Unclaimed benefits worth £19 billion are available to millions of UK households who are struggling with the financial burden of rising expenses as the cost of living crisis continues. Research indicates that 11 million people, over 16% of the population, cannot afford their bills or credit card repayments.
At Policy in Practice we continue to hear from advisors on the frontline that more people than ever are seeking support.
More people are struggling who haven’t struggled before. A lot of people who may be struggling for the first time don’t know where to go, what to do, or what support is available to them. One of the things we’ve been really focusing on is helping people to maximise their income.
Sharon Gill, Customer Relations Manager, EDF Energy
Policy in Practice works with clients and partners across multiple sectors who deal directly with people struggling with the cost of living crisis. From our work across several industries, we know the incredible campaigns undertaken by frontline staff to support their vulnerable customers and residents in a financial crisis.
Our recent report, Missing out: £19 billion of support goes unclaimed year, outlines the shocking scale of available help that goes unclaimed each year in the UK. We work with local authorities, housing associations, debt advice organisations and utility companies to close that gap by maximising income through benefit take up.
In our June webinar we heard from experts across different industries about what financial vulnerability means to them. They discussed how their respective organisations support those customers and the work they are doing to close the unclaimed benefits gap.
The panel consisted of:
- Sally Cannell, Continuous Improvement Analyst, Anglian Water
- Sharon Gill, Customer Relations Manager, EDF Energy
- Adrian McDowell, Senior Policy and Projects Officer, Greater London Authority
- Rosi Avis, Partnership and Communication Lead, Citizens Advice Manchester
- Julie Alexander, Manager for Welfare Benefits and Financial Inclusion, Northern Ireland Housing Executive
Uncovering the barriers to unclaimed benefits
During the webinar attendees were asked to identify the main reason benefits remain unclaimed. The majority noted a lack of awareness and administrative complexity as key drivers. We know from our Missing Out report that all outlined barriers hinder access to support.
Julie Alexander of NIHE, informed us that many people believe they are not entitled to benefits as they are in work. The panelists echoed these sentiments while reflecting on their own experiences. They emphasised the importance of raising awareness of available services and dispelling the stigma surrounding benefit claimants.
A lack of awareness and people not understanding what support they might be entitled to inadvertently ties into the stigma, because if people believe that benefits are only for people out of work or a stereotypical benefit claimant they will believe they are not entitled to support when they might be.
Rosi Avis, Partnership and Communication Lead, Citizens Advice Manchester
Sally Cannell of Anglian Water remarked that “the barriers of the system and the complexity of the application process” leave people feeling completely overwhelmed when trying to apply. The panelists, particularly those working in debt advice, highlighted the significant reductions in funding of the sector.
There is a need for increased investment in high quality advisors and independent advice agencies to break down the complexity of the benefits systems, enabling advisors to clearly explain what support is available to individuals who struggle with administrative complexity.
Raising awareness of benefit entitlements and simplifying the application process
Our panelists demonstrated how their organisations work hard to disseminate information on the available support mechanisms. While a short term solution such as a fuel voucher may help customers heat their homes, organisations should signpost to additional services, identifying vulnerable customers needing further support and referring them to advice services.
Policy in Practice Director and Founder, Deven Ghelani, remarked that utility companies have a unique opportunity to work across multiple sectors to provide clear and concise information to customers and refer individuals to the wider support network.
We developed a framework for advisors to really structure conversations on how we can support customers. Our care framework is about cost, affordability, resolution and extra support. When we designed this it was thinking about how we can look at reducing consumption, their affordability, and what is the right resolution for that individual… We have a number of extra supports in place with our partners on income maximisation… The Policy in Practice tool helps us to have really enriched affordability conversations with customers allowing us to offer practical advice there and then.
Sharon Gill, Customer Relations Manager, EDF Energy
The value of a benefits calculator
By integrating benefits calculators into their websites and application processes, panelists talked about how they can empower their customers to assess their eligibility quickly, reducing the complexity of the benefits system and thus simplifying the application process. It is also valuable for those embarrassed to discuss their financial situation due to the stigma surrounding benefits.
While customer service advisors have procedures to signpost specific customers to additional advice services when needed, we know from EDF’s work that it can offer practical advice in the short term. Deven Ghelani remarked that having trained advisors offering support via benefits calculators reduces pressure on the advice sector.
