Citizens Advice Wirral
Citizens Advice Bureau
Better Off Calculator
When the Covid-19 lockdown was announced in March 2020, Citizens Advice Wirral converted their entire service to home working, without any break in service. Thousands of clients were supported in various ways and given help through some of the most difficult and challenging times. Nearly 150 staff and volunteers across many different teams and projects serviced, supported and advised almost 15,000 people in 2020.
Before Citizens Advice Wirral adopted the Policy in Practice Better Off Calculator it used a lengthy eight page spreadsheet to carry out benefits calculations. This took one advisor up to three training sessions to use and didn’t have the flexibility to amend inputted data in a calculation. The client needed to have all the correct information to hand, at the beginning of the calculation.
The introduction of Universal Credit brought new scenarios into the mix and it was clear that the advisors needed a simple calculator that enabled the inputting and amending of budgeting variables to give clients a clearer picture of their financial situation. Citizens Advice Wirral chose the Policy in Practice Benefit and Budgeting calculator in early 2019.
When the Covid-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, this need grew dramatically overnight as many people turned to the support of the welfare system to cope with income shocks, many for the first time. The support introduced, such as the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) and the Self Employed Income Support Scheme (SEISS), was complicated, at an already stressful time. For self-employed Universal Credit claimants, SEISS is paid quarterly, resulting in spikes in real-time income and triggering the complex surplus earnings regulations for the first time. Many clients were furloughed, had their hours reduced, or were made redundant. Advisors needed the best tool available to give the best advice possible as supports were introduced and updated regularly.
As well as being affected by fluctuating income, many people claiming the new CJRS and SEISS often didn’t realise that their first Universal Credit payment would include their rent unless they had made alternative arrangements. So the teams at Citizens Advice Wirral dealt with enquiries from people who had spent most or all of their rent and then found themselves in rent arrears without realising it.
Despite the challenges of new welfare supports, increased demand from new clients and a complete switch to working from home, Citizens Advice Wirral had the Policy in Practice Better Off Calculator. This meant they were able to prepare people for household income fluctuations in advance so they could set aside earnings to cover months when there would be no Universal Credit award.
Using the calculator, Citizens Advice Wirral can advise clients if Universal Credit is the best option for them. They can then help a client to make the claim and apply for other support such as help with council tax, for example. The client may also be directed to their ‘Better Off Finance’ team for the budgeting support element, especially if surplus earnings will apply to them. The calculator makes it easier for the finance teams to see if the client’s income is going up or down so they can better support the client.
“The Better Off Calculator makes it much quicker to do calculations and the tooltips make it easy to use, meaning we only need to train people once. The simplicity of the calculator means that clients can often self serve with little support.”
Sue McCarron, Ask Us Wirral Service Manager, Citizens Advice Wirral
Citizens Advice Wirral has lots of clients who have been trained and moved on to more self-help over the past three years. They usually only train people once on it and they do their own calculations from then on. The staff still have a quality check on all cases so if there is something that doesn’t seem right, they have a phonecall or video call with screen sharing and discuss those things.
Where surplus earnings regulations apply, to avoid falling into crisis, advisors help clients understand how much of a large one-off payment must be retained to cover living costs for future months when there will be no Universal Credit payment. The Better Off Calculator makes it easy to see the combined impact of ongoing regular income, projected irregular earnings and surplus earnings provision, on a person’s Universal Credit award in the one place. It also gives information about the level at which earnings will trigger surplus earnings regulations.
In partnership with other organisations such as Age UK Citizens Advice Wirral currently goes door to door in areas of deprivation to see if people need help. This partnership has helped elderly residents in their area see significant increases to their income: with the help of the Better Off Calculator, Citizens Advice Wirral were able to help one man increase his income by £930. However, this approach is not ideal as it takes a lot of time and investment, and residents might not be home when they call. The team finds that it might only get half a dozen clients from a broad leaflet drop campaign.
With that in mind, Citizens Advice Wirral is keen for the local authority to purchase Policy in Practice’s Low Income Family Tracker (LIFT) platform. Using data sets that only Wirral Council holds, LIFT would allow the council to identify vulnerable households more precisely. For example, the data analysis would show pensioners who were getting Personal Independence Payment (PIP) and not Pension Credit who might be eligible for the Severe Disability Premium, and therefore extra income of up to £80 a week.
Citizens Advice Wirral is keen to work with the council in using LIFT to better target proactive support efforts. Using LIFT would mean they could more accurately identify clients who need the help, enabling them to work more closely with them to grow their financial strength.