Universal Credit eligibility expands to higher rate taxpayers

Autumn Budget reforms have created a surprising clash of benefits and income tax.

The Covid-19 pandemic was the first time many people utilised Universal Credit (UC) for the first time – between February and May 2020, the number of households claiming UC rose by 1.7 million to 4.2 million. In March 2020, the UC standard allowance was temporarily increased by the equivalent of £1,000 a year, but in October 2021, that extra payment came to an end. In its place, the Budget contained announcements of two UC improvements that are now in effect:

  • All working elements were increased by £500 a year, meaning that an extra £500 of net income can be earned before any clawback of UC started; and
  • The rate of clawback was reduced from 63% to 55%. As a result, if an extra £100 of net income is received and this leads to a reduction in UC payments, the loss of UC will be £55 rather than the previous £63.

So what?

The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has looked at this question and produced a surprising answer. The lower taper rate, applying to a higher starting point, now means that it is possible for higher rate taxpayers to be eligible for UC, a situation that once only applied in Scotland, where the higher rate threshold is £6,608 lower than in the rest of the UK.

One example the IFS gave is that a single earner couple with two children and monthly rent of £750 could have earnings of up to £58,900 a year in 2020/21 before losing all their UC entitlement – £9,600 more than before the Budget announcement. Not only is that ceiling well into the higher rate tax band, it is also above the £50,000 level at which the notorious High Income Child Benefit Tax Charge begins to take effect.
There are many assumptions underlying that IFS calculation, not the least of which is that the couple are not disqualified from any UC entitlement by having savings of above £16,000. In practice, the IFS calculates that 26% of all families will be entitled to UC, a proportion that rises to 84% for lone parents.

The interaction of the tapering of UC, higher rate tax and child benefit tax is complex. If you think you might be caught by that trio, make sure you understand the ramifications – you might find an extra £100 of gross earnings are worth less than £10 net.

The value of tax reliefs and social security benefits depend on your individual circumstances. Tax and benefit laws can change. The Financial Conduct Authority does not regulate tax or benefit advice.