Peter Schofield on DWP at 20: A department two decades in the making that rose to the challenge of a lifetime

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the creation of the Department for Work and Pensions. Permanent secretary Peter Schofield reflects on the momentous occasion
Photo: alamy

By Peter Schofield

08 Jun 2021

On 8 June 2001, the then prime minister Tony Blair announced the creation of the new Department for Work and Pensions, responsible for employment, equality, benefits, pensions and child support.

It was formed from the Department for Social Security and most of its agencies, including the Benefits Agency, Child Support Agency and Appeals Service, and the employment part of the Department for Education and Employment, including the Employment Service in its entirety.

Back then the Department for Work and Pensions was created with the purpose "to promote opportunity and independence for all". That’s still very much at the heart of what we do – supporting people to improve the quality of their lives – and even more so over the course of the pandemic.

Our success over the past year has only been possible because of the advances we’ve made as a department over the last 20 years.

When we came together as a department in 2001, this was only the beginning of our story. In 2002 we created Jobcentre Plus, which brought together the Employment Service and Benefits Agency – this was a huge physical and cultural shift for our colleagues and customers.

Then in 2008 the recession hit. Back then we were referred to as the ‘fourth emergency service’ as we were such a lifeline for people in need, very similar to this past 15 months.

In 2011, we brought our agencies inside to become One DWP and the year after we made reforms to key services like pensions and child maintenance to help our customers even further.

Then in 2013, the rollout of the digitised, single payment benefit system that is Universal Credit began, by 2016 it was live in every jobcentre and by 2017 we had 100,000 claims. Back then we couldn’t predict that we would have the capacity to process what we’ve experienced with the pandemic but the system has proven itself over the last 15 months beyond doubt, but this is just one part of the wider digital shift we’ve experienced over the last 20 years.

Back to the modern day, from processing an unprecedented 2.7m new Universal Credit claims and answering an astonishing 2.2m calls in a single day, to standing up vital new programmes such as Kickstart and Job Entry: Targeted Support, DWP has continued to support people when they need us most, boosting opportunities for jobseekers and giving vital new hope to those who have found themselves without it due to the pandemic.

Our pandemic response would have been unthinkable 20 years ago, from the rapid roll out of home working to the flexibility to redeploy 10,000 colleagues at such pace. The adaptations to our services, the abilities and diversity of colleagues, and stronger organisational structure have ensured we are able to work across team boundaries, across the civil service to get the job done.

I am hugely grateful to DWP colleagues, who have worked tirelessly and passionately to help the millions of citizens who have needed us. In fact, approximately 45% of our colleagues have been with us on this long journey, as they’ve worked in DWP for the last 20 years or more. I often ask long service colleagues "what was it like to work in DWP in the past and what should we hold onto?". Usually the answer is about how we work together to help society. And to me, a DWP that works seamlessly, together across government and across society to help improve people’s lives is at the heart of our success. We’re now, more than ever, One DWP.

Looking to the future, I know the department will continue to fight for and deliver for those who need us. Immediate priorities include our Plan for Jobs, getting people into work, such as through Kickstart, and implementing the government’s disability strategy. There is also more to do to build back better, for example my department will be leading the push for greener pension investments as we look to COP26 and beyond.

Twenty years ago, no one could have predicted the changes we have seen, and I am proud that my colleagues came together to help society when it was needed most.

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