Universal Credit stats – Obscuring the true extent of poor decision making

"This opacity of the Universal Credit behemoth is making it far easier for the DWP to mislead the public, and deflect criticism of its shortcomings." Our caseworker Andy on how Universal Credit stats are obscuring the true extent of poor decision making

Andy McCarthy, 26 November 2019

Being able to track mandatory reconsideration’s (MR) and appeals statistics is an essential part of holding the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to account. Knowing the numbers helps in understanding the extent of poor decision making. We know, for instance, that only 21 percent of Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) decisions were overturned at MR stage. We also know that 75 percent of ESA decisions were overturned at tribunal. Through looking at statistics we are able to see that something is going woefully wrong at MR stage. In short; numbers matter.

Unfortunately under Universal Credit, no such clarity exists. Despite claiming to be a streamlined digital service, statistics readily available under the legacy system seem to be impossible to track down.

Mandatory reconsideration’s  

Mandatory reconsideration outcomes are not available under Universal Credit. Responding to an Freedom of Information (FOI) request, the DWP explained:

“Acquiring and reliably extracting Universal Credit MR data specifically including information on the MR’s final outcomes would involve significant time applying specialist knowledge and a high level of skill and judgement.”

The fact that the new system was not designed to monitor how well the department is making decisions is exasperating. Under legacy benefits the data was available. Many of the decisions (namely right to reside decisions, fit for work decisions, sanctions decisions, etc.) follow exactly the same procedure now as before. And it hardly takes a high level of skill and judgement to see whether a decision had changed following a review.

It is extremely troubling that the Universal Credit system was designed and implemented without any substantial mechanism for checking outcomes. This is either an accidental oversight or a deliberate means to avoid scrutiny.

Appeals

Appeal statistics are provided by HMCTS rather than the DWP, and as they provide outcome statistics we can start seeing a fuller picture of Universal Credit decision making.  In the last quarter 65 percent of Universal Credit appeals were allowed, which highlights a familiar failure for the DWP to make the right decisions the first (or second) time around.

However, the statistics provided by HMCTS still only scratch the surface. As Universal Credit combine 6 legacy benefits into one, statistics provided reduce a range of issues under appeal into either successful or unsuccessful.

By looking at the legacy benefits which Universal Credit has replaced, it shows a skewing of statistics. For instance in the last quarter ESA appeals had a 75 percent success rate, which Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) appeals only had a 35 percent success rate over the same period.

ESA 75%
Tax credits 34%
Housing benefit 27%
JSA 35%
Income Support 63%

The disparity between different success rates under the legacy system suggest that some types of Universal Credit decisions under appeal should have been more often overturned than others. But this is exactly the point, we cannot tell without a breakdown from HMCTS.

HMCTS responded to an FOI request for a breakdown of appeals by substantive issue under appeal, saying they did not hold the information as:

“ There is no requirement for the Tribunal to break down Universal Credit appeals to this extent.”

HMCTS should break down Universal Credit appeals into the component elements. Under the legacy system, providing simple statistics on percentages of appeals allowed was useful. But with Universal Credit spanning at the very least six distinct decisions, the success rate is only the tip of the iceberg.

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Therefore we remain in the dark as to just how good or bad decision making is under Universal Credit. Anecdotally from the advice sector we are seeing a decrease in the quality of decision making under Universal Credit, particularly around issues such as right to reside decisions for EEA nationals. But we can’t prove our concerns about decision making in any easily quantifiable way.

Without the concrete statistics to back up these experiences, Universal Credit has the ability to hide its decision making blunders by simply not providing statistics. This opacity of the Universal Credit behemoth is making it far easier for the DWP to mislead the public, and deflect criticism of its shortcomings.

 

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