Therese Coffey was yesterday promoted to health secretary and deputy prime minister, leaving the DWP in the hands of former minister for disabled people, Chloe Smith. Coffey leaves behind her a department even more dysfunctional and distrusted than the one she inherited.
At just one day short of three years, Coffey has been the longest serving secretary of state for work and pensions since Ian Duncan Smith, who managed almost six years, ending in March 2016.
Unlike IDS, however, Coffey brought no campaigning zeal for reform to the post. Whilst that is probably just as well, what she did bring was as pernicious in its own way.
Under Coffey we have seen the DWP retreat into obsessive and pointless secrecy and an ugly determination to avoid paying benefits at every possible opportunity.
Her compulsive secrecy and the way it undermines trust was highlighted by the work and pensions committee’s ultimately failed attempt to get Coffey to release nine reports the DWP has refused to publish, sometimes even after saying they would.
The most notable of these avoidances may have been the refusal to pay the £20 universal credit uplift to legacy benefits claimants on the spurious grounds that the software couldn’t cope with the change.
But there have been many other occasions during Coffey’s tenure when the courts have found that the DWP has got the law wrong and claimants have been underpaid as a result. On each occasion the response of the DWP has been to drag their feet and, when a LEAP exercise has been set up to identify underpaid claimants, repay only a tiny fraction of those who are eligible.
Only last week we reported on the DWP’s refusal to follow a recommendation by the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO) to contact over 100,000 ESA claimants who are owed compensation totalling many millions for DWP errors.
Instead, claimants will have to somehow discover for themselves that they have been ripped-off and then figure out how to try to get what they are entitled to.
Standards of service at the DWP have also plummeted under Coffey. PIP fresh claims are taking five months to process, PIP reviews are now so far behind that automatic 12 month extensions are being granted and trying to get through to the DWP on the telephone is now something that requires days of effort.
If Coffey takes the same determination to harm those she should be helping and to shroud every issue in secrecy to her new role, then the rest of the country will get a taste of the same misery that claimants have endured these last three years.
Meanwhile, Coffey’s replacement Chloe Smith was only appointed to the post of Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work in September 2021. Born in 1982, she became the youngest sitting MP when she won her seat in 2009.
Her voting record on benefits is as might be expected. She has never voted in favour of paying higher benefits to sick and disabled claimants and, when she has been present to vote, always voted for reductions in spending on welfare benefits.
In July of this year she committed herself to ‘urgently investigating’ alleged assessment tricks used by PIP and WCA assessors, after they were raised by MPs at a meeting of the work and pensions committee.
Unsurprisingly we have heard nothing more on the matter.
It seems unlikely that there will be any significant change it the way the DWP is run under the new secretary of state, though there will perhaps be rather less karaoke and booze on the premises.