DWP's response to the coronavirus outbreak Contents

10Recognising the contribution of DWP staff

205.The unprecedented numbers of new claims for benefits, especially Universal Credit, have put DWP’s staff under enormous pressure. Many staff have been redeployed from their usual work to handle new claims for benefits instead. The Senior Responsible Owner for Universal Credit, Neil Couling, told us on 23 April that the Department was in the process of redeploying 10,000 staff to work on processing claims.248 People working in other Government departments have also been brought in: Ministers told us on 15 May that transfers had been agreed for almost 1,000 staff, of whom 500 had already started work.249

206.At the same time, the coronavirus has reduced staffing levels. The Minister for Welfare Delivery, Will Quince, told us that the Department was “about 25% down in staffing levels because of Covid-19”.250 He paid tribute to the efforts that DWP staff were making, saying that:

There is huge pressure on the system, an unprecedented level of claims, yet we have managed to get over 93% of people paid in full and on time. That is huge credit and testament to the staff working at the DWP who have gone above and beyond to make that happen.251

Remote working

207.The pandemic has also required staff to work in different ways. Describing the extent of the change needed, Neil Couling, Senior Responsible Owner for Universal Credit, told us:

This is a big task. It is as big as the UC roll-out, which is probably why the Department has given me the lead role to plan all this. We are doing things in very new ways. We have about 4,000 people now working remotely. At the start of the pandemic we had zero people working remotely. We will have 10,000 of those working remotely by the end of this month. There is change going on apace inside the Department to meet this challenge.252

208.In response to questions we put to them in writing, Ministers explained that about 20,000 staff in DWP had mobile devices and could work remotely. They added, however, that the Department held a “significant volume” of personal data, which “necessitates significant data security requirements” and that it has, as a result, “always taken a cautious approach on accessing data from non-government networks”.253 Since the coronavirus, they said that the Department:

Nevertheless, in the last week of March only 24 per cent of DWP staff were working remotely.255 This increased to 30 per cent for April, then to 39 per cent by May. Over 34,000 people were working on the Department’s premises in May.256 The Minister for Employment has explained that the need to access certain equipment, programmes and support to do telephony and processing work means that some staff cannot work from home.257

209.We were surprised to hear that none of the staff who process Universal Credit claims were able to work remotely before the coronavirus pandemic started. In normal times, remote working can be particularly beneficial for disabled people and for people with caring responsibilities. In the current crisis, it can be essential to providing a safe working environment. We recommend that DWP continue its efforts to increase the number of its staff, especially frontline staff, who can work remotely. It should also set out a plan for continuing to offer remote work as an option for staff even after the provision of face-to-face services can resume.

Safety of DWP staff at work

210.Tens of thousands of DWP staff have continued to work on the Department’s premises to deliver services since March. In answer to a Parliamentary Question, the Minister for Employment (Mims Davies) explained that the Department has ensured that measures are in place to maintain social distancing guidelines in offices. These include:

211.The Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), who represent around 50,000 DWP staff, told us that the Department had taken too long to introduce these measures in offices. They said that, at the beginning of the crisis, they had raised concerns about the availability of “soap, hand sanitiser and cleaning products” in DWP offices. They told us that the delay to central measures from the Department may have put staff at risk:

Although this is now improving, we believe that centralised advice and arrangements were not given early enough therefore leaving local management to improvise and potentially put members at risk.259

212.The Senior Responsible Owner for Universal Credit, Neil Couling, told us on 23 April that the Department was planning for the reopening of Jobcentres. He said:

We will soon be moving into run: how do we run under this new normal? We are working up the social distancing rules with the kind of constraints that we have on us currently and when we have planned that we will then plan our recovery. How do we get the jobcentres back open and providing the kind of help that we all want to provide to the number of people that we have unemployed in UK society now? There is a whole staged process to work through and that is what I am planning.260

Kate Bell, Head of the Rights, International, Social and Economics department at the Trades Union Congress, told us that:

It is particularly vital to take into account how to deal with situations in which you potentially have a large number of members of the public at some point coming into offices.261

213.As the Department begins to plan for re-opening Jobcentres, it is essential that the safety of its staff is a priority. We recommend that the Department, in response to this report, set out its plans for managing a return to offering face-to-face services while ensuring the safety of claimants and its own staff.

Rewarding and recognising staff

214.PCS told us that, despite incentives to encourage overtime and weekend working, pay for DWP staff has “remained too low for too long”.262 They said that DWP staff have played an essential frontline role during the outbreak:

Our members are ensuring that the most vulnerable in society and those struggling without any source of income due to coronavirus are supported quickly and adequately, putting themselves at risk in many instances. Our union continues to call on government departments to work with us to ensure fair pay is secured across the civil service, particularly for those in the lowest grades.263

On its website, PCS drew its members’ attention to the Minister’s praise for their achievements. They called on Ministers to recognise the efforts of staff with an interim pay increase.264

215.Kate Bell, Head of the Rights, International, Social and Economics department at the Trades Union Congress, told us that public sector pay was an “ absolutely vital priority”. She noted that “Jobcentre advisers have long been underpaid” and that “there are issues with retention”. Referring to rumours of a possible public sector pay freeze, she said:

That is something we absolutely have to rule out if we are going to keep staff motivated and rewarded for the vital work they do.265

216.We commend the remarkable work DWP staff have done to provide essential financial support to millions of people. Alongside an unprecedented increased in their workload, DWP staff have coped with a major logistical shift to remote working, and with significant changes to already complicated policy. Ministers have rightly spoken warmly of this contribution. In our view, however, DWP’s frontline staff deserve some more concrete recognition. We urge the Department to set out, in response to this report, its plans for recognising and rewarding the extraordinary work done by its staff. We note the request made by the PCS union for a pay increase.

255 PQ HC47297, 26 May 2020

256 PQ HC47297, 26 May 2020

257 PQ HC43594, 14 May 2020

258 PQ HC43594, 14 May 2020

259 Public and Commercial Services Union (SWP0072)

262 Public and Commercial Services Union (SWP0072)

263 Ibid.

264 Public and Commercial Services Union, ‘Minister praises the incredible achievement by DWP staff’, accessed 8 June 2020

Published: 22 June 2020