step of the application is verifying the ID of the claimant. It is very unlikely you will be able to do this online for a family who just arrived to the UK (and you won’t be able to do this at all if you make the application before BRPs arrived). The Jobcentre will be in touch to get this done and will either verify ID over the phone or at the first in-person appointment.

Initial interview

After the application has been made, the Jobcentre will invite the family you support to an initial interview. The main purpose of this is to sign the claimant commitment – a contract outlining what a person needs to do to continue receiving benefits. It may be best for someone from your Group to accompany (sits next to, if the appointment takes place over the phone) the family to this initial interview to advocate for the family and ensure they understand what they are agreeing to. It is important that the commitment is realistic and does not include conditions that a newly arrived refugee will not be able to meet. Many families are simply asked to attended regular ESOL classes in the first months following their arrival; as learning English will lead to a greater chance of employment.

The DWP staff member the family will work with is a Work Coach.  Work Coaches have a lot of discretion, for example when it comes to expectations of what a refugee should be doing to find employment. It is best for your Group and the family to build a positive relationship with their Work Coach.  Work Coaches can change over time, so ensure that you build a relationship with each one when they change, don’t rely on a handover taking place.

You may choose to bring an interpreter to this initial meeting to make sure it goes smoothly and the refugee family is able to understand everything. After that the Jobcentre can and should provide interpreters for any ongoing meetings. You can read more on building positive relationship with Jobcentre in our guide to working with Jobcentres.


Advance payment

As Universal Credit is paid monthly and in arrears (this is so that it resembles the way a salary is paid)  the first payment will be made no earlier than 5 weeks after the application is submitted. It is possible to request an advance payment.

An advance payment works like an interest free loan and will be deducted directly from future monthly payments. The family you support will be able to decide whether they want to request an advance payment, how much they want to request and how they want to repay it. It is possible to spread the repayments over a maximum of 12 months.

Two-child limit

There is a two-child limit for families claiming Universal Credit, which applies to children born after 06 April 2017. For example, if a family already has 2 children and a third child is born they will not receive any additional benefit for that new child. The limit does not apply to children born before 06 April 2017, this means that refugee families arriving in the UK now, with three or more children born before 06 April 2017 can still receive Universal Credit payments for all their children.

Rent payments

Universal Credit is aimed to cover  housing costs, however, there is a maximum that can be paid towards family’s housing – it is called Local Housing Allowance. Local Housing Allowance differs from one area to another, but it is very easy to check how much it is where you are using this LHA calculator.

If the family’s rent exceeds the Local Housing Allowance then they will have to cover the difference from their non-housing part of their Universal Credit or your Group may have to do this for them at least to start with. You can find out more about paying a housing top-up in our resource.

In Scotland and Northern Ireland the rent payment is usually automatically transferred directly to the landlord, in England and Wales it normally goes to the family who then needs to pay their landlord. It is possible to make a request for the payments to be made directly to the landlord, especially if the family feels they will find it difficult to budget or transfer the payments themselves. This is called an Alternative Payment Arrangements and has to be specifically requested at the Jobcentre.

One of the major benefits of Universal Credit is that a detailed breakdown of the payment is available online right after DWP makes the payment. We recommend that you spend some time with the family after they receive the first payment to help them understand what they get money for and confirm that amounts they receive are correct (for example that the rent was sent to the landlord as requested!).

Finally,  Universal Credit payments may be reduced because of the benefit cap. You can find out more about benefit cap and the ways to prevent the family you support from losing out financially in this resource.

It is best to use one of online benefit calculators to find out exactly how much Universal Credit the family you are supporting are going to receive per month. We recommend the one developed by Policy in Practice.

Managing the claim

Each person claiming Universal Credit has their own account which can be accessed online; this is referred to as the Online Journal. The Online Journal will give the refugee an opportunity to send a message directly to their Work Coach, view their Jobcentre to do list and allow them to see when their next appointment will be and their forthcoming payment schedule.

Think about how you will support the family to access and use the journal as independently as possible. This will be difficult at first and they may need your help to understand and respond to messages. Help the family to decide whether they would like this assistance if you are happy to offer it and make sure that you are assisting them to use the journal, rather than doing this for them.  However, further down the line it may be easier for the refugees to understand (for example with help of Google translate or a dictionary) written messages than phone calls or face to face conversations.

After making an application each adult family member will be allocated to one of several categories. Those with health problems will be assessed whether they are fit for work according to DWP criteria. Others will be requested to take part in activities that will lead towards employment. For most newly arrived families this can be through attending English classes. Over time the Jobcentre will put more emphasis on job searching and activities that directly impact the  securing of employment e.g. volunteering. Most refugees will be asked to come to the Jobcentre regularly to report to their Work Coach what progress they have made towards finding a job.  Remember that the Jobcentre has a statutory duty  to provide interpreters for those meetings for anyone who does not speak English well enough to communicate easily. Some Jobcentres may have less experience of working with people who do not speak English so you may have to advocate on behalf of the family you support to make sure this happens.

Some Groups advocate on behalf of the families they support for those visits not to take place at all, for example during the first six months and for the group to be the main point of contact in that time. If your Group decides to do that then make sure the family gives consent to this so that having to attend Jobcentre regularly in the future won’t come as a surprise.

We recommend that you should work toward the refugees attending appointments unaccompanied as soon as possible Rather than attending appointments you can think about scheduling a preparation and debrief meeting after them, at least initially. Some of the points to discuss could be:

  • Did the Work Coach provide an interpreter (if required)? 
  • Did you understand the questions Work Coach asked you? 
  • When are your future appointments? Do you know what are these for?
  • Were you asked to do anything before the next appointment?
  • Were there any other issues?

This will allow you to follow up on potential issues, but will also ensure that refugees build a relationship with their work coach independently of your Group.

We recommend that in case of any difficulties with the Universal Credit claim your Group seeks support of the benefit experts, for example Citizens Advice.

Reporting changes

Refugees will need to report any changes to their personal circumstances, such as starting employment as soon as possible. With Universal Credit it is possible to report changes through the Online Journal.