Let’s be clear: we need more transparency from the DWP

22/02/2022

Senior Policy Officer, Jasmine Wyeth, outlines the need for more transparency from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and explains that the department must change their practices in order to better support people that access benefits.

Those of us living with mental illness deserve to have access to a safe and secure welfare system whenever we need it, no matter how long we need it for.

As the people who run the welfare system, the government’s DWP therefore has an essential role in helping people to access that safety and security.

To ensure the DWP is performing that role effectively, we need to be able to scrutinise their work. This sometimes means carrying out our own research, but also means analysing other people’s research – including research commissioned by the DWP itself.

  • To ensure the DWP is performing that role effectively, we need to be able to scrutinise their work.

When the DWP commissions research, it has an obligation to publish it within 12 weeks of agreeing the final report. However, sometimes it doesn’t want to do this, which means we don’t get the important information that research provides. DWP might claim it doesn’t publish this research because it contains sensitive policy information, but it seems like sometimes that research simply contains information that the DWP doesn’t want us to know.

For the welfare system to provide enough security, the benefits we claim – whether it be Universal Credit, Personal Independence Payment, Employment and Support Allowance, or anything else – must be enough to meet our needs.

Some benefits are there to help us meet everyday costs, like food and utility bills. Other benefits are intended to help with additional costs, such as therapy.

The DWP asked the National Centre for Social Research (or “NatCen”) to do some research on how disabled people, including those living with mental illness, use the money they get through the welfare system. NatCen found that:

  • The extent to which people can meet needs often depends on having access to other support like a partner’s income or informal support from friends
  • People with limited financial resources often had to spend disability benefits to meet basic costs and so went without meeting the additional costs that came with their condition
  • Some people didn’t have enough to meet even basic costs and ended up relying on things like foodbanks
  • People living with mental health conditions often had a wider range of needs not being met, maybe because the conditions are less visible or because people found it harder to communicate their needs during benefits assessments or local authority assessments.

What this means is that there are a lot of people for whom the welfare system is not providing that much-needed security - and that’s before we begin to think about the impact of the cost-of-living crisis. With the removal of the £20 uplift to Universal Credit and the rise in prices of utilities and consumer goods, more and more people who rely on the DWP’s support to survive will be going without their needs being met.

  • There are a lot of people for whom the welfare system is not providing that much-needed security - and that’s before we begin to think about the impact of the cost-of-living crisis.

This crisis will be even more stark for disabled people on “legacy benefits”, who did not receive any uplift to their payments during the pandemic. Unfortunately, last week the High Court accepted that, while the government’s failure to extend the uplift to these other benefits meant that disabled people were discriminated against, the DWP was justified in only providing the uplift to Universal Credit claimants because of a need to cushion against a loss of income for people new to claiming benefits after losing a job. Effectively, the High Court agreed that the DWP did not need to do more to help disabled people meet the extra costs that come with their conditions.

The NatCen report provides vital evidence that the welfare system isn’t working. The research was only published because Parliament’s Work and Pensions Select Committee were able to use their special powers to obtain the report, meaning they could do so even whilst the DWP refused. We’re really grateful to the Committee for publishing this work, but still find it deeply concerning that the DWP tried to suppress it. They clearly didn’t want evidence of the insufficiency of benefits to be in the public domain.

Currently, the DWP are also suppressing a report about the effectiveness of sanctions used against people who access the welfare system. We can assume that this report is being suppressed because, similar to previous research, it suggests that sanctions are ineffective at getting people into work.

  • They [DWP] clearly didn’t want evidence of the insufficiency of benefits to be in the public domain.

We know that sanctions cause serious harm to people’s wellbeing and to their financial situation. We were pleased that the government paused the use of sanctions for three months in 2020 in response to the coronavirus pandemic, but we are concerned that sanction rates are now rising again. We are also worried about the potential impact on sanction rates of the DWP’s new policy of only giving Universal Credit claimants four weeks to find a job in their desired field, rather than three months, as was the case previously.

The DWP must publish the report on the effectiveness of sanctions so that we can work towards a fairer welfare system. Their failure to publish this report – as with the research on how disabled people use their benefits – is an example of a serious lack of transparency, which makes it harder to hold them to account.

The DWP’s lack of transparency is something we highlighted in our Tip of the iceberg report last year as part of our Stop Benefit Deaths Campaign. Their failure to publish vital information is a key factor in cases of deaths and serious harm which arise as a result of people’s interaction with the welfare system.

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