Good morning

Between the 16th March and end of April 2020, DWP processed:

a) Around 1.8 million claims for Universal Credit;

b) 700,000 claims for advance payments;

the vast majority of which were dealt with and paid within the usual 5 week period or, in the case of advances, within 72 hours of the request.

The department was also receiving, at its peak, 2 million calls to its dedicated numbers, many of which were from tenants that had been paid off; had their hours reduced; were furloughed by employers or were self-employed whose businesses, had overnight, been forced to suspend or close, due to lockdown measures.

Thankfully, the weekly volume of claims are now back to something like pre-Covid levels. DWP staff also maintain they’re returning to some sense of normality, only the “new normality” includes a large proportion of its staff, still working from home, using recently deployed¬† “virtual IT systems”, having received inadequate training. Many of the DWP staff administering the now 4.2 million ongoing UC awards (an increase of some 70% since lockdown) have little frontline experience. Some have been employed, on an agency basis, through companies like Capita, with even less related training.

Whilst DWP has been rightly applauded for their recent efforts, dealing with the COVID related claims, problems are already starting to emerge which are often affecting the accuracy of the award; a suspension of previously agreed APAs; or an unwillingness to respond to “online journal” queries or emails to Practice or District Managers. In addition, previously agreed communication protocols and processes have, not yet, been restored, making it often very difficult for staff or agents, trying to assist tenants, when there’s been a change of circumstances or there’s a problem with the claim, award or payments.

To make matters worse, DWP’s hierarchy is insisting, only the tenant can notify changes in circumstances, using their online journal, phone or text to Work Coaches or Case Managers. Whilst it, undoubtedly, is the responsibility of the tenant to report, both the law and DWP’s own internal guidance to “Decision Makers” confirm, it’s also an obligation of the landlord to report any change, which is material to the amount or continuation of a UC award.

Landlords receiving “direct payments” or “APAs” have always had an obligation to report changes. DWP’s guidance to “Decision Makers” explains: a) the obligation of landlords receiving payments, on behalf of tenants, to report the change; b) the responsibility to report the change during the “Benefit Assessment Period” or as soon as possible thereafter; and, c) in the event, the landlord fails to fulfil their obligation, how they can be held culpable, in the event an overpayment occurs.

Exactly the same rules apply to SRS and Private landlords, although, in the case of the latter, DWP is more reluctant to engage, share or act on any information that’s provided or queried. In terms of APAs, many PRS landlords complain, their applications for redirection are refused, on the basis their tenant MUST provide “explicit consent”, before payment can be transferred. This, despite the fact, the seriously flawed policy, was withdrawn as far back as December 2017.

I’ve, in the past week, written to DWP’s hierachy, reminding them, yet again, on how the system should operate, in order to be compliant with the law and its own guidance. But there’s clearly considerable reluctance to remedy things, at their end, because in order to do so, DWP would need to employ more staff to deal with the higher volume of cases needing “personal interventions” and, modify their only recently developed IT systems, at considerable cost. Until DWP addresses these longstanding problems, tenants will be short-changed, whilst their landlords will expereince greater demands for benefits support & assistance and wholly avoidable rental loss.

As, like most people, I’m working exclusively from home, but engaging with clients via phone, email and Zoom or Microsoft Team video sessions. Please do not hesiatate to contact me if you’re in need of a bit of advice or a confidence boost before engaging with DWP!

Regards

Bill Irvine

UC Advice & Advocacy Ltd