The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) faced a media onslaught on Wednesday 18 July. A parliamentary committee said it owed millions in back payments to thousands of claimants. But much of the coverage failed to pose the question: what are the implications for the already chaotic rollout of Universal Credit?
The DWP: another damning report
The Public Accounts Committee has released a report into Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). It specifically looks at the department’s errors in paying claimants correctly when they transferred from old welfare support, like Incapacity Benefit, to ESA. The committee found that there were an:
Estimated 70,000 people being underpaid for years.
[ESA] is supposed to help those in need. Yet a major error by the [DWP] has resulted in an estimated 70,000 people being underpaid for years.
Those affected have lost out on an average of £5,000 each. It is appalling that over 20,000 of those most in need are owed around £11,500 and some as much as £20,000.
This unacceptable and entirely avoidable situation stems from multiple failures on the part of the Department.
As the Guardian noted, fixing the error:
will cost the DWP at least £340m in back payments to claimants and £14m in administrative costs.
The report and the press coverage focused on ESA, with the committee’s chair Meg Hillier calling the DWP and the government “blinkered”. She also said the handling of ESA was “wholly inept” and showed “indifference”.
A DWP spokesperson told the Guardian:
We take the issue of underpayments very seriously and have actively taken steps to put this right as quickly as possible, to ensure people get the support they are entitled to.
The Guardian noted that “the report said the DWP must learn from the mistakes it made during the ESA transfer in order to not repeat them” with Universal Credit. But it missed the criticism already levelled at the DWP over its approach to the controversial welfare payment.
Universal Credit: an omnishambles?
For example, the infamous report by the National Audit Office (NAO) into Universal Credit expressed concerns about so-called ‘managed migration‘; the process of transferring claimants from the six “legacy” benefits to Universal Credit. It said [pdf, p55] that the DWP has already had to extend the deadline for completing managed migration to 2023. The NAO said [pdf, p55]:
The impact of this change is not included in the full business case costs and benefits. The Department told us that the policy changes are designed to be cost neutral. We were not able to verify this…
It advised [pdf, p13] the DWP to “ensure that operational performance and costs improve sustainably before increasing caseloads through managed migration”. It also noted [pdf, p29] that despite a government body warning the DWP that managed migration should “not [be] subject to significant policy changes”, it went ahead and made four changes anyway.
It appears, as Hillier described with ESA, that the DWP’s approach to Universal Credit is again “blinkered”, “wholly inept” and showing “indifference”.
“Genuine negligence” or “creative incompetence”?
Bob Ellard from campaign group Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) told The Canary:
It’s always hard to tell with the DWP if errors are through genuine negligence or ‘creative incompetence’. Designed to lower the money they spend.
But what is predictable is that when a failure is discovered, they’ll do as little as they can get away with to put things right. And they’ll take as long as they can get away with to do it.
The migration from IB to ESA was quite a simple one and they managed to screw that up.
But we have the migration from legacy benefits to Universal Credit [UC] looming. And because UC is terrifyingly complex and doesn’t even work properly, the scope for the DWP to make an almighty clods of it is boundless.
This would be funny. But the people who are going to be on the receiving end are, as always, those who have very little and are barely coping. And for whom a very little disruption to their benefits could have grave consequences.
The DWP appears incapable of learning from its mistakes. But as Ellard asks, is this “genuine negligence” or “creative incompetence”? Sadly, the implication is it’s probably the latter.