DWP cites complexity and ageing IT as it squashes plans to integrate New Style benefits into UC

Department’s response to report from advisory body reveals that new versions of JSA and ESA will not – as originally intended – be melded into Universal Credit unless infrastructure can be modernised

The Department for Work and Pensions cited the challenges of ageing architecture and operational complexity as it revealed that it no longer plans to integrate the so-called ‘New Style’ out-of-work benefits into Universal Credit.

The DWP today published its response to a report released last year by the Social Security Advisory Committee (SSAC), an arm’s-length body that provides independent scrutiny and advice on the department’s policy and delivery work.

The committee assessed the current delivery of two contributory out-of-work benefits: New Style Jobseeker’s Allowance and Employment and Support Allowance (JSA and ESA). These benefits are available to those who have made sufficient National Insurance contributions to qualify, and who have either recently lost their job or had their weekly hours reduced to less than 16, or whose ability to work is limited by a health condition or disability.

Despite the ‘new style’ prefix, SSAC found that JSA and ESA “exist in a largely unreformed guise alongside Universal Credit”. The two contributory schemes do not have the same “quality of administration and support” when compared with the more modern and digitally advanced UC, according to the committee.

The report’s most significant recommendation is that the DWP should commit to a long-term plan of integrating New Style JSA and ESA into Universal Credit. The advisory body also recommended that, in the meantime, all UC claims should be “should be automatically assessed for entitlement to New Style JSA and ESA”.

Both of these recommendations were rejected.

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In its response to the committee, the department revealed that it had “originally envisaged” that an integration would take place – and had even ensured that the necessary legislative measures had been taken to enable this to happen.

“[This] now cannot proceed because of complexities arising from the interrelationship between UC and New Style benefits,” the DWP added. “Until we are in a position to modernise the underlying delivery architecture, we are improving signposting where a claimant may be eligible for a New Style benefit alongside UC.”

The department also rejected SSAC’s call that payments of JSA and ESA should switch from fortnightly to monthly frequency – so as to better align with UC, and support claimants who receive both.

Inflexible infrastructure was once again cited as a blocker to such a move.

“There are no current plans to change the JSA payment frequency, which would, in any event, likely be constrained by the IT limitations of the Jobseekers Allowance Payment System,” the department said. “As the underlying IT is upgraded in the future it may be possible to change the frequency of payments.”

The constraints caused by the technology that underpins ESA and JSA has previously been acknowledged by SSAC.

During the spike in benefit claims caused by the early weeks of the coronavirus crisis, the committee revealed that the department had advised that increasing payment levels for the out-of-work benefits “could not be achieved quickly or safely… [with] serious IT challenges to overcome”.

This was echoed in 2022 by the then chancellor Rishi Sunak who revealed that the limitations of 40-year-old IT systems had meant he could only increase the levels of JSA and ESA once per year – meaning he had been unable to add incremental raises to keep pace with a prolonged spike in inflation.

‘Long-term aspiration’
Elsewhere in its response to the SSAC report, the DWP partially accepted that “New Style JSA claimants should automatically receive National Insurance credits when they reach the time limit for benefit payment”.

Again, the department said that it would remind citizens of their entitlements – rather than automatically enable their receipt.

“New Style JSA claimants whose claim ends when they reach the time limit are currently reminded to register as unemployed to receive credits,” the DWP said. “Some claimants are not entitled to receive these such as claimants who already, or who subsequently, claim UC. Work is ongoing to ensure claimants wanting to apply for credits for unemployment can do so efficiently and at the right time.”

The department did agree with the recommendation that it should “ensure a professional level of customer service and support that considers the claimant’s situation in an accurate, consistent, [and] prompt way”.

There are no current plans to change the JSA payment frequency, which would, in any event, likely be constrained by the IT limitations of the Jobseekers Allowance Payment System

“The current digital transformation work focuses on improving service delivery for both customers and our DWP colleagues,” its response added.

There was also agreement with SSAC’s final recommendation that the claimants of the New Style benefits should be offered an online ‘journal’ service – as is provided for those receiving UC.

However, the ageing tech used by ESA and JSA once again means that progress in this area will be hampered.

“UC has demonstrated that use of the journal benefits customers and improves delivery of the benefit,” the department said. “Contributory benefits use a different payment system with IT constraints that limit the scope of improvements that can be implemented. That is not to say, however, that the use of a journal, or similar tool, is not a long-term aspiration to improve the service afforded to New Style benefit claimants.”

Sam Trendall

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