Universal Credit Scottish choices: evaluation - qualitative research - annex b

Annex B containing qualitative research for the evaluation of Universal Credit Scottish choices.

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2. Awareness and understanding of Scottish choices

Key findings

  • Awareness of the term 'Scottish choices' was very low. There was also considerable variation in our sample in whether people had heard of one, both, or neither of the options they were eligible for.
  • There was variation in whether or not people recalled having seen the Journal notification offering Scottish choices, and whether their Work Coach had ever discussed Scottish choices with them.
  • Although lack of awareness was a barrier to access, opting into Scottish choices generally appeared to be straightforward among people who were aware of them as options.
  • There was evidence of confusion around some key aspects of how Scottish choices work, including payment dates and amounts, and how the Direct Payments to Landlords option works for those whose Universal Credit does not cover their full rent. There was also some confusion around how the More Frequent Payments option interacts with Universal Credit advances.
  • Those migrating from legacy benefits, in particular, were not always clear that the Direct Payments option is not applied automatically, or that claimants are responsible for paying their first months' rent themselves.
  • People on Universal Credit, key informants and some social landlords felt there was an over-reliance on the online Journal for communicating with people on Universal Credit about Scottish choices (and in general).

This chapter summarises findings on claimant and landlord awareness and understanding of Scottish choices. It addresses the following research questions:

  • Are those eligible aware of the choices available to them?
  • Do they find accessing the choices straightforward and understand how they would affect their Universal Credit award?

Awareness, access and understanding among people on Universal Credit

Awareness of Scottish choices

Awareness of Scottish choices among people on Universal Credit interviewed for this research was extremely variable. Interviews quickly highlighted that few participants were aware of the term 'Scottish choices', even if they were aware of the options they cover. And awareness of the options themselves was also inconsistent: some had not been aware of either option prior to being contacted for this research, while others had known about one option, but not the other. Case study 1, below, highlights issues around awareness, even for people who eventually do go on to access Scottish choices.

Case study 1 - James

James is in his forties and gave up his job because of repeated health issues. He has been getting Universal Credit for about a year. His day-to-day finances are a real struggle, and he feels he has a lot of deductions coming off his living money, due to past arrears he is still paying off.

He is on both More Frequent Payments and Direct Payments to Landlord, but he had never heard of the term 'Scottish choices' prior to the interview and does not recall ever being offered either choice by his Work Coach or through his Universal Credit online journal. He first heard about the More Frequent Payments option a few months into his claim from somewhere online - he could not remember exactly where. He immediately called up the Jobcentre and asked to be switched onto this option, because he was regularly reaching crisis point at the end of the month and was having to borrow money:

"I was finding myself very difficult near the end of the month, you know, to manage, and just running out of electricity, and running out of gas, and running out of food, and having to lend off of people ..."

He has always struggled to pay for all the things he needed with his Universal Credit money - in order to pay for other essentials, he found himself getting into the habit of only paying two thirds of his rent and spending the rest. Consequently, his rent arrears had built and built. He wanted to break this habit because he believed that even if the unpaid rent money helped him pay for other things in the short run, in the long run it made things harder.

Again, James had no memory of ever being told about the Direct Payments to Landlord option. However, it was clear to him that the current system of him paying his own rent was not working, so he called the Jobcentre on his own initiative to ask whether they could send his housing element directly to the landlord rather than to his account.

At the time of interview, James had been on Direct Payments for a few months and felt it was a much better option for him. He was glad to just have his rent sorted, and to not have to worry about the possibility of further arrears. Receiving more frequent payments had also improved things for him and meant that when he started running out of money, he only had a few days till the next payment. However, he wished that his options had been made clear to him from the beginning, rather than having to ask for them himself months into his claim.

Where people were able to recall how they had first become aware of Scottish choices, they mentioned a variety of routes, including: through their Universal Credit online Journal; from their Work Coach; from their landlord; through a support organisation; through word of mouth (from a friend or family member); and via social media (including both public forums, and pop-ups or targeted adverts). Participants' comments on whether or not they had heard of Scottish choices through Journal notifications and discussions with Work Coaches highlighted a number of potential issues around how consistently and successfully people are made aware of Scottish choices through each of these routes.

Everyone who is on Universal Credit and living in Scotland should receive a notification through their online Universal Credit account (a 'journal notification') at the end of their first assessment period, asking them if they wish to take up the Scottish choices for which they are eligible. However, the people we spoke to were not always aware of having received such a journal notification. In some instances, interviewees acknowledged that they might have just missed this, but in others, people indicated that they were checking their journals very regularly (even daily) and could not recall ever having seen a notification about Scottish choices.

