But minister says there is no way to eliminate five-week wait for payment
The Department for Work and Pensions has put extra money into supporting the use of the Verify identity assurance tool after reports emerged that users applying for Universal Credit were experiencing long delays amid surging demand.
Once they have registered on the UC system, claimants must verify their identity through Verify, a process which has experienced hours-long delays for some claimants, prompting concerns that payments could be delayed in turn.
But, giving evidence to parliament’s Work and Pensions Committee last week, DWP permanent secretary Peter Schofield said it was important not to cut corners on this step because “we don’t want robots, frankly”, cheating the system,
He said the department had put “extra money” into Verify in anticipation of a surge in demand, “but they are facing an unprecedented number of people who’ve never had to engage with the government in this way before,” he said.
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DWP declined to tell PublicTechnology sister publication Civil Service World how much money it had given the service.
Meanwhile, around 23,000 Jobcentre staff had been moved into “virtual service centres within jobcentres, so that’s straight away brought a big surge of resource in”.
But despite these measures, Schofield said he could not rule out any payment delays. “I absolutely would love to be able to give that reassurance and I’m absolutely committed to driving to that end, I really am. The caution in my voice is we don’t know what’s going to happen to the numbers of claims coming through,” he said.
Schofield told MPs that his department had processed some 477,000 new claims for Universal Credit over the course of nine days – including 105,000 on Tuesday – as people lost work because of the coronavirus outbreak.
When asked about why people continue to face a five-week wait to receive their first payment under the new benefits system, work and pensions minister Therese Coffey added that “the underlying principles of Universal Credit have not gone away”.
“By that I mean the design that this is supposed to be based on your general income, we need a month to assess what your likely income’s going to be,” she said.
Coffey said claimants could apply for an advance to tide them over until their first payment had come through. Of the 275,000 people who applied for Universal Credit last week, 70,000 had asked for an advance, she said.
Asked whether this could instead be made a non-repayable grant, Coffey said it would be unfeasible to make such a change to the IT system in a short space of time.
“I have to say that any other changes – and I appreciate this is not a big policy change – but any technical changes, it would be difficult to make some of the operational changes people are asking for,” she said.
Pressed on why it was impossible to make these operational changes quickly, given the UC IT system had been designed to be “agile”, Coffey said: “Can I suggest we get into this at another time, about the original design of the Universal Credit IT system… but I don’t think the system was built to be so agile that we can just literally put a new cell in a spreadsheet and it feeds through millions of records in one go.”
She said offering grants would raise questions about the “fairness to the wider taxpayer element”.