1.The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and its public bodies have been at the heart of the Government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. Claims for Universal Credit have risen to unprecedented levels, as the virus takes its toll on people’s jobs and incomes. Services usually provided face to face have had to be carried out online, on the phone or on paper. Meanwhile, the role of the Health and Safety Executive in ensuring safety at work has taken centre stage. For its part, the Pension Regulator has been on the alert as employers and employees began to struggle with pension contributions, pension funds lost value and pension scammers started to prey on savers.
2.The Department’s wider responsibilities have also come to the fore. It is the Government department tasked with understanding and dealing with the causes of poverty. The Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work—who is responsible not only for DWP’s strategy on disability and disability employment but also has cross-government responsibility for disabled people—is a DWP Minister. With mounting evidence that we are likely to see increased levels of unemployment and poverty, and that already disadvantaged or vulnerable groups are suffering disproportionately, these responsibilities are even more important than ever.
3.As well as tackling the immediate crisis, DWP will also need to plan for a labour market that is already being transformed by coronavirus. Young people, disabled people, older people, women and people in low paid jobs are likely to need tailored support to move into work or increase their hours—on a scale not seen since the financial crisis of 2008. DWP will need to start planning for the future now.
4.During this period, DWP’s frontline staff have succeeded under enormous pressure. We pay tribute to their work throughout this report. They have seen their workloads increase to unprecedented levels, while at the same time having to shift to working in different ways and cope with reductions in staffing caused by coronavirus. The initial spike of Universal Credit claims may have passed, but the pressures on staff will continue for some time to come.
5.Our inquiry has necessarily been conducted at some speed, to respond to the evolving situation. We have heard evidence from Ministers twice: from the Secretary of State on 25 March, and from the Ministers for Welfare Delivery, for Disabled People, Health and Work, and for Employment on 23 April. Alongside Ministers we heard from senior officials: the Permanent Secretary, the Senior Responsible Owner for Universal Credit, and the Director General, Work and Health Services. We also took evidence from the senior leadership of the Health and Safety Executive, on 12 May, and of the Pensions Regulator, on 18 May.
6.We have also benefited from the expertise of outside experts. On 6 May we heard from support organisations and charities about the experiences of people they work with. Finally, on 20 May, we heard from experts on employment policy, including past providers of DWP employment support programmes.
7.As part of our inquiry, we asked organisations and individuals to send us written evidence, and also ran a survey for people to tell us about their personal experiences of the benefits system during the coronavirus outbreak. It was open between 8 and 15 April, and more than 6,000 people took part. We have drawn on their experiences throughout this report, to supplement the formal written evidence we received. It is important to underline that the people who responded were a self-selecting group and that their experiences cannot be assumed to be representative of the general population. This has also been a time of rapid policy change, and so their experiences may well have been different from those of people who made claims at different times; they can provide only a snapshot of the situation at a particular moment in time. Nevertheless, their personal stories have been hugely valuable to us in our work, and we are grateful to everyone who took the time to assist us in our inquiry.
Published: 22 June 2020