The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has refused to release any details from a report – commissioned by the prime minister’s office – into the effectiveness of its support for “vulnerable” claimants of universal credit.
The report is believed to have been commissioned after an investigation by the public spending watchdog, the National Audit Office, found in June 2018 that DWP was failing to support vulnerable universal credit (UC) claimants and was unable to monitor how they were being treated.
Disability News Service (DNS) later revealed how a man with learning difficulties died a month after attempting to take his own life, following a move onto UC that left him hundreds of pounds in debt.
DNS also reported in 2018 that DWP had carried out at least four secret reviews into the deaths of UC claimants.
Newly-released papers have now shown that a report by the Prime Minister’s Implementation Unit (PMIU) was presented to DWP bosses at a meeting on 22 October 2019.
But when papers from the meeting of the universal credit programme board (UCPB) were finally deposited in the House of Commons library last week* – two years after the meeting took place – none of the PMIU report was included.
Instead, a single page stated that the report was “exempt” from release because – under section 36 of the Freedom of Information Act – DWP believed that releasing it would be damaging “to the effective conduct of public affairs”.
Without being able to read the report, it is impossible to know what flaws PMIU found and what action DWP took.
Instead, another document from the 22 October meeting said only that the PMIU report was the result of “a deep dive on the effectiveness of support for vulnerable Universal Credit (UC) claimants”, including visits to 14 jobcentres.
And it said that UCPB was asked to “note and comment on the report and support the joint work to progress the recommendations moving forwards”.
Although the paper said that some of the recommendations were “straightforward to agree actions”, it also said that there were “some more complex recommendations that we are continuing to consider how best to implement”.
Another document released last week shows that charities, campaign groups and other organisations consulted by DWP on the so-called “managed migration” phase of the rollout of UC raised repeated concerns that moving people from legacy benefits onto UC would see them “fall between the cracks and suffer hardship”.
This document, from a UCPB meeting on 16 April 2019, showed that DWP had research “highlighting the same risks”, as well as “experience of other DWP migrations from which we can learn”.
This “experience” is likely to include the tragic and shocking impact of the migration of claimants of incapacity benefit (IB) onto employment and support allowance (ESA) by reassessing them through the work capability assessment system.
The IB to ESA migration began in the spring of 2011 and was later linked by government-funded research to 590 suicides in just three years.
The UC managed migration process – now apparently renamed “move to universal credit” – will eventually see claimants of legacy benefits such as ESA moved onto UC, even if their circumstances have not changed.
The document shows DWP admitting that it will be prepared to stop people’s benefits if they refuse to move onto UC voluntarily.
In an appendix titled “Draft Core Narrative”, DWP says it wants to learn how to move as many people as possible onto UC through managed migration “without resorting to stopping benefits”, but it says that there are “a group of people that we cannot move without stopping existing benefits and we need to be able to do that where necessary”.
Managed migration contrasts with “natural migration”, which sees claimants of legacy benefits forced to move onto UC when their circumstances change.
A managed migration pilot project began in Harrogate in 2019, but it had to be suspended last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey told MPs this week that she was “not envisaging a need for the pilot to be resumed in Harrogate” but that it had “informed our plan, which is still in preparation, on resuming the managed move to universal credit”.
DWP refused to comment on the documents.
*DWP agreed to release the programme board documents at regular intervals – although so far only at least two years after meetings have taken place – as a result of years of work by freedom of information campaigner John Slater
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