We have massively invested in the way that customers can talk to us. There are multiple options for them to communicate with us via webio, SMS, and on all of our platforms to find out information on the help that is available to them. They can also self-serve on the benefits calculator provided by Policy in Practice… if an Anglian Water customer enters their postcode in the calculator there is an option to send that information directly to [us] so we can assess them for a water tariff.
Sally Cannell, Continuous Improvement Analyst, Anglian Water
The power of partnerships to target support
Our panelists all agreed that cross sector collaboration is essential to ensure those facing financial vulnerability can access the benefits they are eligible for. Rosi Avis of Citizens Advice Manchester reminded us that people often don’t view local councils as the first point of contact for support; they are often much more likely to reach out to advice agencies or their utility companies if they are struggling with bill payments.
Organisations can proactively identify eligible individuals through partnerships with departments like the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and local authorities and effectively raise awareness.
These partnerships allow them to reach marginalised households within their community and work on a joint application process together. They can inform customers that even small Universal Credit and Pension Credit payments are a gateway to additional support, including Warm Home Discounts, Healthy Start, and fuel vouchers.
Julie Alexander echoed earlier comments on under-funding in the advice sector, believing that maximising customer benefit uptake and income requires targeted support and increased investment. Integrating income maximisation strategies into the customer journey and providing access to social benefits calculators were the most effective approaches discussed by our panelists.
An increase in people seeking support from advice services predates the cost of living crisis. In the last nine months we have expanded our financial support team from three staff to ten because we determined that we need to be able to work more proactively. Due to the erosion of independent advice services we want to plug that gap ourselves for our customers so we can do benefits and money advice and help people with the completion of applications.
Julie Alexander, Manager for Welfare Benefits and Financial Inclusion, Northern Ireland Housing Executive
Utilising data and messaging to close the unclaimed benefits gap
Our panelists discussed how harnessing data to identify eligible individuals and contacting them to inform them of their eligibility yields the most significant results of benefit uptake. Policy in Practice helps our clients use their data to identify vulnerable customers who may not be claiming benefits.
By proactively targeting these customers, our clients can overcome some of the challenges and barriers surrounding the stigma and complexity of benefits systems, reaching those unaware of their entitlements. Citizens Advice Manchester is working on campaigns to actively meet vulnerable community members and go to where they are rather than waiting for them to approach the advice agency.
Deven Ghelani emphasised the importance of organisations being proactive in their approach.
In London we have been working with Policy in Practice to scale up an approach to Pension Credit uptake. Our campaign uses housing benefit and council tax data to identify households who are eligible for Pension Credit but are not claiming. We then send a letter from the council to those households encouraging them to claim with the information needed in order to do so. Pension Credit in London is around £3,800 per claim, which is obviously a significant amount of money. This demonstrates if you can identify the people who are more than likely eligible and contact them with a supportive message… you can get very significant results.
Adrian McDowell, Senior Policy and Projects Officer, Greater London Authority
Closing the unclaimed benefits gap
The discussion highlighted the importance of awareness, collaboration, and targeted support in maximising benefit uptake and income for financially vulnerable individuals. By addressing barriers, leveraging partnerships, and utilising data-driven strategies, organisations can play a vital role in helping individuals navigate the complex benefits system and to secure the support they need.
Through continued efforts and investment, we can work towards a future where every eligible person receives the benefits they are entitled to, reducing financial vulnerability and building a more inclusive society.
If your organisation is interested in discovering how Policy in Practice can effectively drive income maximisation for your customers or residents, please contact email@example.com.
Join our next free webinar
How housing providers are building the financial strength of customers during the cost of living crisis
Wednesday 26 July from 10.30 to 11.45
View details and register here
In the face of the ongoing cost of living crisis housing providers play a crucial role in supporting the financial wellbeing of their customers. This webinar explores the innovative strategies and initiatives undertaken by housing providers to build the financial strength of individuals and families, empowering them to navigate the challenges posed by rising costs.
The webinar will bring together policy experts and two leading housing providers to share insights and best practices. Participants will gain a deeper understanding of the proactive measures being taken to alleviate financial burdens and promote stability within the communities they serve.
You will learn:
- What benefits are unclaimed and how this is affecting housing affordability
- How one housing provider works with its local council to help customers to claim benefits
- How another housing provider is designing its customer journey with financial inclusion and tenancy sustainment at the heart
With guest speakers: