DWP slackness over coronavirus is now getting serious
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is under increasing scrutiny over its response to the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic. This is because, far from acting quickly to ensure it protects claimants’ finances and health, it’s dragging its heels. And there are gaping holes in the DWP’s response.
DWP: coronavirus response
As The Canary previously reported, the DWP has put several measures in place. These are in response to the pandemic. In a statement on 13 March, the DWP said that:
those affected by coronavirus will be able to apply for Universal Credit and can receive up to a month’s advance up front without physically attending a jobcentre.
It also noted that from 19 March:
People receiving benefits do not have to attend jobcentre appointments for at least 3 months, starting from Thursday 19 March 2020. People will continue to receive their benefits as normal, but all requirements to attend the jobcentre in person are suspended.
On 23 March, the DWP said it would “limit” access to jobcentres. It “urged” people to use its online service. But it said:
Only the most vulnerable claimants who cannot access DWP services by other channels will be invited to attend…
It has also suspended all assessments for health, such as the Work Capability Assessment, too. And it has moved staff from other areas to process claims. But has it gone far enough?
As The Canary previously wrote, there is a major flaw in the DWP’s plan. As part of the Universal Credit application process, claimants have to prove their identity online. But if you don’t have a passport, driving licence and/or credit or debit card, you can’t do that. The only alternative is to book an appointment and physically go into a jobcentre. The DWP’s latest announcements have not addressed this.
So, what the DWP is saying is that if people infected with, or affected by, coronavirus cannot prove their ID online, they’ll have to go to a Jobcentre to complete their claim. This seems to be completely at odds with the government’s current line of “stay at home” for the majority of people. And now, even more faults in the system have come to light.
Probing questions, stock answers
Labour peer Baroness Sherlock asked the DWP several written questions. They were about its response to coronavirus. She wanted to know:
- If the DWP is suspending the five-week wait for a first Universal Credit payment, if claimants are affected by coronavirus.
- What it is doing “to reform the application process for Universal Credit to reflect their advice on self-isolation for” coronavirus.
- If the DWP is ‘taking steps‘ “to increase Universal Credit payments for those affected by” coronavirus.
DWP parliamentary under-secretary Baroness Steadman-Scott responded on 23 March. And her answer was the same for all three questions:
As both the Prime Minister and Chancellor have made clear, the Government will do whatever it takes to support people affected by COVID 19 and we have been clear in our intention that no one should be penalised for doing the right thing. These are rapidly developing circumstances, we continue to keep the situation under review and will keep Parliament updated accordingly.
But ‘reviewing’ the situation as it develops is potentially disastrous for countless people.
There are numerous problems with the DWP’s response – including its unwillingness to address claimants having to go to jobcentres to verify their ID. But the chaotic approach from the DWP runs deeper than just this.
Claimants will still have to wait five weeks for a first Universal Credit payment. This could leave people with no money if, for example, they’re self-employed but now sick and have no other income source.
The DWP’s response would be to give them an advance. But as The Canary previously reported, these advances end up reducing the amount of Universal Credit you get each month. So, people may be forced to go to food banks. But these are struggling, running out of supplies and have had isolated cases of people stealing from them. So, there could be countless people in the next few weeks who fall into serious trouble.
Meanwhile, the DWP has suspended all assessments. But this has left another hole in the Universal Credit process.
Sick or disabled? Tough.
if you’re a new claimant who is sick or disabled, or a member of your household is, you usually would have to fill out a health questionnaire and then possibly attend a Work Capability Assessment. This is so you are able to receive additional money. There is usually a three-month wait for sickness-related payments in Universal Credit.
But with the DWP stopping all assessments, it is unclear if people will get this money. At present, it is saying that the private companies who do assessments will ‘contact’ claimants to “move this forward”. The DWP has not made clear if it will change the rules so people will get additional money for sickness and disability quicker.
And moreover, if you’re sick due to coronavirus and self-employed or work in the gig economy, the government is saying you must apply for Universal Credit. But with the delay for sickness payments within the benefit, people will once more be losing out on money.
The DWP says…
The Canary asked the DWP for comment. It directed us to Baroness Steadman-Scott’s statement. We also asked it how it was going to pay people the sickness and disability elements of Universal Credit, while assessments were suspended. It had not responded on the record at the time of publication.
The challenge with the DWP’s response to coronavirus is that Universal Credit was effectively a shambles even before coronavirus set in. As The Canary has documented, it’s in constant chaos: from taking bonuses from Greggs staff to the DWP not knowing if it causes poverty. The issues with the benefit led UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty Philip Alston to call it “Universal Discredit”.
But the most damning thing about the DWP’s coronavirus response is it knew Universal Credit was beset by problems already. Yet it has failed to act to resolve them. For example, its own survey in 2017 found that only 25% of claimants said they were “keeping up with bills… without any difficulties”. In total, 72% either struggled from “time to time”, struggled constantly, fell behind, or were having “real financial difficulties”.
People were “already suffering”…
Labour MP Debbie Abrahams summed the situation up. She wrote:
As I have repeatedly said, most recently before the Budget, the current levels of social security support for millions of people, particularly those of working age, is inadequate. Since 2010, £37bn has been cut in support to working age people, including to children, the sick and disabled.
People on social security were already suffering before the Coronavirus pandemic. But I have not seen this recognised by the Government either in terms of the defined ‘at risk’ groups or the measures the Government has announced to reduce their infection risk.
This wilful incompetence from the DWP, borne out over successive years, is now potentially causing a catastrophe for countless people during a global pandemic. Yet the department is still dragging its heels. This wilful neglect could potentially be life-threatening for many people.
Featured image via pixabay – mattthewafflecat / Wikimedia – UK Government
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