Understanding Universal Credit and Employment Support Allowance (ESA) Jump to main content

Understanding Universal Credit and Employment Support Allowance (ESA)

If you are struggling with your living costs you may be able to apply for Universal Credit. Here we give you a brief overview of Universal Credit, how it works and how to apply. ISM members thinking about making a claim are advised to contact the membership team for further advice. Alternatively, contact the Universal Credit helpline or Citizens Advice.

What is Universal Credit?

Universal Credit supports you if you are on a low income or out of work. It includes a monthly payment to help with your living costs or twice a month payment for some people in Scotland.

Universal Credit is replacing the following benefits which are being phased out:

  • Child Tax Credit
  • Housing Benefit
  • Income Support
  • Income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA)
  • Income-related Employment and Support Allowance (ESA)
  • Working Tax Credit
  • You can remain on any of the above benefits without needing to apply for Universal Credit. However, if your circumstances change in a way that requires you to make a new claim, you may need to claim Universal Credit instead, as legacy benefits are not accepting new applicants. You may also have to move to Universal Credit if the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) contacts you to do so.

    If you are receiving any of the above benefits or tax credits they will stop if you make a Universal Credit claim.

    Eligibility for Universal Credit

    There are a number of factors that will determine your eligibility for Universal Credit.

    The threshold for savings is £16,000 between you and your partner or spouse. You partner’s income will also be taken into account, even if they are not eligible for Universal Credit.

    If you or your spouse is of state pension age, you can still claim Universal Credit as a couple however when you both reach state pension age, your Universal Credit will stop.

    There are also scenarios in which you can claim Universal Credit if you are a student, and the government's website offers further advice on this.

    Universal Credit is designed to ensure that you have sufficient income to live on. There are no rules regarding how many hours you can work. You will continue to receive Universal Credit regardless of the number of hours you work, however the amount of Universal Credit received will reduce as your earnings rise.

    How to apply for Universal Credit

    You can apply for Universal Credit online or through their helpline by phoning 0800 328 5644. To apply online you will need:

    • your bank, building society or credit union details
    • an email address
    • access to a phone

    To complete your claim you will need to provide:

  • proof of identity
  • housing information, do you pay rent or mortgage
  • the amount of your payslips or proof of income
  • whether you have a disability or health condition that affects your work
  • how much you pay for child care, if this is what you require assistance with
  • details of your savings and investments
  • How to check whether you are eligible for Universal Credit or other government benefits

    The following organisations provide benefits calculators so you can check which benefits you are eligible for:

    Turn2us, a national charity providing practical help to people who are struggling financially.

    Policy in Practice, a social policy software and analytics company that works with councils, the government, housing providers and community organisations.

    entitledto, provide an online benefit calculators and have partnered with Employment Related Services Association (ERSA) to ensure that local authorities and social housing providers can access benefit calculators that are kept up-to-date with welfare reform.

    Can EU, EEA or Swiss citizens apply for UK benefits?

    If you are a citizen of the European Union (EU), European Economic Area (EEA) or Switzerland you may need settled or pre-settled status to claim Universal Credit. You can apply for this on the government's website.

    Further information can also be found on the Citizens Advice website.

    Looking for work while obtaining Universal Credit

    Under existing rules, if you are unemployed, you have three months from when you make your universal credit claim to find a job within your sector. After this period, you should make a reasonable effort to find and secure a job in any sector or you could face sanctions.

    New rules have been proposed that reduces the time period for finding a job in your sector from three months to four weeks, after four weeks you should make a reasonable effort to find and secure a job in any sector or you could face sanctions.

    Employment Support Allowance

    In some cases, you may be able to apply for Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). ESA gives additional support to people who have limited capability to work because of their sickness or disability.

    You can apply for ESA if you are under the State Pension age and have a disability or health condition that affects how much you can work but you need to have worked either as an employee or as self-employed and you should have paid sufficient National Insurance (NI) credits; you can check your NI record on the government's website. You cannot get ESA if you claim Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) or Jobseeker's Allowance.

    You may be able to receive Universal Credit at the same time or instead of ESA.

      How to apply for ESA

      You can apply for ESA online or over the telephone. To apply over the telephone contact the Universal Credit helpline on 0800 328 5644 (choose option 3). To apply online you will need your:

      • NI number
      • bank or building society details
      • doctor's name, address and telephone number
      • income
      • if you're claiming SSP, the date this ends
      • if you're applying because of COVID-19, additional information as per the government's website may be required