House of Commons Library

Universal Credit and the claimant count

Published Tuesday, January 21, 2020

This briefing paper explains how Universal Credit has increased the number of people claiming unemployment benefits, by requiring a broader group of claimants to look for work than was the case under Jobseeker’s Allowance. In January 2019, the Department for Work and Pensions published an ‘alternative’ claimant count for the first time. This models what the claimant count would have been if Universal Credit had been fully in place since 2013.

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What is the claimant count?

The claimant count is the number of people claiming benefits for the principal reason that they are unemployed. Before 2013, this was just the number of people claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance.

Following the introduction of Universal Credit from 2013 onwards, the claimant count has been measured as the number of people claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance plus the number of Universal Credit claimants who are required to look for work.

Universal Credit

Universal Credit is a new benefit which is being rolled out in stages. It replaces six existing benefits and tax credits (“legacy benefits”):

  • Income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance
  • Income-related Employment and Support Allowance
  • Income Support
  • Working Tax Credit
  • Child Tax Credit
  • Housing Benefit

By bringing together out-of-work benefits and tax credits, Universal Credit provides both in- and out-of-work support to claimants. It was introduced with the aim of simplifying and streamlining the benefits system, improving work incentives, tackling poverty among low income families, and reducing the scope for error and fraud.

How has Universal Credit affected the claimant count?

There has been a marked increase in the claimant count as areas have rolled over to Universal Credit Full Service.

Between November 2015 and November 2019, the number of claimants across the whole of the UK increased by around 420,000, an increase of over 70%. For many constituencies, the claimant count has more than doubled during this period, and it is more than four times higher for some.

There are a number of ways in which the claimant count has been affected as rollout of Universal Credit progresses:

  • Universal Credit requires a broader span of people to look for work than was the case for legacy benefits

  • New claimants who are awaiting or appealing Work Capability Assessments are being required to look for work

Adjusting for Universal Credit: an alternative claimant count series

The continued increase in claimant numbers in Full Service areas means that the claimant count is no longer a good indicator of trends in the number of people who are looking for work. In response, following a consultation exercise, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is intending to publish an ‘alternative’ claimant count series when the next set of labour market statistics is published on 22 January 2019.

The alternative series will model what the count would have been if Universal Credit had always been in place since 2013. This means that it will include those claiming unemployment benefits as well as those people who may not have been claiming at the time, but who would have been required to look for work had Universal Credit been in place. Therefore we would not expect the alternative series to show an abrupt change in trend when an area starts operating Full Service (unlike the main claimant count series).

Specifically, the alternative series will include:

  • People claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance
  • People claiming Universal Credit who are required to seek work (minus those awaiting a Work Capability Assessment)
  • ‘Additional’ claimants who may not have been claiming unemployment benefits at the time, but who would have been required to seek work had Universal Credit been in place.

Publication arrangements

ONS removed the seasonally adjusted claimant count in the PDF version of its monthly UK Labour Market and Regional Labour Market Statistics bulletins from March 2017, stating that “it may now be providing a misleading representation of the UK labour market”. ONS had already designated the claimant count statistics as “experimental” from June 2015 (meaning the statistics are still in development) due to the impact of Universal Credit.

Data is still included in online tables published alongside the bulletins on the ONS website, and the ONS continues to publish non-seasonally adjusted data for parliamentary constituencies, local authorities and other geographies on the Nomis website.

The DWP publishes alternative claimant count figures for every month from January 2013. Figures were initially only available for parliamentary constituencies in Great Britain, but figures for Northern Ireland constituencies will be published for the first time in January 2020. New figures are published every quarter.

The Library publishes constituency data for both claimant count series on our Constituency data dashboard and in our monthly briefing paper, People claiming unemployment benefits by constituency.

Commons Briefing papers CBP-7927

Author: Andy Powell

Topics: Statistics policy, Unemployment

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