With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement updating the House on the work of my department.
I want to pay tribute to the civil servants in my department as well as contractors and partners who have been working tirelessly to provide help and support to those in need. They are the hidden heroes for many people in this country. They should take great pride in their hard work and dedication to supporting people through these difficult times.
Since 16 March to the end of April, we have received over 1.8 million claims for Universal Credit, over 250,000 claims for Jobseeker’s Allowance, and over 20,000 claims for Employment and Support Allowance.
Overall, this is 6 times the volume that we would typically experience and in one week, we had a 10-fold increase. The rate for Universal Credit claims appears to have stabilised at about 20, 000 to 25,000 per day which is double that of a standard week pre-COVID-19. I am pleased that my department is standing up to the challenge.
We have redeployed significant number of DWP staff (about 8,000) and from other government departments (about 500 so far) in order to process these claims. Our payment timeliness for Universal Credit is running at a record high.
We have also issued almost 700,000 advances to claimants who felt they could not wait for their first routine payment and the vast majority of these claimants received money within 72 hours.
Where possible and mindful of risk, we have also streamlined our processes. We will consider carefully learnings from this time in the response phase on whether any of them can be made permanent.
We have also sought to make it possible for people to work from home and have already deployed 10,000 computers. We are now at a level of deploying 750 new devices a day to enable working from home and added to the IT capacity for remote users. However, where staff need to continue to work at the office, we are applying social distancing.
Making sure our claimants and civil servants are safe is a key priority.
From 17 March, we suspended all face-to-face assessments for health and disability benefits. We automatically extended awards for existing claimants that were due to be reassessed by 3 months and will only undertake reviews or reassessments when claimants notify us of changes which could lead to a higher payment.
Any claim made under the special rules for terminal illness continues to be fast-tracked, taking an average of 6 days to process these claims.
From March 24, jobcentres have not been open for regular appointments but we have continued to offer face-to-face appointments in exceptional circumstances when claimants would otherwise not be able to receive support.
Claimants can continue to receive support over the phone, or through their online journals.
All local Jobcentres have been turned into virtual processing teams, prioritising advances and the registration and payment of new claims. We have also been pairing job centres across the country to support each other with processing, fully using the capacity of our network.
This focus on the processing of claims has also meant that we stopped checking the claimant commitment regarding looking for and being available for work for 3 months.
We do, however, want claimants to continue to look for work wherever they are able to do so.
Ministers are working hard to ensure that existing vacancies can be accessed by people who have been made unemployed and we will continue to support those people while they are waiting for the opportunity for work.
We’ve created a new website to guide people. It’s called jobhelp.dwp.gov.uk and we have 58,200 vacancies advertised. While our IT systems worked, thanks to extensive work by the Universal Credit team including our contractors, I know that some claimants experienced significant delays in verifying their identity.
Identity checks are crucial in reducing fraud risk so we worked closely with the Cabinet Office to substantially increase the capacity of the online Verify system. Average wait times are now below 5 minutes.
Call volumes have also been extremely high, with over 2.2 million calls in one day at our peak. Recognising again the delays people were experiencing or indeed not being able to get through at all, we turned this around with our “Don’t Call Us, We’ll Call You” campaign. A bolstered frontline team now proactively calls claimants when we need to check any information provided as part of the claim. This has been very successful in freeing capacity and reducing the time customers need to spend on the phone.
Regarding other operations of the department, while we have redeployed staff, we have kept critical work ongoing in child maintenance and bereavement. We are monitoring our performance and will return staff to these areas if the response rate is unacceptable. On pensions, we have cancelled the pension levy increase, supported DC contributions through the Job Retention scheme and worked with regulators to assist DB pensions and combat scams.
I think it is worth reminding the House of our financial injection of over £6.5 billion into the welfare system so it can act as a safety net for the poorest in society. We focused on changes that could be make quickly and would have significant positive impact.
We have increased the standard rate of Universal Credit and working tax credit for the next 12 months by around £1,000 per year.
We increased the Local Housing Allowance rates for Universal Credit and Housing Benefit claimants so they now cover the lowest 30 percent of local rents. We also increased the national maximum caps, so claimants in inner and central London will also see, should also see, an increase in their housing support payments. I have been made aware of an issue that some councils have not made that adjustment in housing benefit and my department is communicating to them all this week. Furthermore, across England, we had already increased the discretionary housing payment by an extra £40 million for this financial year.
The 1.7% benefit uplift was implemented in April, ending the benefits freeze, and the state pension rose by 3.9%, as per the triple lock reflecting last year’s substantial rise in average earnings.
We have also introduced regulations to ease access to benefits. We legislated to allow access to Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) from day 1 of the claim. We relaxed the Minimum Income Floor, so that the self-employed can access Universal Credit more readily. We have also made it easier to access ESA by launching our ESA portal for online applications.
We legislated to ensure employees had Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) available from day 1 of sickness or self-isolation due to COVID-19. I should remind the House that SSP is the legal minimum.
We will continue to look at issues that arise (like we are ensuring that maternity pay is based on standard pay, not furloughed pay levels) and see what we can do quickly and straightforwardly to fix either unintended consequences or unforeseen issues but it is not my intention to change the fundamental principles or application of Universal Credit.
A significant project we have undertaken is to support Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and the National Shielding Service by establishing the outbound contact centre. Furthermore, we used this contact centre to proactively contact our most vulnerable customers who receive their benefits or pensions solely through Post Office Card Accounts. I want to thank the Post Office in helping us support this group of customers and we have been able to provide contact free cash payments by Royal Mail special delivery. We also were able to signpost people to extra support from their local council.
I can also inform the House today that DWP will stop any new benefit and pension claimants from using the Post Office Card Account (POCA) from 11 May, as we prepare for the end of this contract. Uptake of accounts in the last year has been exceptionally low but in any event, given that the vast majority of people using POCA we believe already have a bank account, the cost of the contract is poor value for taxpayers. Current customers who currently receive payment through a Post Office card account will see no change and will continue to receive payment into their accounts for the remainder of the contract period. We can use the HMG Payment Exception Service for people who cannot access any bank account.
I also want to thank the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) for their work on COVID-19, which is an arm’s length body for Great Britain and is sponsored by my department. They have been doing crucial work with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and Public Health England to provide guidelines for employers to adhere to once restrictions can begin to be eased.
The HSE is working hard – along with local authorities – to enable work to continue safely in the sectors for which they are responsible. They have developed practical guidance and are enforcing the law where workers are being exposed to unnecessary risk.
In conclusion, my department is standing up to the challenge of unprecedented demand for our services and we are getting support to those who need it. We will continue to work across government to help the nation get through this health emergency and I commend this statement to the House.