With unprecedented numbers of people needing to access Universal Credit, the government must act quickly
There were stories of people waiting online into the night, only to wake up the next morning to find that they had lost their place in the queue, writes Margaret Greenwood MP. | PA Images
Universal Credit’s five-week wait continues to be a source of difficulty for anyone wanting to claim support amid the coronavirus crisis, writes Labour’s Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Margaret Greenwood.
This week we have seen posts from people showing they were over number 100,000 in the queue to have their ID verified as they tried to claim Universal Credit.
There were stories of people waiting online into the night, only to wake up the next morning to find that they had lost their place in the queue.
With unprecedented numbers of people needing to access support, the government must get help to people quickly.
The pressure on the system is likely to continue. While the announcement of new support for the self-employed is welcome, there will be those who don't qualify and others who can't manage two months without income while they wait for the new scheme to kick in.
The long waits to verify identity may have hit the headlines, but the problems with the system are long-standing.
Last year the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee published a damning report on Verify, the Government's online verification tool, calling it ‘an onerous system that is not fit for purpose’. It begs the question, why has the government failed to sort out its verification processes?
It appears that DWP is attempting to verify the identities of people by telephone where they had not been able to do so online, but the volume of inbound calls being dealt with by DWP staff will have soared in the current crisis too.
While current numbers are exceptional, again this is not a new problem: last year staff at call centres in Wolverhampton and Walsall went on strike over working conditions. Amongst their demands were that the government should recruit 5,000 new staff and limit the number of phone calls per case manager. It emerged last week that the government is redeploying staff from other areas of the DWP to deal with the increase in demand. In so doing, it must make sure that all staff are able to work in a safe environment, both in terms of being given manageable workloads and being able to practise social distancing.
The five-week wait continues to be a source of difficulty for anyone wanting to claim support. The government says that anyone who wants an advance can get one, but of course, it is a loan that needs to be paid back, and people cannot receive it until their identity has been verified.
Rather than providing advances, the government should be giving non-repayable grants, as a number of leading voluntary organisations have been calling for.
The Government says it doesn't have the technical capacity to do that or to stop taking the deductions from Universal Credit for debt, although it finds itself able to take deductions for Tax Credit debt.
If that is the case, the Government should discuss the possibility of introducing repayment holidays for energy bills with the energy companies. It should also ban evictions and suspend rental payments beyond the crisis, as Labour has been calling for.
April will finally see the end of the Conservative's four-year freeze on benefits; it has been a critical driver of increased poverty and has left a shameful legacy of hardship. Disabled people and the poor have been hit the hardest by austerity measures. Still, there has been no increase in other benefits to support disabled people, carers or people who are unemployed. Now more than ever, we need to build resilience in all of our communities. The government should do the right thing and increase support for them too.
Margaret Greenwood is the Labour MP for Wirral West and the shadow work and pensions secretary.
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