A social security system for the long-term, not just COVID-19

Our Social Security system should act as a safety net. With the outbreak of COVID-19, the number of people needing its support has risen by over a million, and the cracks that have been there for years are suddenly at the forefront of a lot more people’s attention.

Becca Stacey, Policy and Campaigns Officer

08 April 2020

Government ministers, who for over a decade have done little to fix these cracks, have bought in a multitude of measures in the last month to improve the system. These measures are necessary, but it is frustrating that it has taken a global pandemic for them to be introduced, and they still don’t go far enough. Government’s primary focus is also the hundreds of thousands of recently unemployed people who are claiming benefits for the first time – much more needs to be done to support the people who were already on benefits.

The most significant of these recent measures is the £22 a week rise in the Standard Allowance for Universal Credit (UC). Since UC was rolled out we have heard time and time again from our clients that UC does not pay them enough to live on. Whilst this increase provides welcome additional support, it is still not proportional to the cost of living. What’s more, it doesn’t apply to those on Job Seekers Allowance (JSA), Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) and Income Support (IS), taking the deserving and undeserving poor mentality to new depths. And for the many subject to the Benefit Cap, they will not see an increase to their UC standard allowance.

Another measure that the Government has rightly introduced is a temporary suspension of the requirements to search for work and to make yourself immediately available for work. However, other conditions such as work-focused interviews, keeping to appointments with work coaches and completing online training still apply. People in the Limited Capability for Work group are still expected to prepare themselves for work at some point in the future, despite the current uncertainty about future employment, whilst also being without any additional financial support – the additional Limited Capability for Work rate was stopped in April 2017. DWP should suspend all conditionality commitments and sanctions immediately, and given there is no evidence to suggest that sanctions actually work, their suspension should be continued after we have recovered from this pandemic.

For people claiming UC for the first time, the first issue that they will encounter is long phone wait times and delayed online response times from the DWP. Ministers assure us DWP staff are working over-time to process the huge influx of new claims, and while recent guidance from the DWP stating that all new claimants will be contacted by out-bound DWP calls to arrange a new claim appointment is a step in the right direction, it is important these out-bound calls are made in a timely manner.

With the outbreak of COVID-19, DWP has said that UC claimants can receive an Advance Payment without physically attending a jobcentre. We want to see Government go further and offer non-repayable grants during this five week wait period, instead of the existent Advance Payment loans. People currently have to repay these loans through deductions to their UC payments, which leads to financial hardship. As one of our clients, “Claire” told us,

“They [the jobcentre] offered me £1,500 [Advance Payment]…I’m glad I didn’t take that because I’m still paying it [the £1,000 Advance Payment that Claire did take] back now…I wish I hadn’t taken that much.”

Now more than ever, people need the state to be providing them with full support, not taking away from their already limited income. In the long-term, the five week wait should be removed completely, and UC claimants should receive their first UC instalment within one week of the initial claim, not in the form of a loan, but as their first payment.

We have made these short term and long term recommendations to removing the five week wait, as well as called for other UC COVID-19 measures and longer-term reforms to UC, in our response to the Work and Pensions Select Committee’s inquiry on UC: the Wait for a First Payment. While we welcome the news that the managed migration of UC has been paused in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, we believe that managed and natural migration of existing legacy benefit claimants onto UC should also be suspended, not just during this pandemic, but until the longer-term reforms to UC take place.  That’s the only way to ensure vulnerable people are protected and those on legacy benefits do not suffer any halt to their income.

This pandemic has brought the short fallings of our social security system to the forefront, and it is vital that these are addressed, and the increased support that is introduced maintained beyond COVID-19. At Z2K, we will be focusing in the coming months on building the evidence base for the maintenance and extension of these measures.