The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has been forced to soften the “threatening” tone of the agreement that claimants of universal credit are forced to sign to receive their benefits, following a secret review into the death of a claimant.
A panel of DWP civil servants called for the threatening wording of the claimant commitment to be toned down after carrying out an internal process review (IPR) of the circumstances around the death.
The review panel concluded: “The references to sanctions and amount of money that will be lost seems excessive (mentioned eight times).
“The panel advises that a better balance could be struck in reminding a client of the consequences of not meeting their obligations and not appearing to be overtly threatening, especially to individuals who are vulnerable.”
This was among 12 sets of recommendations that resulted from 50 IPRs carried out between April 2016 and June 2018, 33 of which involved a benefit claimant who had died.
Four of those who died were universal credit claimants.
Following a freedom of information request from Disability News Service (DNS), DWP has now released brief information to show what action it took in response to the 12 sets of recommendations.
The DWP response states that the universal credit claimant commitment now “makes no reference to sanctions”.
Although the claimant commitment does appear to have been substantially softened in its and references to sanctions, DNS has seen one from February this year that still includes a single sanction threat, warning: “Your Universal Credit payments will be reduced if you do not do the things in your commitment and do not have a good reason. This is called a payment ‘sanction’.”
It is not known when DWP made the changes to the claimant commitment, when the claimant died or how that death was connected to the threatening nature of the document he or she was obliged to sign.
But one universal credit claimant has spoken out this week about the continuing “punitive” nature of the claimant commitment.
She told DNS how she attempted suicide earlier this year after her benefits had been withdrawn and she then faced eviction following months without income.
Her benefits had been withdrawn after she had refused to sign a claimant commitment she knew she would be unable to keep to because of its strict job search conditions.
She has since been found not fit for work through a work capability assessment (WCA) and her current claimant commitment makes no mention of job-seeking, but she says she still finds the language in the guidance section “punitive”.
She said: “Whether or not the DWP have ‘toned down’ the punitive language of the claimant commitment, there is still a very strong message that a) work always pays and b) the DWP will be watching very closely to make sure you don’t try to fiddle the system in any way.
“I and many others are so afraid of DWP sanctions and the hardship this could cause that they could promise us ponies and rainbows in that claimant commitment but we would still live in fear.
“We’ve internalised that fear, which was exactly what the DWP intended.”
This week, DWP refused to answer a series of questions about the claimant commitment and why the changes to make it less threatening had been made.
It refused to say whether the changes were made as a result of the IPR recommendations; when the changes were made; whether DWP now accepted that the claimant commitment was previously too threatening; whether it accepted that the threatening nature of the claimant commitment may have played a part in the death of the claimant examined by the IPR; and why its freedom of information response was apparently misleading.
Instead, a DWP spokesman said: “The DWP has a responsibility to inform all claimants of the implications of not keeping to a commitment.
“Claimants are rightly informed of this throughout the process of creating their Claimant Commitment.
“But the final Claimant Commitment does not directly refer to sanctions, other than containing a link highlighting where more information is held.
“Through our ‘test and learn’ approach, we have listened to feedback from stakeholders and claimants and regularly make improvements to Universal Credit.”
Earlier this month, the UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Professor Philip Alston, warned that universal credit could “wreak havoc” and had created a “digital barrier” that prevented many disabled people and other disadvantaged groups from accessing the support they were entitled to.
He said the government’s “test and learn” approach to universal credit risked treating such groups “like guinea pigs” and that the preparations being made by local authorities and charities for the rollout of universal credit had “resembled the sort of activity one might expect for an impending natural disaster or health epidemic”.
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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