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The Universal Credit flaw forcing patients to risk a £50 prescription fine

The NHS has not caught up with the sprawling nightmare that is Universal Credit.

You go to the doctor, and she gives you a prescription. You go to the chemist, and hand it over, like usual. But this time you realise there’s a problem. As a welfare recipient, you’re entitled to free prescriptions, but you recently switched onto a new benefit, Universal Credit. And there’s no box for you to tick.

When this happened to a woman in Halton, Cheshire, the pharmacist advised her to tick one of the existing boxes. She followed the advice, and was later fined £50 for an incorrect claim. 

“Someone who is struggling is suddenly whacked with a £50 fine,” Nick Atkin, the chief executive of Halton Housing Trust, where the woman is a tenant, told me. It was not a one-off glitch. In October, Left Foot Forward reported on the case of a single mum who, after transferring onto Universal Credit, received a letter informing her she owed money for dental treatment and a prescription, and would be fined as a result. 

The NHS prescription leaflet

The mother’s case was highlighted after she turned to the single parent charity Gingerbread for help. “It seems there is a problem with the system not catching up,” Sumi Rabindrakumar, a Gingerbread researcher familiar with the case told me. “People are slipping through the net and it has a pretty significant impact for people with chronic conditions.” The Patients Association, a pressure group, confirmed its helpline staff had received a call from someone experiencing a similar problem.

The fact that NHS prescriptions have not caught up with the sprawling nightmare that is the Universal Credit roll out may not be surprising. What is shocking, however, is the lack of any clear interim solution, despite the fact the issue was identified as far back as 2013

The NHS Business Service Authority is responsible for auditing claims for free prescriptions and dental treatment, and can fine transgressing patients up to £100 (when I contacted the NHS BSA I was referred to the Department of Health). It has advised medical professionals that Universal Credit should not be taken as an automatic entitlement of free prescriptions. Rather, the patients’ earnings must be “£435 or less”, unless there are special circumstances, like responsibility for a child, in which case it is £935 or less. Once this has been established, the patient should be encouraged to tick the “income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance” box until the form is updated (there is an updated dental form, but it appears to be yet to reach many dental practices). 

A Department for Health spokeswoman said: “The Department is aware of this issue and we’re working with contractors and stakeholders to ensure a new prescription form is introduced.”

Back to the patient’s perspective. If your doctor writes you a prescription, you’ll need to turn up at the chemist with not only that, but your latest Universal Credit paperwork, showing how much you received, plus any evidence of parental status, inability to work etc. Then the pharmacist advises you to tick a box that has no connection to the benefits you receive, and you have to hope you won’t get fined, because if you are, it could be more than you receive in Universal Credit for a week. 

According to Gingerbread’s Rabindrakumar, claimants are unlikely to be reassured by this. For some, the choice may seem to be “either owe money, or go without their medication”. This was the case for Matthew Smythe, a job seeker interviewed by the Liverpool Echo, who had a prescription for an ongoing condition. Faced with the prospect of ticking an incorrect box and risking a fine, he left without taking his medicine. 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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Jeremy Corbyn may be a Eurosceptic – but he also wants to defeat the government

The Labour leader's big Brexit speech is likely to spell out a small, but significant change in the party's position.

All eyes are on Labour and its leader's big Brexit speech on Monday.

It's easier at this point to list the Shadow Cabinet ministers who haven't publicly called for the United Kingdom to remain in some form of customs union with the European Union after Brexit - Nia Griffith, the shadow defence secretary, became the latest minister to do so yesterday when she addressed the trade union Prospect. John McDonnell has described the party's position as "evolving". Is Jeremy Corbyn set to follow suit?

Well, sort of. One of the most commonplace mistakes people make at Westminster is to say that Labour's strategy and objectives for Brexit are unclear, but this isn't quite true. The leadership's strategy is to win the next election and its objective is as big a breach from the European Union as it can pull off while doing so.

He might have a new suit and be a dab hand at shareable videos, but underneath it all, Jeremy Corbyn is still the same man who voted against the constitutional underpinnings of the European Union in 2007, who told the New Statesman he hadn't "closed his mind" to backing Brexit. But while Corbyn is a Eurosceptic by instinct, he doesn't have religion on the issue. Foreign policy is his passion project and like most Labour MPs, he doesn't really regard the EU as "proper abroad". He knows, too, that his best opportunities to damage, defeat and ultimately replace the Conservative government will come over Brexit.

There is a concern in the leader's office that Monday's speech is already been overhyped. What I'm reliably informed will happen is a small, but significant change in the party's position that allows the Opposition to explain why it is voting against the government as far as the customs union goes. The real reason, of course, is that Team Corbyn think this is an area where they can defeat the government.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.