Welfare update: the DWP in the time of COVID-19

Monday, 5 October 2020 - 12:52pm

As in the world of homelessness, the pandemic has brought a whirlwind of changes to how DWP and jobcentres have operated in this crisis. 

There was a clear and early recognition that DWP would have to divert staff who usually supported those with existing claims, to process the millions of new claims that have been made since lockdown. In more recent months and in limited circumstances, there’s been a tentative move back to more standard operating. For example, July saw the return of conditionality, but with a focus on newer claimants in the first instance.  

However, some of the covid changes are still in place. Face to face assessments for Personal Independence Payment (PIP), Employment and support Allowance (ESA) and Universal Credit (UC) are still suspended. Where possible, assessments are still paper-based assessment, supplemented where needs be with is done, phone assessments. The DWP tell us that the option to return to face-to-face assessments is under review, but in the midst of an increasing number of local lockdowns, it’s unlikely that they will return any time soon. And, whilst, DWP are looking at how they might open up more jobcentres and making them available outside standard ‘office hours’, most engagement with claimants is still by phone and there is no obligation for claimants to attend jobcentres.  

Many have welcomed the option of engaging with the DWP via phone. Nevertheless, barriers to communication were still in evidence. Advocates were frustrated by the lack of facility to have a three-way conversation with their client and the DWP simultaneously. DWP have told us that this has now been resolved and claimants merely need to request that their advocate or support worker be included on a call – do let us know if this isn’t happening. Concern was also raised about DWP calls showing as ‘number withheld’ calls on claimants’ phones, putting people off answering the calls. DWP have told us that now, when they call claimants, the number 0800 0232635 will be displayed. The hope is that claimants will recognise this number as the DWP number and so be less reluctant to answer calls.  

Vastly increased numbers of UC claimants means DWP need more staff. With this in mind, DWP plan to double the number of work coaches to 27,000 by March of next year. As well as more coaches, DWP have also recruited 25 regional senior safeguarding leads. The key element of these new roles will be to build stronger relationships with organisations that support claimants and enable faster escalation of benefit claim issues that marginalised claimants experience. To find out who your regional safeguarding lead is, contact your Homeless Link Partnership Manager. If you’re not yet a member of Homeless Link, do think about joining us.  

As well as recruiting new staff, and in light of young people making up a greater proportion of new claims than was the case before the pandemic, DWP have also launched Kickstart. Under this scheme, employers receive funding create six month job placements for 16 to 24 year olds. Government will fund employers to the tune of 100% of 25 hours a week at National Minimum Wage, plus on-costs. Referral to Kickstart placements will be at the discretion of work coaches and are designed for those young people who are ‘work-ready’. Organisations interested in offering placements can apply now. The expectation is that placements will begin to be made available in November. Young people interested in being referred to placement should speak to their work coach. As well as Kickstart, DWP have also announced Job Entry Targeted Support, which is aimed at people who have been out of work for three months and will offer, “tailored, flexible support to quickly get back into employment.” More information on this scheme is available here.  

As well as us passing on what we learn from DWP to you, our members, we need to hear from you. We need to know how the changes that DWP tell us they have made, actually work with your clients. Are you finding things as DWP have intended them? Or are clients still struggling in their engagement with DWP? Please do let us know.  

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Sue Christoforou

Policy Manager

Sue Christoforou is a Policy Manager at Homeless Link.