Supporting prison leavers: a guide to Universal Credit

This guide has been developed for people supporting prison leavers.

This guide has been prepared for prison leavers and gives information on what is needed to prepare for their Universal Credit claim and how the claim can be made. If you have all information and are ready to make the claim please follow the link below.

In this guide you will find:

  1. What is Universal Credit
  2. Help with housing costs while in prison
  3. Before making the Universal Credit claim
  4. What’s needed to make a claim
  5. Making the Universal Credit claim

1. What is Universal Credit

Universal Credit replaces 6 existing benefits:

  • Child Tax Credit
  • Housing Benefit
  • Income Support
  • Income-related Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA)
  • Income-related Employment and Support Allowance (ESA)
  • Working Tax Credit

It’s usually paid monthly, but can be paid more frequently if needed. It is made up of a standard allowance and any extra amounts that apply to them, for example, if they:

  • have children
  • have a disability or health condition
  • have housing costs

Universal Credit does not include help to pay for Council Tax. Where the prison leaver has their own tenancy they will need to claim this help separately. They should contact their local council.

2. Help with housing costs while in prison

Benefits usually end when someone is sent to prison. However, if the prisoner is detained in prison for 6 months or less, or is on remand and received help with housing costs before going into prison, Universal Credit housing costs can be paid for up to 6 months.

In these circumstances the prisoner should contact the resettlement team for more information.

It is different for people claiming Tax Credits/JSA/ESA/Housing Benefit (Legacy benefits) before going to prison.

Going into prison:

Prisoners serving 13 weeks or less are able to continue to claim Housing Benefit through the local authority. Those held in custody on remand are entitled to Housing Benefit for up to 52 weeks.

3. Before making the Universal Credit claim

A claim to Universal Credit cannot be made in advance of a prisoner’s release, however it is possible to start getting all the documentation and information needed to make a Universal Credit claim.

At around the 12-week stage prior to release we would encourage you to start the conversation about claiming benefits and encourage the prisoner to see the prison work coach.

The Universal Credit claim does not start until the claim has been submitted. The prison leaver should make the online claim immediately or as soon as possible after their release as claims will not be back dated.

4. What’s needed to make a claim

There are a number of things that are needed to make the Universal Credit online claim:

  • email address
  • address
  • phone number
  • evidence of identity
  • bank account details (not essential for making the claim but is needed before a payment can be made)
  • where the claimant has a tenancy, DWP will also need to see a recent tenancy agreement and proof of housing costs

Email address

An email address cannot be set up whilst the prisoner is in prison. If the prison leaver does not have an email address, the prison work coach can tell them how to set one up once they’ve been released.

Address options

An address is usually needed to make a claim. However, if the prison leaver does not have a permanent address on release, there are options available to them.

They can:

  • use a ‘care of address’, for example, the address of a family member or trusted friend
  • use the hostel address where they’re staying
  • in exceptional circumstances use their local jobcentre address

They should be encouraged to speak to the resettlement team if they’ll be homeless on release.

Duty to refer (England only)

The Homelessness Reduction Act (HRA) places a duty on local authorities to get involved earlier with the aim of preventing homelessness. If the prison leaver will be homeless or at risk of becoming homeless on release they must now be referred by the resettlement team to a local authority for housing support regardless of priority need, local connection or if they’re suspected of being ‘intentionally homeless’.

Opening a bank account

Universal Credit should ideally be paid into a bank, building society or credit union account that is in the prison leaver’s or their partner’s own name. The resettlement worker can help the prison leaver to open a bank account.

In exceptional circumstances Universal Credit can be paid into someone else’s bank account or building society account. If the prison leaver has previously tried but not managed to open or access a traditional bank account, we can make a payment using a different method:

  • Post Office Card accounts (only in exceptional circumstances, these are being phased out from 2020)
  • payments into third party accounts
  • Her Majesty’s Government Payment Exception Service (used to be Simple Payments)

Read further guidance on choosing a bank account.

Identification

To claim Universal Credit, the prison leaver’s identity must be confirmed. This can be done on release online using GOV.UK Verify. More information on GOV.UK Verify.

If they do not have any identification

Verifying identity is a key part to claiming Universal Credit. If the prison leaver does not have any identification they should speak to their prison work coach who will advise the prison leaver what to do once they’ve been released.

5. Making the Universal Credit claim

On release, the prison leaver should make their claim online as soon as possible as the Universal Credit claim starts from the date that the claim is submitted. If the prison leaver does not have access to a computer they can use a smartphone.

If the prison leaver claims both Universal Credit and New Style JSA or New Style ESA they must ensure that they take part in the initial phone interview, and claimant commitment phone appointment. Both claims will be disallowed if they do not make these phone these appointments.

Where the prison leaver needs help to make and submit their claim online, prison work coaches will advise them to phone the jobcentre where jobcentre staff will support them to make and submit their claim online.

If they’re unable to use the online service, a Universal Credit helpline agent can complete the online form over the phone for them. The information entered and its accuracy is the prison leaver’s responsibility.

For Multi-Agency Public Protection Arrangements (MAPPA) claimants, they should be directed to the MAPPA single point of contact in the jobcentre.

When making the claim they’ll need to have the following information with them:

  • address (including postcode)
  • rent agreement (if they have one)
  • details of any savings or other capital
  • details of any income that’s not from work, for example from an insurance plan
  • details of any other benefits they are receiving

A bank account is not essential for making the claim but will be needed before a payment can be made.

Where a prison leaver is identified as requiring additional support, the work coach can consider referring them on to local providers.

If the prison leaver will be joining a partner with an existing claim to Universal Credit, ESA or JSA the process is different.


The prison leaver’s partner will need to declare a change of circumstance and have the prison leaver added to the existing claim. This may result in the couple having to make a claim to Universal Credit.


If the prison leaver is joining an existing Universal Credit claim they will need to agree a separate claimant commitment from their partner.

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