DWP staff shortages to blame for Universal Credit payment delays, says director general

'Mismatches in volumes and available staffing will impair our ability to clear work,' Neil Couling told MPs

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A lack of sufficient staff at the Department for Work and Pensions was the main reason for delayed payments to benefit claimants in 2017, the director general of Universal Credit, the government’s flagship welfare overhaul, has said.

In a letter to Frank Field, head of the Work and Pensions Select Committee, Neil Couling said the “the primary cause of the performance dip in early 2017” was that the department did not have enough staff to deal with all of its Universal Credit cases.

The letter, sent in July but published last week, was in response to a series of questions Field put to Couling following the publication of a National Audit Office report in June that said Universal Credit may never be value for money. Field wrote to Couling in June to raise concerns about payment delays and other delivery issues highlighted in the report.


The NAO report found 20% of new claimants between January and October 2017 waited five months or more for payments.

“You are right to assume that mismatches in volumes and available staffing will impair our ability to clear work,” Couling said in his response to Field. He said that he had put extra staff in place ahead of an expansion of Universal Credit services in October 2017 “to hedge against that risk”.

“I hope the committee will welcome that decision and not join the chorus of criticism about this temporary increase in costs [associated with hiring more staff],” he said.

Couling said the “general trend in payment timeliness [was] a gradual upward one”, apart from a dip in March, which he blamed on extreme weather denting productivity in service centres.

Since Couling’s letter, Universal Credit has faced growing concerns about DWP’s readiness for managed migration of existing benefit claimants onto the new system next year.

Documents leaked earlier this week showed millions had been spent trying to prevent any adverse effects of the move to the new system, and revealed further delays to the rollout.

Couling’s letter was one of several published by the work and pensions committee on Thursday. The collection included a response from Sir Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, to a request from Field to set out how best to assess whether the department was ready for managed migration.

“It is not appropriate for me to suggest explicit tests that DWP must meet before it is ready to begin managed migration,” Morse wrote.

“It should be a balanced judgement based on the evidence, taking account of the impact migration will have on its own operational performance, costs, and the impact on claimants and third parties.”

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