The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is a failing organisation in a “state of crisis” and faces a “near collapse” of its benefits systems, according to a “devastating” dossier of evidence from its own staff.
The Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) this week accused DWP of “deliberate neglect”, after its members said they believed benefit claimants in vulnerable situations were “falling through the gaps” in the system.
The union’s dossier details multiple concerns about universal credit (UC), with one manager describing staff facing “completely overwhelming” workloads.
In one of the most concerning warnings, a DWP staff member who works in counter-fraud, compliance and debt, said: “We are also experiencing more threats of suicide by claimants, in some cases already attempted, sometimes successfully.”
A universal credit case manager told their union: “The absolute bare minimum is getting done and vulnerable customers are falling through the gaps.”
Another PCS member warned: “Dealing with the move to Universal Credit on top of an already unsustainable workload will end in vulnerable claimants falling through the cracks.
“Who knows what will happen to them.”
The union pointed to serious understaffing across the department, a failure to recruit and retain staff, poor working conditions, and low pay.
The dossier was delivered to DWP as Disability News Service (DNS) published its latest report highlighting serious safeguarding concerns around universal credit (see separate story).
That story describes how senior mental health figures told an inquest last month that DWP’s actions were having a significant “debilitating” impact on service-users, while this impact of DWP’s actions on people with mental distress was a “national issue”.
Only last month, DNS reported how conditions at the Oxford jobcentre became so stressful that 15 members of a team of 23 work coaches quit within 12 months, with at least eight experiencing a significant collapse in their mental health, due to a huge, sudden increase in workload in late 2021.
Also last month, DNS reported on a “deeply troubling” government report that ministers kept hidden for four years and which revealed significant flaws at the heart of the universal credit system, and how its design was “inadequate for vulnerable groups”.
The PCS dossier contains multiple warnings that the staffing problems within DWP, and the way the department is being run, could drastically affect disabled claimants, and in fact already have.
Many of those who gave evidence to the union spoke of huge backlogs in dealing with messages on claimants’ universal credit online journals.
A universal credit case manager told the union: “The absolute bare minimum is getting done and vulnerable customers are falling through the gaps.”
One work coach added: “We are dealing with more and more people with serious mental health conditions, and have only very basic of training for this.”
A newly-qualified work coach said: “We are hugely understaffed. I am shocked at how we are being pressurised into sanctioning our customers instead of offering a whole load of assistances available to help them get out of Universal Credit and back into work.
“We are expected to sanction people for ridiculous reasons.”
One PCS member said employment and support allowance (ESA) was “a ticking time bomb due to the lack of experienced staff” and warned that “millions of ESA claims are incorrect and these vulnerable customers could be owed thousands”.
Within the PCS dossier is evidence from an autistic staff member who said his reasonable adjustment of working two days a week from home had been “stolen away” due to staffing issues.
Many PCS members spoke of their “unsustainable” workload and the stress and depression they now experienced because of these staffing issues.
One said: ‘I have worked for DWP for over 40 years and to be honest I am totally worn out physically and mentally.
“My health has suffered enormously, having to struggle with always being understaffed.
“This is because of constant pressure, poor pay and staff leaving to go [to] better jobs with better pay and less stress. So I have resigned… I felt I had no other option.”
Another said: “The level of staffing for service delivery in my office is astonishingly low, stressful and unsustainable.
“The levels of staff leaving, sickness etc are by far the worst I’ve ever seen. I feel unsafe at times and under considerable pressure.”
On Tuesday, the PCS dossier was handed to Peter Schofield, DWP permanent secretary, and it contains a sample of more than 250 pieces of evidence collected from members who work within the department.
The union warned that DWP was currently running at 30,000 below required staffing levels, and it called for an urgent meeting with Schofield and work and pensions secretary Mel Stride.
The evidence compiled by PCS came after an email was sent out in early October following concerns raised on the union’s website about “staffing chaos”, and which asked members how this was affecting them.
The union’s DWP group president, Martin Cavanagh, said the union had been “overwhelmed by the power and volume of the responses”.
He said: “The responses contained in this document demonstrate that DWP is a failing organisation in a state of crisis.
“This crisis has been created by a government whose policies are vindictive towards claimants that need support and not the punishment that our members are expected to dish out.
“The members’ testimonies demonstrate that the staffing crisis in DWP is creating an epidemic of mental ill health amongst staff and failing to protect the most vulnerable citizens in society.”
He added: “Many of society’s most marginalised are becoming desperate.
“We call on ministers to read as much of this dossier as they can stomach, take responsibility, and provide our members with the tools to do the job and the standard of living they have earned.”
DWP yesterday (Wednesday) declined to provide a response from Mel Stride to the dossier, or to say if the department accepted that there were problems with staffing levels, safeguarding flaws and unsafe conditions for both staff and claimants, including with universal credit and ESA.
It also declined to provide a response from Stride to the concerns in the dossier about universal credit and the risk of “vulnerable” claimants “falling through the gaps”.
DWP also refused to say if Stride would meet with the union, and how he responded to the union’s claim that DWP was a failing organisation in a state of crisis and that this crisis had been created by a government whose policies were “vindictive” towards claimants who need support.
Instead, the department insisted that its priority was ensuring a supportive and compassionate service for claimants, while it had safeguards in place to protect “vulnerable” customers.
It claimed it prioritised lower-paid employees in its 2023-24 pay award, and that its recruitment campaigns remained ongoing, while it provided a range of support to help staff with their physical health and mental, social and financial wellbeing.
A DWP spokesperson said in a statement: “We are committed to supporting the wellbeing of our staff, and provide access to a comprehensive range of assistance for their physical and mental health.
“We have recruitment plans in place to maintain key services – providing excellent opportunities for existing staff and new recruits who are playing a vital role in our next generation welfare reforms to help thousands back into jobs, grow the economy and drive down inflation.”
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