It’s almost a year since the first national lockdown began. Then it was impossible to imagine the full extent of the challenges that the Covid-19 pandemic would pose and the support that the government would need to put in place in response. As has been widely acknowledged – including by the Social Security Advisory Committee which I chair – the Department for Work and Pensions responded impressively and at pace in improving policy and getting support out to huge numbers of people, with well over a million new claims for Universal Credit in the first fortnight of lockdown. It is far from clear that the legacy benefit system would have coped.
The health, social and economic impacts of the pandemic have also thrown up deeper questions about the underlying structure of the working age social security system. These include the nature of financial support provided to working age individuals, for example when they experience temporary adverse shocks; and the key features of a social security system with flexibility to respond rapidly to new labour market conditions, and to a new set of claimants many of whom are different from those who were receiving social security in the past, in order to help support individuals across the country to return to paid work and to progress in the labour market.
We were delighted that Nicholas Timmins and Gemma Tetlow of the Institute for Government agreed to work in partnership with us on a project to rapidly explore these issues. We also benefited from a set of round-table discussions with a group of former senior civil servants, academics and other experts.
The report we have published today sets out the conclusions from this work. So what did we learn? While the current social security system has held up extremely well in the face of the pandemic, there are ways in which it could be fine-tuned to make it more effective. For example, we propose ways in which any potential additional support could be targeted at providing greater help to those losing their jobs in the first few weeks and months of their out-of-work benefit claim. This could be achieved through a number of ways such as starter payments, helping more individuals take-up contributory benefits to which they are entitled, and a more generous treatment of those with financial assets.
The most important emerging challenge in 2021 is to manage the return to full employment given the economic shifts that Covid has created and exacerbated. There is an important role for a number of government departments – and local authorities – to play, in conjunction with the Department for Work and Pensions, in bringing this about. This is understood within Whitehall, but a fully co-ordinated response is essential, especially around training and re-skilling. Another point of learning from the last year will be to expand the online services that are made available to those seeking work, including those not on benefits as well as those who are.
We also have an overarching proposal. There is also a strong case for the government to reassess what the benefit system is for and to change the language used to describe it – re-adopting the language of social security in place of the widespread use of ‘welfare’. We have a social security system that is for many who are in work as well as those currently out of it, and it is also for those who face the risk of unemployment when the next major shock hits. The language used to describe it should reflect this.
Our specific suggestions to work and pensions secretary Thérèse Coffey serve to illustrate a direction of travel, rather than providing a complete blueprint to be implemented, and is designed to inform her department’s own work in this area. We hope that our report will be seen as a useful contribution to the debates in this area, and we look forward to receiving the government’s response to our conclusions.
Stephen Brien is the chair of the Social Security Advisory Committee. The Jobs and benefits: the Covid-19 challenge report was produced jointly by the SSAC and the Institute for Government.