At Z2K, we know how important the benefits system is to people’s lives. Our caseworkers see day in, day out the impact of complicated processes and baffling decision-making that obstruct and delay people’s access to the support they’re entitled to.
In my new role as Policy and Public Affairs Officer, I’ll be making the case to MPs, Peers and officials for the ways in which the system needs to change to achieve our vision of no-one in the UK living in poverty. To do that, of course, we need evidence of what’s actually happening. Our work directly with clients gives us a great insight into this: their experiences show the real impact the system’s failings have on people’s finances, health, and life, and we’ve drawn on them for our reports on Universal Credit (UC) and disability benefits.
These real-life stories are extremely powerful. But we also need to know how widespread the issues are – and this is where having reliable, up-to-date data is vital. Unfortunately, as UC increasingly replaces ‘legacy benefits’, the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) is taking the opportunity to limit our understanding of crucial parts of the system.
The most egregious example of this is data on the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) for people claiming UC. For people whose health or disability prevents them from working, this assessment is vital: not only does it affect what steps you’re expected to take in return for your benefit, if your health or disability means you can’t be expected to take any steps towards moving into work, you’re entitled to an extra £354.28 a month.
So getting these assessments right really matters. And we know that under UC’s predecessor, Employment Support Allowance (ESA), DWP often got things wrong. Since 2013, 135,000 ESA WCA decisions have been changed – half of which needed to go through the lengthy process of appealing to an independent tribunal. (The actual number of wrong decisions is even higher, as we don’t how many people didn’t challenge the decision, but would have succeeded if they had.)
Are things any better under UC? We just don’t know. In fact, DWP has repeatedly said it simply doesn’t collect data on outcomes or appeals. It doesn’t know either. This is a deliberate decision not to collect this information – one that charities, MPs and even the Office for Statistics Regulation have challenged. So far, DWP is unmoved: the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Thérèse Coffey, recently told the Work and Pensions Select Committee that there are “no plans” to produce these statistics.
Another area DWP has chosen to close its eyes to is under-claiming of income-related benefits. For the last 30 years, it has published statistics estimating the total amount of these benefits that go unclaimed. In 2015-16, the last year for which there’s a full set of data, an estimated £6.9bn of Jobseeker’s Allowance, Income Support, Housing Benefit, and ESA was unclaimed by working-age people.
Since then, as UC has replaced these legacy benefits, the value of this data has reduced. DWP first stopped reporting on data for Jobseeker’s Allowance, and its most recent data (for 2019-20) only looks at Pension Credit and Housing Benefit for pensioners.
There is no comparable data available for UC. We simply have no idea how many people eligible for support aren’t getting it. Isn’t that something a department whose overarching mission is, to quote Thérèse Coffey, “to improve people’s day to day lives and help them build a secure and prosperous future” should be concerned with?
This wilful ignorance not only makes it harder for MPs, charities, and other organisations to hold DWP to account. It also makes it harder for DWP itself to understand what’s happening. It paints a picture of an organisation that simply doesn’t care if it’s forcing people to push for the impact of their disability or health condition to be properly recognised, or if the financial support it offers isn’t reaching the people who are entitled to it.
That might not be the case. But the best way for DWP to show that is to collect and publish the data (and then, of course, to take steps to deal with any problems). Closing its eyes to the problems doesn’t make them go away – it only makes them harder to address.