Good morning

Single tenants entering and being released from prison often encounter problems trying to keep their UC award going, and their “housing costs element” (HCE) continue being paid to their landlord. Or, at the point of release, are told they must make a “new” claim, when, in many cases, all they need do is, report their release, as a change in circumstances, by phone or through their journal, thus kick-starting the award, without the need for a “new” claim or alteration to their Benefit Assessment Period (BAP) or payment date, as doing so would invariably cause a loss of benefit.

Rules – How they should be applied?

The rules relating to Housing Benefit (HB) and Universal Credit (UC) are often different, and that is certainly true of tenant prisoners claiming UC, during a period of absence from home, as it’s invariably less generous than HB. For example, under HB rules, a tenant on remand, can continue being paid for up to 52 weeks, whereas, UC has an overall maximum award of only 26 weeks, and only where the tenant was already in receipt of assistance with housing costs before being admitted. If the tenant was working and not receiving any “housing costs” assistance, no help will be provided under UC.

So, what are the rules?

Under UC the “HCE” is only payable to someone in prison for a maximum of 26 weeks, where:

  • That person was entitled to UC immediately before becoming a prisoner; and
  • The award of UC included an amount for HCE; and
  • The prisoner is not expected to spend more than six months in custody.

Assuming the prisoner meets each of the criteria, the HCE of the award should continue being paid during the period of absence. But often, it’s not clear at the start, just how long the period of custody will last. Where DWP needs confirmation or there’s doubt about the period, DWP can contact His Majesty’s Prison (HMP) Service to secure the necessary information. If they’re told the period of absence is likely to be longer than 26 weeks, no award is made, causing the likeliood of rent arrears.

However, if later, DWP becomes aware the prisoner was released, within the 26-week period, the original decision can be “reviewed” on the basis the Decision Maker, had they known this fact, would have simply continued the award. The ability to “review” awards, suspensions, cancellations, and overpayments, is a critically important and often complex part of the UC and HB processes, so its best to ensure specialist welfare rights or financial inclusion staff participate in the exchanges with DWP/HB departments.

Absence more than 6 months.

Where someone is imprisoned, for more than 6 months and they’re part of a couple, the remaining partner can claim assistance from UC, as a single person, for help with both personal and “Housing Cost” elements, even where his/her name is NOT on the tenancy agreement.

DWP used to call this an “untidy tenancy”. If you encounter this situation, you’ll probably need to help the person through the process, as the rule is not generally known to Service Centre staff, some of whom work for agencies, like Capita, as opposed to DWP itself, so training is maybe not a priority.

The “Untidy Tenancy” situation arises on a regular basis, when couples separate, and one member of the relationship moves away. DWP is well aware of the issue and has issued instructions, on several occaions, reminding its own staff on what this involves and how it should operate. The information can be found at paragraph 2.7 of DWP’s Guidance. You’ll also find details in several of my updating bulletins 

Case Study

I recently dealt with the case of a 40-year-old, single male tenant, residing in an HMO who was admitted to prison for an expected absence of 22 weeks. On his release, on 23rd May 2023, he contacted DWP by phone to confirm his return to his home. The Service Centre wrongly made him make a “new” claim, plus produce evidence of his rent and other factors, and after one or two related hiccups, proposed to start paying him from his release date i.e., 23rd May – 22nd June, payable 7 days later – 29th June.

However, his earlier award remained live, with a Benefit Assessment Period (BAP) of 8th – 7th, payment date 14th. He, quite rightly, felt he was being underpaid for a couple of weeks, and with my help, and that of his landlord, challenged the decision.

Applying his change of circumstances to the old BAP, he was clearly entitled to be paid on the 14th of June for the 8th of May – 7th June period. DWP after 2 months of toing and froing, finally agreed his claim had been mishandled, due to another IT system error, but had been manually adjusted to produce the correct result.

Doing so means, he avoided the potential 2-week loss to both his personal allowance and HCE, the latter being paid to his landlord. Although, in most places, the additional award might only amount to between £100 – 200, in higher rented areas, like London, the difference could easily amount to 3 times greater, so it’s worthwhile pursuing.It could also become more of a factor for tenants moving to UC under Managed Migration where “transitional protection” is a factor and might be lost if benefit is prematurely ended.

If you need clarification on any point or need help with any other HB or UC topic, please get in touch via or phone 07733 080 389.


Bill Irvine

UC Advice & Advocacy Ltd

Telephone 07733 080 389