The civil service’s biggest union has called on ministers to properly resource the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure the safety of staff processing rocketing numbers of Universal Credit claims as the coronavirus lockdown continues.
While DWP has drafted in 10,000 staff from other parts of its operations to cope with a surge of claims – 950,000 in the last two weeks of March compared with a usual rate around seven times lower – the PCS union said more needed to be done.
It said all of the department’s staff should be redeployed to help with the Universal Credit effort, and that with 40% of staff currently off work because they were self-isolating or classified as vulnerable, a step change was required to keep frontline officials safe and well.
PCS said it had “serious concerns” about how staff and the system would cope with the levels of demand for Universal Credit support that were being experienced, and that safety in the DWP offices where claims are processed was poor. In particular, the union cited “severe shortages” of cleaning products such as wipes and sanitiser – and it added that office cleaning regimes were “too limited” in the current climate.
PCS said it had to struggle to get DWP to take social distancing seriously in recent weeks, although it accepted that the situation had subsequently improved.
General secretary Mark Serwotka said a decade of austerity had made it extremely difficult for PCS members at DWP to deal with the huge upsurge of claimants the coronavirus lockdown had created.
“A lack of equipment, staffing shortages and poor health and safety around dealing with corona has exacerbated the situation,” he said.
“Ministers need to invest in our social security system as a national priority so our members can continue to deliver for the most vulnerable.
“I want to pay tribute to the outstanding contribution our members in Universal Credit have made since the corona crisis putting themselves at risk by coming into work. Without them, new claimants would not be able to access vital support.”
Earlier this week Serwotka was joined by Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA union, and Prospect deputy general secretary Garry Graham in calling on the Health and Safety Executive to be more proactive in getting the government to ensure employers provided their staff with safe environments to work in.
In addition to drafting in 10,000 additional staff and drawing in support from HM Passport Office, PCS said DWP was doing “emergency recruiting” by asking staff to see if friends or families would come and work as administrative officers.
The union said it was unclear how many extra staff the move would produce and pointed out that there would be a delay due to checks.
DWP has said it is looking to recruit an additional 1,500 staff to aid its response to the surge in Universal Credit claims.