Ministers are refusing to say if they acted on the recommendations of a secret review that linked the death of a benefit claimant with the “threatening” conditions they were forced to accept when signing up to universal credit.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has breached freedom of information laws by failing to say whether it followed the recommendation by one of its own internal process reviews to make universal credit’s so-called “claimant commitment” less threatening following the death.
DWP’s failure came as the chancellor, Philip Hammond, attempted in this week’s budget to calm concerns about the rollout of the troubled new system by announcing extra funding of £1 billion over five-and-a-half years that he said would help the migration of claimants of other benefits onto universal credit from next year.
He also announced £1.7 billion a year to increase universal credit work allowances.
But critics have said the extra money will do little to address growing concerns that flaws at the heart of the universal credit system are exposing disabled people and other claimants to strict conditions and sanctions, resulting in severe mental distress and extreme poverty.
Only last week, Disability News Service (DNS) reported how an autistic woman said she had been left without vital financial support for nearly two years because she could not cope with the face-to-face interview she had to undergo to complete her universal credit claim.
Now DWP is facing questions over why it is refusing to say if it followed the recommendations of its own internal review to make the claimant commitment less threatening, following the death of a universal credit claimant.
Only the barest details of the death are available, describing only the recommendations made by the review.
But those details show that a panel of reviewers who examined the circumstances around the death concluded that it seemed “excessive” for DWP to include eight references to benefit sanctions and how much money a claimant would lose if they breached their claimant commitment.
The claimant commitment sets out the “responsibilities” that a claimant has to accept in return for receiving universal credit, and “the consequences of not meeting them”.
An examination of guidance on the claimant commitment on DWP’s website suggests – although it does not prove – that the department has ignored the panel’s recommendation, as it has not been updated since April 2016.
The claimant commitment review was carried out at some point between April 2016 and June 2018.
Following a freedom of information request submitted by DNS, DWP had 20 working days to say whether it had followed the panel’s recommendation to “reconsider the wording of the Claimant Commitment”, along with recommendations made in 11 other internal process reviews, all of which were carried out between April 2016 and June 2018, and all but three of which examined circumstances that led to the death of a benefit claimant.
But DWP’s freedom of information department failed to respond to the request submitted by DNS on 28 September, breaching its Freedom of Information Act duties.
DWP’s press office refused to comment on the failure to respond to the request, other than to say that its freedom of information team would “be in touch”.
A DWP spokeswoman refused to say why the team had failed to respond to the request.
Disabled activists have repeatedly warned that universal credit – which combines six income-related benefits into one – is “rotten to the core” with “soaring” rates of sanctions and foodbank use in areas where it has been introduced.
In June, a report by the National Audit Office said DWP was failing to support “vulnerable” claimants and was unable to monitor how they were being treated under universal credit.
And in July, employment minister Alok Sharma was asked by MPs on the Commons work and pensions committee why the benefits of hundreds of sick and disabled universal credit claimants were apparently being sanctioned, even though they should not have had to meet any of the strict conditions imposed by the system.
In the same month, further concerns were raised by the committee about disabled people with high support needs who have to claim universal credit and face the possibility of strict conditions – such as being forced to carry out hours of job searches every week – as they wait for a work capability assessment.
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