The Department for Work and Pensions has said it does not intend to reduce the five-week wait for Universal Credit payments or make significant changes to benefits, as it revealed it has shifted staff to deal with an unprecedented number of new claims amid the coronavirus outbreak.
The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, announced last week that the Universal Credit allowance would increase by £20 a week for the next year. But DWP has faced calls to further increase its support for Universal Credit claimants affected by Covid-19 by delivering the first payment more quickly or by making the first payment a non-repayable grant, and to extend benefits to migrants who are not usually allowed to claim them.
But DWP permanent secretary Peter Schofield said making major changes to the way Universal Credit is delivered would be unfeasible given the huge volumes of new claims it is receiving.
The department is in the process of redeploying thousands of staff to process new Universal Credit claims and has suspended reviews and reassessments for all benefits for three months so it can redirect resources.
Schofield told the Work and Pensions Committee this week his department had processed some 477,000 new claims for Universal Credit in nine days – including 105,000 on Tuesday – as people lost work because of the outbreak.
He said the department was working to minimise delays by redeploying thousands of staff to handle Universal Credit claims, including 10,000 staff working on other frontline DWP “over the next few weeks”. As of Wednesday, 1,500 had already moved, with around 3,900 to follow by the end of this week.
It will later move as many of the civil servants working in functional areas such as finance, change programmes, capability – some 10,000 in total – as it can to the front line, he said, and later bring in staff from other departments.
“It’s a major success for the organisation and we did it because a lot of the system is automated and we’re not changing the way we’re running the system; we’re running that level of capacity,” he said.
“To make a change… requires reprogramming, resetting or manual processes, which we simply at those volumes wouldn’t be able to manage.”
Pressed on the five-week wait for people to receive their first payment under the new benefits system, work and pensions minister Therese Coffey added that “the underlying principles of Universal Credit have not gone away”.
“By that I mean the design that this is supposed to be based on your general income, we need a month to assess what your likely income’s going to be,” she said.
Coffey said claimants could apply for an advance to tide them over until their first payment had come through. Of the 275,000 people who applied for Universal Credit last week, 70,000 had asked for an advance, she said.
Asked whether this could instead be made a non-repayable grant, Coffey said it would be unfeasible to make such a change to the IT system in a short space of time.
“I have to say that any other changes – and I appreciate this is not a big policy change – but any technical changes, it would be difficult to make some of the operational changes people are asking for,” she said.
Pressed on why it was impossible to make these operational changes quickly, given the UC IT system had been designed to be “agile”, Coffey said: “Can I suggest we get into this at another time, about the original design of the the Universal Credit IT system… but I don’t think the system was built to be so agile that we can just literally put a new cell in a spreadsheet and it feeds through millions of records in one go.”
She said offering grants would raise questions about the “fairness to the wider taxpayer element”.
The session came amid reports people are experiencing long delays in the Universal Credit application process as services struggle to keep up with demand.
Once they are registered with the system, claimants must verify their identify through the government’s online Verify service, which has had hours-long delays for some claimants, prompting concerns that payments could be delayed in turn.
Schofield said it was important not to cut corners on this step because “we don’t want robots, frankly”, cheating the system.
He said the department had put “extra money” into Verify in anticipation of a surge in demand, “but they are facing an unprecedented number of people who’ve never had to engage with the government in this way before,” he said. DWP declined to tell CSW how much money it had given the service.
Meanwhile, around 23,000 Jobcentre staff had been moved into “virtual service centres within jobcentres, so that’s straight away brought a big surge of resource in”.
But despite these measures, Schofield said he could not rule out any payment delays. “I absolutely would love to be able to give that reassurance and I’m absolutely committed to driving to that end, I really am. The caution in my voice is we don’t know what’s going to happen to the numbers of claims coming through,” he said.
'Policy has not changed' for immigrants
Coffey also confirmed the government had not changed its hardline stance on preventing many immigrants from accessing benefits.
Asked about the government’s approach to helping people with no recourse to public funds, Coffey told the committee that “as it stands, the policy has not changed”, despite calls for the Home Office to change its approach. The policy means immigrants who have been working legally in the UK but have lost work because of Covid-19 cannot claim Universal Credit.
The same day Coffey gave evidence to the committee, a cross-party group of 98 MPs wrote to the prime minister asking him to "temporarily waive the NRPF [no recourse to public funds] status and issue guidance to local government with guidance on how to support those affected.
"We welcome the government’s measures to ensure that those who are unemployed or whose businesses have been affected by the impact of coronavirus will be able to keep a roof over their heads and food on their table during this difficult time," the letter, coordinated by Labour MP Taiwo Owatemi, said.
"However, we are concerned about the large number of people in the UK living here with no recourse to public funds. The government has not yet announced how vulnerable people with NRPF status will be helped through this crisis. We are writing to urge you to act immediately and provide clarity."
But Coffey said she had spoken to Home Office officials this week, who had “not yet changed their policy and so we are not extending” benefits to immigrants.
Coffey said people with no recourse to public funds may be able to get financial support from a £500m hardship fund the government has given local authorities to help the most vulnerable.
But she admitted the fund was primarily intended to give council tax relief and said local authorities would have to ask the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government for permission to use it for other purposes. “If local authorities are getting requests from groups not specifically identified in the guidance, I’m very confident they will be making that case to MHCLG about what other options they could be using the funds for,” she said.