Ministers have adopted a “dystopian” policy of requiring universal credit claimants to send in photographs of themselves in front of their homes and hold local newspapers in order to continue receiving benefits.
Claimants have received messages in their online portals from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) stating that if they do not provide all of the information requested, which also includes a photo of them “stood next to [their] street sign with [their] right hand holding it”, their claim “will be closed”.
Campaigners said the policy highlighted a “dystopian culture of suspicion” in the DWP and warned that many claimants would struggle to meet the requirements due to technical issues such as not having a smartphone or a lack of digital literacy.
Universal credit director general Neil Couling initially responded to a post about the message on Twitter last Tuesday saying it looked “suspicious” – but three days later he stated that it was “legitimate”.
He said it was part of a process to “go back and check” that claimants who did not undergo the face-to-face verification checks due to the Jobcentres temporarily closing due to Covid had not “abused” the system. It is not clear how many claimants have been affected.
One claimant, a disabled man in his 50s from Bristol, was told by the DWP that he must send them a photo of himself holding up his passport, and a second one of him “standing outside his front door with the door open and door number visible”.
He was told his payments had been stopped in the meantime and that they would not recommence until he provided the photographs.
The man, who previously worked for an IT company but was furloughed during the pandemic and then made redundant last December, told The Independent he tried to take the photos alone, but was told by the DWP that the passport photo was not adequate and the one outside his home needed to be “clearer”.
He later asked a friend to take them. He sent them off a second time and the DWP officer responded saying the one outside his home was “again unclear”. He sent a third set, at which point his benefits recommenced.
“It was a stressful experience, and I’m tech savvy. I worked in telesales for IT company; I’ve got an iPhone and a laptop, but what about people who have only got a basic phone without a camera?” he said.
“These are the sort of people who will probably find themselves in financial hardship in a few months’ time. It seems like [the DWP] is making it up as it goes along. It feels digressive somewhat.”
In another case, a woman who cannot go out because she has agoraphobia was asked for two photos of herself in front of her house – one holding her passport and one holding her local newspaper.
She explained to the DWP that she has agoraphobia and doesn’t buy local newspapers. She said she would happily offer any other kind of evidence – but her claim was immediately closed, according to Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG).
Benjamin Morgan, of the Public Interest Law Centre, said the demands displayed a “dystopian culture of suspicion” and represented a “particularly glaring example of the kind of treatment people on a low-income are used to receiving when they engage with the DWP”.
“It is hard enough for many claimants to submit universal credit claims online in the first place due to digital literacy issues and other vulnerabilities – let alone fulfil such exacting and, frankly, invasive conditions,” he added.
Dr Dora-Olivia Vicol, chief executive of the Work Rights Centre, said the charity had come across a number of these requests, including in the case of a Romanian man who was digitally challenged, and whom the charity had to assist with taking the photographs and submitting them.
She said the requirement “adds another technical barrier to what is already an inaccessible system, and it sends the message that the DWP views claimants as suspects, rather than people who need urgent financial support”.
“When you lack a smartphone, internet connectivity, and the digital literacy needed to comply with these requirements, every new journal entry is another source of anxiety,” Dr Vicol added.
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Mr Couling said in a tweet that the process was “temporary” and “tailored for the [Covid] restrictions we are still under”, adding: “Eventually we will be able to return to interviews in Jobcentres in cases of doubt about identity. So there’s nothing to worry about here for claimants, they can engage with confidence.”
But Sara Ogilvie, director of policy at CPAG, which has come across four clients who have received the request, said: “Asking claimants to provide photos in this way – on pain of having their benefits stopped and without other options being made available – is unreasonable, inappropriate and for some claimants impossible to comply with.
“At worst, it increases the risk of destitution for the most vulnerable. Rather than attempting to justify this practice on Twitter, the DWP must find a proportionate and fair way to ensure that people have their correct entitlement.”
A DWP spokesperson said: “At the start of the pandemic we suspended face-to-face verification of new claims as part of our Trust and Protect scheme to ensure all legitimate claimants got paid. We always said we would go back and verify claims, in order to protect the public purse, as some people sadly chose to abuse the temporary arrangements.
“We are now checking cases and have implemented this approach temporarily in a small number of cases where a claimant has been unable to interact with us remotely, ahead of the return of in-person verification at Jobcentres.”
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