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Opinion

The DWP must start putting people before process

The government and DWP say they want to restore trust with disabled people but that demands a fundamental change of approach, says Ella Abraham.

Withholding critical research reports, denying the findings, endlessly appealing High Court decisions against its unlawful behaviour and introducing even more punitive policies to punish those on low income. There is no sign of positive change with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) as 2022 sees a crackdown of harsher policies and no genuine commitment to learning from and reforming poor practice.

Last month, the DWP introduced a new ‘Way to Work’ policy, which can only be seen as intending to force people back into jobs whether they are suitable or not. Essentially, it tells claimants they have just four weeks to find work (originally three months) or they will be sanctioned i.e. lose some of their job seeker’s allowance or universal credit. Z2K thinks sanctioning social security benefits — in a global pandemic that led to the biggest economic shock in living memory and hundreds of thousands of people losing their jobs, despite furlough — is a desperate and unnecessary move.

There is no evidence that sanctioning incentives people into work. As anyone who has been through a period of unemployment will tell you and as has been shown by the DWP’s own guidance – threatening claimants with the loss of benefits does not incentivise them to take up unsuitable jobs, and instead is likely to make them stressed and unwell.

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The policy comes, too, as energy prices are announced to increase by over 50 per cent in April and a cost of living crisis threatens to pull people deeper into poverty. It is no wonder that ministers have blocked the publication of a report into the effectiveness of benefit sanctions – despite promising to publish said results in 2019, in response to a work and pensions select committee inquiry.

This isn’t the first report DWP has refused to publish information on the basis of ‘public interest’. The work and pensions select committee recently used its parliamentary powers to publish the long-awaited NatCen report, despite DWP’s efforts not to let anyone know its findings.

The report, which the government commissioned into disabled people’s experiences of the social security system, reveals important evidence, including testimony that participants “were often unable to meet essential day-today living needs, such as heating their house or buying food”. It also shows that participants, struggling to cope with these shortfalls, have had to rely on borrowing from family and friends and/ or used support services such as food banks. Shocking too, was the level of debt participants were facing and that they were being forced into problematic borrowing because of the inadequacy of social security benefits.

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The DWP received this report from the research team back in September 2020 – 16 months ago. It wasn’t clear from her session at the committee this week that the secretary of state has read it yet. The DWP is continuously criticised for not truly engaging with disabled people, yet it is difficult to see how this will change.

It’s significant, too, that the DWP has been criticised by its own social security advisory committee for this lack of meaningful engagement, despite many recommendations to the department. More recently, the minister for disabled people accused MP’s of “a serial” misreading of the NatCen report which clearly states disabled people are struggling with the cost of living because of the inadequacy of benefits.

The government and DWP say they want to restore trust with disabled people and their organisations. But that demands a fundamental change of approach, especially by the DWP, not just warm words. 

It must stop blocking the publication of crucial research that evidences what needs to change about the social security system. It must stop pointlessly appealing High Court judgements to delay payments to those it has mistreated. It must stop doubling down on already harsh policies, like sanctions. And it must start meaningfully engaging with disabled people and their organisations, which means listening and acting as well as talking.

Most importantly of all, DWP must start putting people before process and treat people accessing the system with dignity and respect.

Join our campaign to ask your MP to put #PeopleBeforeProcess and call for fundamental reform of the disability benefits assessment process.

Ella Abraham is policy and campaigns manager at anti-poverty charity Z2K.

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