DWP staff get a taste of their own medicine as think tank recommends tracking the prospects of claimant compensation where benefits are paid late or training and skills courses are not delivered.
With the Work and Pensions Select committee due to debate the benefit freeze later today (11th March), Bright Blue believes it unfair that claimants are sanctioned if they failed to look for work or missed appointments, while jobcentre staff face no penalty if their errors cause claimants hardship.
The report acknowledges widespread cynicism about the intentions of Universal Credit (UC), with many believing it had been made deliberately complicated to discourage claims.
As such, the report recommends victims of DWP error or maladministration be given the right to appeal to an independent case examiner, who could award compensation equal to the sanctions levied on claimants judged to have breached rules.
And if compensation payments could reach hundreds or even thousands of pounds, the report says that’s fine for the system to be seen as fair.
Other recommendations include:
- Financial rewards for claimants who put “maximum effort” into their job search but were unable to find work
- All new UC claimants should receive a one-off upfront ‘helping hand’ payment amounting to a quarter of the estimated first month’s benefit to help with the “difficult and distressing” waiting time for the first payment
- A UC universal credit smartphone app to help claimants who do not have access to computers or tablets
- A full-time disability and mental health adviser in every jobcentre
Bright Blue says it is “broadly supportive” of the online benefit system, with its research showing most people were adapting.
But it conceded that older claimants and those with mental and physical health problems often struggled with UC – particularly with the initial wait for payment – with complexity and harshness dissipating public confidence.
Ryan Shorthouse, the director of Bright Blue and a co-author of the report, said: “Despite welcome improvements made by the government in recent years, there are too many examples and too much evidence of significant hardship experienced by a sizeable minority of those on universal credit.”
Heidi Allen, the MP for South Cambridgeshire, who quit the Tories to sit as an Independent group, was on the report’s expert steering group and called on ministers to restore funding for UC to make the five-week wait more manageable.
She said: “Whether it is reducing that wait time or converting advance payments to non-repayable grants for those with no financial resilience, the government must find a way to restore the welfare state’s core aim.
“It should be a helping hand up, not a net that drags the most vulnerable in society down.”
Last month, Citizen’s Advice reported that the five-week wait for a first benefit payment left nearly half of the claimants it advised unable to pay household bills or forced them to go without basics such as food or heating – while 54% had to borrow cash from family and friends to stay afloat.
In the face of such evidence, the DWP continues to maintain UC is a “force for good”.