By Paul Treloar
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) deals with billions of pounds of public money and millions of people each year. Clear lines of communication are paramount, whether to ensure claimants know what they’re expected to do, or to maximise efficiency and reduce back-office costs.
But when it comes to communication, the DWP needs to up its game considerably.
Take its flagship project, Universal Credit. One of the single biggest welfare reforms in a generation, this policy marks a huge shift not just in the delivery of, but also the ideology behind, social security in the UK. The DWP and employers will communicate digitally via HMRC, with claimants required to do everything online and by phone.
The DWP is falling short on both of these fronts – there are still only around 200,000 live claims under the scheme, against original projections of 6-10 million. But the reasons for the delays have been less than transparent.
Back in 2013, the National Audit Office criticised a “fortress mentality” and “good news” reporting culture among Universal Credit staff at the DWP. Campaigners Tony Collins and John Slater sent Freedom of Information requests in 2012 for documents detailing problems and solutions that DWP staff thought could arise from Universal Credit. Four years later, having repeatedly refused to divulge this information, the DWP finally cracked and issued some of the documents this week, though not all. What they were hiding is one question. Why is another.
What the documents will reveal is anyone’s guess, but we know from the Public Accounts Committee’s recent report that, of £344m spent on new technology, the DWP only expects to be able to use £34m worth under the new Full Digital Universal Credit rolling out from next month. This is a huge amount of public money to fritter away when austerity is being inflicted on low-income families across the country.
The news isn’t much brighter for service users. As noted above, Universal Credit claimants are expected to claim online or over the phone. Those who need to call are advised to watch their phone charges: the Universal Credit helpline will be an 0345 number, meaning calls from mobiles will cost up to 45p a minute and landlines 12p a minute. This is despite assurances from the DWP in 2013 that it would move all telephone helplines to free 0800 numbers. Worse, there have been reports of Universal Credit claimants being asked to call the helpline without good reason, incurring unnecessary costs as a result.
The DWP also has communication problems of its own making. One of the key features of Universal Credit is a tougher regime of conditionality – even claimants in low-paid work will have to meet Work Coaches to discuss how they could earn more and work longer hours, or else have their benefits docked. In 2015, the DWP ran a series of adverts featuring claimants saying how good it was to be threatened with these sanctions. But the claimants weren’t actually real – they were stock images of people whom the department had used in other ad campaigns in the past.
The DWP’s use of data to make the case for welfare reform is not much better. The DWP and ex-minister Iain Duncan Smith have been repeatedly criticised by the UK Statistics Authority (UKSA) for their casual and misleading use of statistics on the benefit cap and disability benefits, as well as a tendency to leak data prior to publication, which the UKSA was “deeply concerned” about.
But despite this free and easy use and abuse of statistics, the DWP still refuses to release any information about reviews it has admitted to undertaking in relation to benefit claimants’ deaths from suicide. Campaigners suspect a cover-up, while the DWP claims it is protecting personal information and dignity.
There’s now a new incumbent in the corridors of Caxton House, the DWP’s Westminster base, as Stephen Crabb gets to grips with his new brief. Whether he opens up a dialogue with campaigners is an interesting question, as previously many DWP consultations have seemed like a done deal. But creating affordable lines of communication for claimants is a more immediate priority if Universal Credit is to build up a head of steam.
Even more welcome would be a sign from Mr Crabb that he intends to change the toxic debate around social security and those who rely on the system for help. The plethora of poverty porn programmes and articles has been enabled, if not actively encouraged, by behind-the-scenes media briefing by the DWP – part of a divide and rule strategy to portray people as either workers or shirkers so as to push through savage cuts.
Does he have the appetite and enthusiasm to design a social security system that the UK can be proud of? That supports those who need support, for whatever reason and for however long? That does not try to designate them as some rotting festering horde of money-grabbers, lazy and indolent and dragging ‘hard-working’ families down? Now that really would be something worth talking about.
Paul Treloar is a welfare rights worker with more than 20 years’ experience. He has worked on council estates in Hackney, in a south London psychiatric hospital, and as an appeals representative across Greater London, as well as developing policy on the need, value and worth of welfare rights advice. Paul has worked for many organisations including Child Poverty Action Group, Gingerbread, Disability Alliance (now Disability Rights UK), Lasa, and the Department for Social Security. Paul has experience of advising on, administering and claiming social security benefits and believes that the support we offer the most vulnerable and needy is the most important thing we can do as a society.