In August 2020 we launched a review of the social security measures that had been implemented by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and the Department for Communities in Northern Ireland (DfC) to support those whose work, income and social security benefits had been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. When we launched the review, we made clear that the emergency measures introduced by the government were necessary and important, and that the normal scrutiny process that involves SSAC providing advice to government in advance of implementing changes in social security could not have been followed. We scrutinised the measures after they came into effect and provided the government with our advice, including on areas where we felt further changes could be effective.
As the changes made were time-limited it made sense for us to consider what advice we could provide to government on whether these social security provisions should be extended, adapted or go beyond their original scope in light of the continuing challenges posed by Covid-19. In considering what our advice should be we took evidence from advice sector organisations across the UK, from local authorities and from social security claimants as well as from DWP and DfC officials.
Our review, which is published today, identifies six key themes that emerged from our discussions and around which our advice is based. The first is conditionality. The reintroduction of conditionality in July 2020 raised concerns about how this would be interpreted and applied. DWP and DfC have provided reassurance that they will adopt a light-touch approach and update claimant commitments to reflect the changed landscape of work. This is to be welcomed. What we have recommended is that, in order to support this approach, the government publish strategic policy guidance on what the appropriate flexibilities should be that work coaches can then implement through local discretion.
This would also help address the second theme our review identified, that of communication. Providing a clear policy statement on how claimants should act and what the consequences of their actions will be helps to both reassure and guide claimants on how to meet their claimant commitments while various public health measures are in place. Ensuring that claimants remain connected to the system is important and we recommend that DWP and DfC develop a communications strategy, and track its outcomes, to identify whether or why individuals may be disengaging with, or dropping out of, the social security system.
Our third theme relates to the removal of face-to-face assessments for the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) and the Work Capability Assessment (WCA). The use of paper-based, telephone or video assessments is welcome for many claimants, while the limitations of this approach acknowledged for those more complex cases and for claimants who are not able to participate through these measures. While this has been a necessary approach, it is not possible for us to understand the impact that these assessment changes have had in relation to the outcomes of PIP or Employment and Support Allowance (ESA)/Universal Credit (UC) awards, in the absence of any evaluation from DWP and DfC. We are encouraged that the DWP is developing research on this issue and we recommend it acts now to evaluate the outcomes and experiences for claimants, and to publish this evaluation.
Our fourth theme relates to easements that were introduced, including the suspension of the Minimum Income Floor, a measure which the government has already extended. This is a welcome move and we recommend that a plan is developed to phase its re-introduction, with those claimants who would potentially be affected by its reintroduction given at least a month’s advance notice of its return. Clarity is needed on how Self-Employment Income Support Scheme payments (and any replacement scheme) interact with UC and clarity is also required on the Departments’ policy for the recovery of overpayments and debt during the pandemic, with guidance on exemptions to overpayment recovery that would be appropriate during the pandemic.
Our fifth theme is on housing and homelessness. We previously recommended that the benefit cap should be increased or removed during the pandemic, to avoid the risk of homelessness. In the absence of this, we recommend an alternative approach. There is an existing exemption that provides a nine-month grace period before the cap is applied. This is for those who earn above the earnings threshold in every month for the previous 12 months. We recommend that this exemption is made more generous as continuously earning above the threshold will have been more difficult for many in recent months. Further measures relating to the Shared Accommodation Rate could also be applied to reduce the risk of homelessness.
Our final theme is on eligibility and award values. We reiterate our support for the £20 per week uplift for Universal Credit and recommend that the positive impact this has made is considered when deciding whether to extend or end this uplift the review, as well as reconsidering including legacy benefits within the uplift. In addition, we recommend a review of the support available to carers in recognition of the increased necessity and role of informal caring as a public health service.
The role of social security in supporting not just claimants but public health measures has become increasingly important as the pandemic has progressed. We continue to be impressed by the hard work done by DWP and DfC to ensure that support is available and we acknowledge the positive impact that this work has made. Our advice is intended to assist DWP and DfC to continue to make a positive difference in incredibly difficult circumstances.