The government's independent advisers on social security legislation have urged the government to iron out "rough edges" in its support for people who have lost jobs amid the coronavirus crisis.
In a letter to work and pensions secretary Thérèse Coffey, Liz Sayce, the interim chair of the Social Security Advisory Committee, said that the Department for Work and Pensions had provided "very welcome additional financial support and security" to many affected by the pandemic.
But the committee has called for several tweaks to the coronavirus support package, including increased allowances for people receiving legacy benefits, more housing support for under-35s and adjustments to the benefit cap, to prevent people from falling through the cracks.
In her letter, Sayce said DWP, HM Revenue and Customs, the Treasury and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy had done "remarkable work" in delivering major changes to the benefits and tax system since coronavirus broke out in the UK.
"What has been delivered, in both policy and logistical terms, is an extraordinary achievement. It inevitably has taken time to create the new job retention and self-employed payment mechanisms. The tax credit and social security system – particularly Universal Credit – took up the burden of getting financial support to people from the start of the lockdown," she said.
But she added that there were "unsurprisingly some ‘rough edges’ and inconsistencies" that needed to be addressed, given the scale and pace of the changes.
The committee has called for DWP to address an imbalance in the support being given to people claiming support under Universal Credit and under the so-called legacy benefits system by increasing Jobseekers' Allowance and the Employment and Support Allowance.
In March, the chancellor announced a £1,000 increase in the standard Universal Credit allowance for the year, and working tax credits were increased. "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," Sayce said.
The letter also called for the suspension of the Shared Accommodation Rate for under-35s. Many single under-35s renting privately can only claim the shared rate, which is designed to cover a room in a shared house, even if they live alone. If the benefit does not cover their rent they must make up the difference.
A large number of those who have lost jobs during the pandemic are yound people, Sayce said, and it would be "less appropriate – and more difficult – for those who have lost their jobs to move into shared accommodation at the present time".
And the SSAC urged the government to consider changing how the benefit cap is applied. The government has removed some of the restrictions on welfare support, such as the minimum income floor for Universal Credit and working tax credits, but the committee said the benefit cap meant some people were not receiving the extra support. People with high rents, for example, would "normally have the option to move into paid work or to move home to avoid the impact of the benefit cap, but neither of these are realistic choices for many people at the current time".
"We therefore recommend that the government considers what action might be possible to ensure that the spirit and intent of the additional package of financial support it has introduced in these challenging times are fully delivered."
Finally, the committee said DWP must address issues caused by "confusion" about the changes, which it attributed to insufficiently clear communication in the early stages of the coronavirus crisis.
Sayce said it had been "almost inevitable" that there would be confusion about how the changes made byDWP, the Treasury, HMRC and BEIS on Universal Credit, Statutory Sick Pay and the job retention and self-employed income support schemes interact.
While communication has improved in recent weeks, Sayce said, some issues remained. For example, the SSAC has seen cases where self-employed people claiming tax credits had followed government advice to claim Universal Credit if their earnings fell – only to find they did not qualify, and permanently lose their entitlement to tax credits.
"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."