DWP chaos as a major row erupts with the SNP

An explosion and the DWP and SNP logos
Steve Topple

A row has erupted between the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and the SNP. It’s over Universal Credit. MPs, MSPs, and AMs are weighing in on the issue with one SNP politician accusing the department of either having “no idea how the system in Scotland works or… being totally disingenuous”.

The DWP: a storm is brewing

As The Canary previously reported, if Universal Credit claimants want a member of the devolved parliaments (MSPs, AMs and MLAs) to support them in dealing with the DWP, red tape is getting in the way.

Claimants must give the DWP “explicit consent” before an MSP, AM or MLA can act on their behalf. That means the claimant has to officially tell the department they give permission for someone to support them.

As I previously wrote, DWP guidelines state claimants have to do the following to satisfy explicit consent:

  • “Give [the DWP] consent for their personal information to be disclosed”.
  • Say “what information they want to be disclosed”.
  • Also tell the DWP “why” the information is needed.
  • Give “the name of the representative and the organisation”.

This is the opposite to the rules for MPs. In their case, claimants are subject to “implicit consent”. In other words, the DWP assumes the claimant has given it permission to share some of their personal data.

The DWP says that it follows the guidelines for explicit consent. But SNP MSP Linda Fabiani claims that’s not the reality. She says that the DWP asks for more information than that. Fabiani previously told The Canary:

It’s ridiculous that barriers are put in the way of elected representatives trying to help.

Questions in parliament

Since The Canary first reported on this, parliamentary under-secretary at the DWP Will Quince has issued a statement in response to a written question by Labour MP Mike Amesbury.

Amesbury asked:

how many Universal Credit claimants have signed a waiver outlining any previous communication with a political representative regarding benefits before accessing appeals information since that policy was introduced.

Quince claimed:

At no point during a Universal Credit claim does the Department ask a person to sign a waiver. To safeguard the sensitive and personal data we hold about people’s Universal Credit claims, we ask representatives making enquiries on behalf of others to demonstrate that they have claimant consent. This is a simple process, which can be completed online or by telephone by the claimant, and has been in place since 2017.

This is also what the DWP previously said.

Amesbury told The Canary:

In the Minister’s response to my question, he stated that the Department asks representatives to make enquiries on behalf of others to demonstrate that they have claimant consent.

It is important that MPs are able to advocate for all constituents, any barriers or unnecessary bureaucracy must be removed. I hope that the social security advisory committee looks at this again and the Secretary of State makes changes.

The letters begin

But Fabiani has now gone further. She claims the DWP rhetoric isn’t the reality on the ground, and that Jobcentres aren’t sticking to the rules. Fabiani has now revealed the extent of what is happening. She has written to Work and Pensions secretary Therese Coffey.

You can read her full letter below:

But, as she outlines in the letter, it seems that what the DWP says should be happening, isn’t:

During a recent conversation with Jobcentre Plus staff, however, we were informed that the standard Mandate Form we have provided, and used since issue of your department’s written guidance, was no longer adequate to allow Jobcentre Plus to respond to an enquiry we had submitted regarding a constituent’s Universal Credit claim.

We were informed that in addition to the standard information the Mandate Form must now be on headed paper, stating the following information:

Client consent for personal information to be disclosed
Information they want to be disclosed
Why the information is required
Name of representative and organisation, including branch where applicable – if the claimant cannot provide the name of the representative, then to be as specific as possible, for example the representative’s job role or team name within the organisation
Why the elected representative has been contacted rather than Jobcentre Plus

“Confusing and disastrous”

This is contrary to what the DWP previously told The Canary. It is also not what Quince said in his written statement.

Fabiani told The Canary:

The operation of Universal Credit has been confusing and disastrous since the start; obviously rushed out before being properly tested. The fact that so many appeals are successful proves that point.

This is so distressing for claimants: sanctions applied with no discretion for mitigating circumstances, delays in payments and confusion on entitlements.

What’s needed is a proper review and clarity for claimants, DWP front line staff, and representatives such as Citizens Advice and MSPs.

The row grows

But the DWP is denying Fabiani’s account of the situation. It told The Canary:

We have no record of Linda Fabiani or her staff contacting East Kilbride Jobcentre since July 2018.

The team at East Kilbride have a good working relationship with Ms Fabiani and if she contacts the Jobcentre about one of her constituents then staff would do their upmost to help, provided that she is able to demonstrate consent from the claimant. This is a simple process and can be done over the phone, in person or through the claimant’s Universal Credit online journal.

The Canary put the department’s claims to Fabiani. She hit back, saying:

This is a ridiculous statement from DWP London – either they have no idea how the system in Scotland works or they are being totally disingenuous.

There is a central line for MSP enquiries – the Scotland Complaints’ Resolution Team – and that’s who we call. As instructed by DWP themselves, we do not go direct to any Jobcentre.

If DWP/Jobcentre Plus staff here in Scotland are receiving conflicting information from DWP centrally then this must be sorted so that claimants get the help that they need. We have always found the DWP staff in the team as helpful as they can be, and I sincerely hope that they are not going to be blamed in any way for the incompetence of the Universal Credit debacle.

Moreover, if Fabiani’s account of the situation is happening in Scotland, it could well be happening in other nations, too.

Leanne Wood says…

Welsh AM for Rhonnda and Plaid Cymru’s shadow minister for justice and equalities Leanne Wood told The Canary:

It seems there is a lot of confusion about what elected politicians representing the devolved parliaments in the UK can and can’t do when it comes to supporting constituents on Universal Credit.

In many ways this confusion is symptomatic of how the welfare system has been run under the Tories; beset with incompetence and callousness. While the confusion between the Tory Government and the DWP continues, in the real world many people are struggling to make ends meet because of the botched Universal Credit system. It is pushing adults and children into abject poverty.

With Universal Credit yet to be rolled out to the whole of Wales, we are expecting the situation to get worse. People in Wales need AMs on their side and able to fight for them without having to jump through numerous bureaucratic hoops.

Wilfully misleading?

It’s unclear exactly what’s going on here. On the one hand, there are Fabiani’s adamant claims that the DWP is not following its own rules. Then on the other, there’s the DWP’s categorical denial of Fabiani’s claims.

But what is clear is that the DWP is in chaos over this. Moreover, it seems the DWP is essentially accusing Fabiani of lying. Or, as she says, it has no idea how the Scottish system works.

There are only two logical conclusions. One is that the DWP has no idea what its doing over this issue and confusion is rife. The other is that the department is now wilfully misleading politicians and the public. But this mess only has one group of losers: the claimants caught up in the political chaos.

Featured image via Ken Herrman – Creative Commons, UK government – Wikimedia and the SNP – Wikimedia 

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