A defensive DWP can’t claim critics are “scaremongering” over Universal Credit (UC) until it can define what is an acceptable measure of its impact, a Commons report says.
The report of the Work and Pensions committee on the welfare safety net also sees the DWP struggling to reassure sceptical claimants that they will be well-supported as they move onto UC.
Committee inquiries into the impact of ‘welfare reform’ have repeatedly and consistently heard evidence of so-called welfare reform pushing claimants beyond poverty and into destitution – with the welfare safety net now not fit for purpose for those on the breadline.
“Unless (the DWP) defines what is acceptable and measures whether that is being achieved, it cannot confidently claim to be delivering a consistently high-quality service, and in so doing refute scaremongering allegations,” the report says.
The report recommends the DWP working with its stakeholders and delivery partners – including Citizens Advice – to agree and implement clear, measurable, published performance measures.
In the longer-term, the DWP it should consider whether there is a case for introducing an independent regulator for working age benefits to ensure that specific service standards are met—mirroring arrangements in other parts of the welfare state, such as health and education, the report says.
The committee found it ”difficult to avoid” concluding that the DWP simply does not understand the impact of its reforms on some of the most vulnerable people it supports.
Where DWP decisions have a direct impact on the incomes of millions of people, there is “no excuse” for a lack of understanding or transparency about the effects of those decisions, the report says.
In 2016, the DWP announced it would develop a new measure of poverty.
With the Government’s existing measures of poverty focusing on household income, it has no way of capturing whether that income is adequate for a household to live on.
The new measure, based on work by the independent Social Metrics Commission(SMC), is said to offers a more sophisticated understanding of who is “poor” and why – with household finances viewed like a profit and loss account, with income on one side and “inescapable costs” such as childcare, housing or health conditions on
While the committee commends the DWP for adopting the SMC measure, the report outlines concern that it intends to use it alongside its existing measures, which will remain the “official” measures.
To avoid accusations that it cherry picks which poverty data to use, the Committee recommends the DWP makes the new measure its official, central measure of poverty.
The Commission’s measure is of poverty, not destitution – these two terms are distinct.
Some of the most worrying evidence the committee has received was from, and about, people who are “destitute”: chronically lacking basic resources such as food, stable housing or fuel because of a lack of money.
The DWP acknowledges that it would be helpful to understand these issues better, but the Government does not measure, or even define, destitution officially.
To the committee, the Commission’s approach shows that it is possible to take the debate away from arguments about terminology, towards a more constructive approach to tackling major, sustained hardship.
The Department should replicate this approach, setting up an independent commission to develop a measure of destitution, the report says.
To the committee, the welfare safety net is now about more than income, and more than DWP’s policies.
But the report says DWP has a “vital” role to play in maintaining its integrity, simply because its decisions affect the incomes of so many households and particularly the poorest.
Successive Governments have made huge savings from almost a decade of changes to uprating policies and freezes. The outcome, however, is an increasingly patchy safety net, which is failing to support some of those who need it most.
The DWP has made an important first step in committing to measure poverty differently – it must now stand ready to act on what it will find,” the report says.