Feeling the Benefit: how Universal Support can help get Britain working

Year of Publication: 

This Centre for Social Justice (CSJ)  paper focuses on the changing appearance of benefits in Britain. The rise in UK economic inactivity (which hit nine million in October 2022) is increasingly well known, this paper aims to better understand the picture of those who have fallen out of work and onto mean-tested benefits since the pandemic. With an original analysis bringing together six datasets across the Universal Credit and legacy benefit systems, it  shows for the extent to which the number of people claiming working-age benefits has risen in recent years.

Findings include :

  • The total working-age benefit caseload has risen by 23 per cent since the onset of the pandemic, and by 28 per cent since 2019. There are 1.9 million more people claiming working-age benefits than there were three years ago, and 1.6 million more than pre-pandemic, at a total of 8.7 million people.
  • The caseload for claimants with No Work Requirements (due to poor physical or mental health, disabilities or caring responsibilities) has risen by 15 per cent since the onset of the pandemic, and by 20 per cent since 2019. We estimate there to be nearly 3.5 million claimants today with No Work Requirements. This is up by 460,000 since 2020, and by over half a million (570,000) since 2019.
  • The pandemic has produced a massive ‘social backlog’. We estimate there to be around 1.2 million more working-age benefit claimants today than if pre-pandemic trends had continued, including 260,000 more claimants with No Work Requirements.
  • With economic inactivity rising, more people are likely to fall into the benefit claiming cohort. The Office for National Statistics revealed in October 2022 that 640,000 more people have become economically inactive since the pandemic, including 378,000 who are no longer working due to long-term sickness. The longer people are out of work with health problems the less likely they are to return to employment.
  • Public spending on working-age benefits has risen by over £13 billion since 2019 in real terms. While it is vital that benefits are uprated in line with inflation in 2023 to provide a fair minimum income, the spike in benefit expenditure is driven by a rapidly increasing caseload.
Within this paper the CSJ suggests that the Government should re-allocate the £1.2 billion underspend on the Restart Scheme to roll out Universal Support nationally.

Universal Support is an intervention successfully piloted in 2014 by ministers – and the often forgotten ‘sister’ to Universal Credit – designed to help those facing barriers to the labour market into work and to overcome complex challenges holding them back in their lives.

The purpose of Universal Support is to:

  • Identify individuals in need of support with complex barriers to work, including physical or mental health conditions, disabilities, problem debt, social isolation, childhood trauma, housing issues, addiction, relationship problems, caring responsibilities and more.
  • Refer them to a local authority assigned Key Worker who is independent of the Department for Work and Pensions, and is able to build a trusted relationship with vulnerable individuals.
  • Provide a bespoke “wrap-around” support plan for vulnerable individuals and people distant from the labour market, including triage and sign-posting to local organisations and community charities best able to help them overcome complex and overlapping barriers to work.

Initial points of referral to (and from) Universal Support include the JobCentre Plus, GP surgeries, Citizens’ Advice, occupational health, third sector organisations such as debt charities, mental health and addiction support groups, local housing associations and councils