DWP’s ‘serious IT challenges’ pegged as key cause of disparity in benefits system during coronavirus crisis
Chair of arm’s-length body praises government response but identifies lower payments for recipients of legacy benefits as one of several ‘rough edges’
The government's independent advisory body on the social security system has found that, during the coronavirus crisis, “serious IT challenges” have left recipients of so-called legacy benefits worse off than those receiving Universal Credit.
In a letter to work and pensions secretary Thérèse Coffey, Liz Sayce, the interim chair of the Social Security Advisory Committee called on government to address an imbalance in the support being given to people.
In March, the chancellor announced a £1,000 increase in the standard Universal Credit allowance for the year, and working tax credits were increased. But similar increases have not been made to Jobseekers' Allowance and the Employment and Support Allowance. A major reason for which, according to Sayce, is difficulties caused by the underlying tech systems.
"We were advised that uprating of ESA and JSA could not be achieved quickly or safely as there was a well-established uprating cycle for legacy benefits, as well as serious IT challenges to overcome," she said. “While we understand the reasons for not including ESA and JSA in the original announcement, we are of the strong view that it is increasingly untenable for this group of claimants to be excluded and to continue to have a lower level of income than those in receipt of Universal Credit and Working Tax Credit.”
Sayce said that claimants of ESA and JSA are “some of the least well-off”, and urged to government to ensure their benefit payments were boosted to match those of citizens that receive Universal Credit. Such increases should also be backdated to 6 April, she suggested.
Elsewhere in her missive, Sayce identified various other “rough edges and inconsistencies" in the government’s delivery of support for people who have lost jobs amid the coronavirus outbreak.
Although the committee broadly found that the DWP – its sponsor department – had provided "very welcome additional financial support and security" to many affected by the pandemic, it called for several tweaks to the coronavirus support package. These include more housing support for under-35s and adjustments to the benefit cap.
The DWP must also address issues caused by "confusion" about the changes, which it attributed to insufficiently clear communication in the early stages of the crisis.
"It is crucial that individuals are able to understand the interactions between various strands of support available, and that they can take informed decisions appropriate to their individual circumstances," Sayce said.
The SSAC chair asked Coffey to set out what DWP was doing to prevent other people from falling into the same pothole, and what it was doing to help people who had already been disadvantaged by following official advice.
A DWP spokesperson said: “We are doing whatever it takes to ensure people are supported through these unprecedented times, including injecting £6.5bn into the welfare system and rolling out income protection schemes, mortgage holidays and additional support for renters.
“We have experienced a surge in demand since mid-March and Universal Credit has enabled us to increase payments at pace, while maintaining the stability of the welfare system overall. We estimate that 2.5 million households on Universal Credit will benefit immediately from the £20-a-week increase in the standard allowance. We have also increased other entitlements such as Local Housing Allowance, to better support those across all benefits."
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