More universal credit claimants could face sanctions as workload of DWP staff doubles, campaigners warn

Changes to benefits might spell chaos for disabled jobseekers

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Thursday 28 March 2019 07:44 GMT
Amber Rudd admits Universal Credit failings for first time

More universal credit claimants could face cuts to their benefits when their caseworkers are handed bigger workloads to reduce costs, politicians and charities have warned.

Support for claimants could also worsen, said the National Audit Office (NAO). Their warning came after the government predicted work coaches – the frontline staff in job centres – would have to deal with more than twice the number of claimants as universal credit is rolled out.

Campaigners said the increased workload on “already struggling” staff would lead to more claimants being placed on sanctions – when benefits are docked because conditions are not met.

Figures published in a report by the NAO show the caseload for work coaches will rise from around 130 to more than 280 by 2024-25. Within this, the number of claimants per work coach in the “intensive work search group”, who require the most support, is expected to increase from 96 to 133 – an increase of 39 per cent.

Tory MP Heidi Allen, who sits on the Work and Pensions Committee, told The Independent the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) was “determined” to reduce universal credit costs, and was in turn putting more pressure on work coaches, “who can’t possibly support claimants with any kind of quality”.

“I just don’t see how the claimants who require more intense support are going to get a look-in with this, because the work coaches are already struggling to cope,” she said.

“The great swathe of claimants will be fine, but if you’re dealing with a woman who you suspect is in a domestic violence situation, or a refugee trying to prove their right to remain, or with mental health issues who can’t even construct sentences confidently, you need time and expertise.

“It risks not being able to get through to that one person, to build a relationship and trust, which can and does end up in sanctions.”

Universal credit workers last month took two days of strike action in Walsall and Wolverhampton over workloads, demanding the recruitment of more staff, permanent contracts for fixed term staff and a decrease in workloads, and accusing ministers of “running the service into the ground”.

Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services union, said: “Universal credit workers are at breaking point and the latest rollout will only add to the chronic problems of this disastrous policy.

“Our members want to do the best job they can and help the most vulnerable. However, they cannot do that without decent staffing and a change in the whole punitive approach that universal credit is underpinning.”

The NAO report highlights concerns with the DWP’s approach to helping disabled people into work, saying ministers were yet to make a “significant dent” in the number of unemployed disabled people.

The watchdog said the rise in caseload for work coaches meant they may not be able to maintain the amount of time spent with disabled claimants, “let alone meet the department’s aim of increasing time with disabled people who are furthest away from working”.

Responding to the report, Adam Smiley, parliamentary affairs manager at disability equality charity Scope, said frontline staff would face “overwhelming pressure” with the move to universal credit, and that this could mean “chaos” for disabled job seekers.

“Disabled people need specialist and tailored support to enter and stay in work, and this often takes time, training and expertise to deliver effectively. It’s not something that should be rushed or squeezed in, and it needs proper staff resourcing,” he added.

It comes after the Work and Pensions Committee warned that universal credit could spell “disastrous” consequences for disabled people as thousands could lose out on “vital additional support”.

The report, published in December, accused the government of making a “serious error” in removing disability premiums – which are worth up to £64 per week for a single person – under the flagship welfare reform.

A DWP spokesperson said: “It is encouraging that in the last five years the number of disabled people in work has increased by 930,000, but we of course want to make sure every disabled person who can work, does work.

“That’s why we recently announced we are reviewing our goal to see 1 million more disabled people in work by 2027, and we are working with a wide range of organisations to ensure disabled people receive the best possible employment support.”

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