One view was that information can seem a bit "hidden" within people's Universal Credit accounts - an interviewee who suggested this tried to find a reference to Scottish choices in his online account during his telephone interview but was unable to locate anything. Other participants reported that they were not using their Universal Credit Journal (either at all, or at the start of their claim), and therefore would not have become aware of Scottish choices through this route. Key informants who were working with potentially vulnerable people also observed that their clients often did not find out about Scottish choices through their Journal - there was a perception that their clients were often unaware of Scottish choices until the support organisation mentioned it to them.

Some interviewees mentioned hearing about Scottish choices from their Work Coaches, either at their first interview when setting up their Universal Credit Account, or as a result of mentioning that they were struggling to manage financially. However, in other cases participants noted that their Work Coach had never mentioned Scottish choices, or that they had only mentioned one option (although they appeared to be eligible for both). This was viewed as a missed opportunity to help people who might benefit from Scottish choices - for example, the woman quoted below said her Work Coach had told her about the Direct Payments to Landlord option, but not the More Frequent Payment option, which she felt would have benefited her (she had not been aware of this option prior to taking part in the research):

"They definitely didn't mention (More Frequent Payments). I would definitely remember that, because as I say to come from weekly pay for the last 15 years to all of a sudden going monthly. If somebody suggested something in between I would have jumped at it at that point."

(Interviewee 33, Female 45-65, on DPL)

Similar views were expressed by social landlords and key informants working with people on Universal Credit who were interviewed for this research, who also felt that Jobcentres were not always good at informing people about Universal Credit.

"I obviously attend the Jobcentres with people when they are going up for the conditionality appointments and their ID appointments and things like that, and honestly Scottish choices isn't something that is spoke about very much at the Jobcentre. All they are interested in doing is doing their ID, get the conditionality signed so that they can get them looking for work and things like that."

(Landlord 11, Local Authority)

Accessing Scottish choices

Among those who had heard of the Scottish choices options and decided to opt for one or both of them, accessing them was generally described as straightforward. The exact process for accessing them did vary, however, depending largely on how they had been made aware of the choices in the first instance. Those who had heard about them through the Journal notification had generally opted in themselves through their online account, whereas those who had heard about them through their Work Coach or through a support worker (either at an independent organisation or at their social landlord) were more likely to say that they had helped them register for Scottish choices. This either involved the support worker or Work Coach showing the person how to opt in through their Journal or doing this for them (particularly - though not exclusively - in cases where the person struggled with digital literacy or access).

Key informants and landlords also mentioned cases where they had requested Scottish choices for a claimant outwith the Journal notification, asking that they be put on one or both options directly with their Universal Credit Case Manager. One reason for this appeared to be a desire to try and put one or both Scottish choices options in place prior to the end of the first assessment period,[12] to avoid clients falling into debt. There is already an option within Universal Credit to request direct payments to landlords or a different payment schedule via an APA (Alternative Payment Arrangement) prior to the end of the first assessment period. However, it was suggested by a social landlord that it can be easier and quicker to request Scottish choices directly than to apply for an APA, as APAs require that landlords gather a lot of information as evidence of likelihood of default. Their view was that this evidence may not be readily available for a completely new tenant, but who they feel would benefit from the Scottish choices options, and who would themselves like to opt for Direct Payments to Landlords.

Understanding of Scottish choices

Participants who were aware of the Scottish choices options, but had decided not to opt for one or both of them, generally indicated that they felt they had received enough information to enable them to arrive at an informed decision (reasons for deciding not to take up Scottish choices are discussed in the following chapter). However, there were exceptions to this view, where claimants indicated that they had found the Journal notification confusing and potentially misleading. For example, one interviewee said that he had thought the notification looked like a "scam" and did not want to click on it in case it affected him getting paid. Another felt the Journal had not been clear that the more frequent payments would be two half payments - it had read to him as though it could be double. In other cases, however, claimants felt that the Journal notification had clearly explained it would be half payments received twice a month.

Among those who had actually gone on to take up one or both Scottish choices options, views were more mixed on whether the information they had received at the outset was sufficient to ensure their decision was fully informed. In particular, those who had experienced problems or challenges around their Scottish choices (discussed in more detail in Chapter 4, on impacts) often felt that, in hindsight, there was important information that they did not remember receiving in advance. With respect to the Direct Payments to Landlords option, this included:

  • Exactly how much rent was covered - a participant who ran into arrears because they had not appreciated that their direct payment only covered part of their rent was adamant that he had never been clearly told exactly how much rent was being paid (his full rent had previously been covered by Housing Benefit).
  • Information about how Direct Payments to Landlords work if a person's Universal Credit housing element does not cover their full rent (this was also mentioned by a participant who decided not to go for this option, who had assumed it would not work for her because she received fluctuating amounts of Universal Credit each month).
  • Exactly when rent will be paid via the direct payment system - mentioned where a participant had experienced significant issues as a result of the DWP payment system not paying landlords at the same time as claimants received their Universal Credit (see Box 2, below for a brief explanation of this issue, which is mentioned at various points in this report).
  • That claimants are responsible for paying their first month's rent themselves (and that direct payments are not automatic) - In some cases where people were migrating from legacy benefits where Housing Benefit had been paid direct, they had assumed this would simply continue, and had not registered that they would be responsible for paying their first month's rent themselves (since they can only opt for it at the start of the second assessment period, after their first monthly payment has already been set to come direct to the claimant).

