Evidence of DWP cover-up and incompetence in relation to the forced transition from legacy benefits to universal credit (UC) was revealed, as the social security advisory committee called for external scrutiny of the “scary” process this month.
Members of the social security advisory committee gave evidence to the commons work and pensions committee earlier this month as part of the committee’s inquiry into managed migration to UC.
One MP on the committee revealed the bizarre degree to which a report on the initial Harrogate pilot for managed migration has been covered-up.
The Harrogate pilot started in summer 2019 on a very small scale and was abandoned in March 2020 because of the pandemic.
MP Steve McCabe revealed that copies of the report on the pilot had been deposited in the House of Commons and the House of Lords Libraries, but they were entirely redacted with the exception of the words “moved to Universal Credit” and “user research”. ‘
McCabe told the committee : “I do not want to get into conspiracy fantasies and start accusing Ministers of cover-ups or anything like that, but what on earth can be in the Harrogate report that means that we are not allowed to see it?”
In reality, redacting all but 5 words from a report is, by definition, a cover-up.
Whether there was anything in the report that actually needed to be covered-up or whether it is simply that under former DWP secretary of state Therese Coffey, the DWP became addicted to secrecy for its own sake, is something we cannot know at this point.
McCabe went on to illustrate the dangers of the transfer to UC and the degree of DWP incompetence using two examples from his own caseload.
“One was a woman who had a series of illnesses and was awaiting the result of various tests. She was both physically in a very bad way and psychologically quite distressed. At that point, she failed to respond properly to a migration notice. She did not have a computer at home. She attempted to phone the Department. She could not get to speak to anyone. She sent a recorded delivery letter, but Department thinks it did not receive it. She went weeks and weeks without money.
“The second was a 19-year-old boy who had severe learning difficulties and autism. After he left school and his tax credits and disability element ended, he was required to apply for Universal Credit. His mum attempted to register him. That seemed to take several weeks. They omitted to tell her that she needed to complete a work capability form. That resulted in a further 16-week delay. Then the staff at the DWP insisted on speaking directly to her son on the phone, except he is non-verbal. Surely, we need a better service to cater for these kinds of eventualities.”
Charlotte Pickles, a member of SSAC, told the MPs how important SSAC believed some sort of external scrutiny of the “scary” migration process is.
“Our view is that external scrutiny—so independent, transparent and open scrutiny—is absolutely essential to the success of the programme. That is for two reasons that I think we made clear in our report.
“First, that sort of scrutiny will support an effective programme. If the only thing the Department can rely on is internal management data and that feedback loop that should be, and we hope will be, very effective, they are going to have gaps in the insights. They are going to have gaps in their understanding of how it is landing with claimants and the different groups that we have already discussed this morning. If you want to be as successful as possible—which the Department does want to be—external scrutiny and input is an important part of delivering a successful programme.
“Secondly, why it is so important is because we are all very aware that for some groups, in particular, UC is quite a scary proposition. If you are sitting on a legacy benefit or you are a tax credit claimant, you possibly, likely, in certain groups, are very nervous and possibly reluctant to make that move to UC. By having the external input, you get a greater public assurance that the system is working and operating and it does have the best interests of claimants at heart. Both for effectiveness and public confidence in the programme, that external input and oversight is important.”
At this point, however, there is no indication that the DWP will be any more open to external scrutiny of the managed migration process than they are to any other part of their secretive machinations.
You can read the full transcript of the oral evidence hearing on the parliament website.