Box 2 - Direct Payments to Landlords payment system

After Scottish choices were introduced, the DWP paid rent due to landlords in 'bulk' payments, covering all their tenants who had opted for Scottish choices. The payment schedule for this was fixed, and not designed to align with individual tenants' Universal Credit payment dates or the dates when their rent would be due. This meant that tenants could fall into 'technical arrears' if there was a gap between their Universal Credit payment date and the next date a payment was due to be made to their landlord.

At the time of writing, a new payment system was being rolled out by the DWP, under which payments would be made daily and aligned with individuals' Universal Credit payments. This was started to be rolled out in August 2020 (following earlier piloting in a small number of areas), with roll-out due to be complete in November 2020. However, the existing payment system was a recurrent theme raised by tenants and landlords that had shaped their experiences of the Scottish choices Direct Payments to Landlord option, and this is reflected in this report.

Among people who had opted for More Frequent Payments, it was suggested that, in retrospect, it would have been helpful to have clearer information at the outset on:

  • The fact that split payments would be received twice a month, and not fortnightly - this was also reflected in interviews with landlords. It was suggested that it would be helpful for people to be given examples of payment schedules before they sign-up for this option, to help bolster understanding of how they will actually be paid.
  • The exact date that the second monthly payment will be made- it was commented that this was not clear in the Journal from the outset, resulting in claimants having to guess when their second payment will arrive (the first payment date is set, but the second varies depending on the length of the month).
  • The fact that switching to more frequent payments would mean that, a month after their last full monthly payment, they would then get a half payment - claimants reported finding this confusing, and in some cases had apparently expected to receive a full payment at the start of the month, followed by a half payment two weeks later.
  • Exactly how advances would be paid back for those who choose this option - it was suggested that it was unclear whether repayments for Universal Credit advances would be split between each twice-monthly payment or would be taken out as a larger sum once a month.

There was also criticism from claimants of the content of the Journal notification they had received about Scottish choices - it was suggested that it was very basic, and that more information (on the kinds of issues listed above) should be provided so that people can make a fully informed decision about whether or not to take up each option. This view that the Journal notification is too simplistic was echoed by social landlords and key informants, who commented that they were having to do a lot to support understanding of how Scottish choices works, as well as supporting clients to manage their Universal Credit claims more generally.

There was a strong view - from claimants, key informants and social landlords - that relying on the Journal notification to convey information about Scottish choices was not ideal for everyone. A number of the claimants we spoke to did not use the journal themselves or had not used it at the time Scottish choices would have been offered to them. This reflected both IT literacy issues (which were not restricted to older interviewees), and barriers relating to lack of home internet access. Moreover, even among those who did use their online Journal, some expressed strong preferences for other forms of communication either instead, or alongside, Journal notifications - for example, one participant said he would have preferred to receive information about Scottish choices by letter, as he struggles with technology because of his specific medical issues. A preference for other forms of communication about Scottish choices was linked with wider frustrations about the reliance on the online portal to communicate with people on Universal Credit:

"Even if you need to speak to them about something and it is urgent you still have to go through the computer. You have to go into your journal. … You write a note on this journal to them and it could take up to 24 to 48 hours to receive an answer, and again it will be on the computer. So, if your computer breaks down or crashes you're stuffed."

(Interviewee 40, Female 45-65, on both MFP and DPL)

Key informants and social landlords also commented on the impact of digital literacy on understanding of both Scottish choices and Universal Credit more generally. People who were not already used to interacting digitally were reported to struggle with using their online account both to access and to support their understanding of Scottish choices, including being able to check payment dates and amounts:

"Anybody who has difficulty accessing internet or who doesn't have English as their first language will have difficulty accessing their Universal Credit Journal, never mind the Scottish choices. That's something that has come up particularly during COVID that there are people who just can't get access to their Universal Credit stuff because they have no, they wouldn't necessarily have internet at home, some people are shielding, can't get out."

(Key informant 5)

There was a strong view that Work Coaches should be doing more to explain how to use the Journal, as well as explaining Scottish choices to new claimants.


Email: Socialresearch@gov.scot

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