Patrick Hughes FIEP, Director of Salientwork Ltd and facilitator of the IEP Summit

#COVID_19 and @DWP operational response 

Employability professionals have many day-to-day contacts with DWP staff and customers. 

You will know from the mainstream and social media that volumes are high and customers struggling to complete their claims for UC or other benefits.

This article tries to pull together for you what’s happening at a national level. 

Please remember the situation in any particular locality could be different.  Especially when the context and the Government's response can change by the hour.  So if you want the latest keep an eye on the coronavirus update pages of gov.uk.

So what’s going on? 

The public health issues are now only too clear to us all; and the economic impact is beginning to unfold. There’s a tsunami of initiatives and announcements designed to help people get by, where their income is much reduced or vanishes entirely. And parallel support for employers in the same boat. This is not the place to explore the detail of the new schemes or their merits. But for the working age citizen already in work there’s a common underpinning safety net.  If your income falls or disappears then Universal Credit is the place to go. For people with a strong NI Contributions record, contributory JSA or ESA might be the first port of call.  But in the end all pathways lead to UC.

New claims to welfare benefits are always very seasonal, and indeed vary by the day too (Monday is usually busiest) so there is a good deal of flexibility built into the system. Nationally new claims to UC might vary between 5 and ten thousand per day. But we now know that DWP have received almost a million new claims in the 2 weeks and in the last week of March were running at over a hundred thousand per day.  That’s almost unheard of.  In the early 90s and in 2009/10 JSA volumes briefly ran at similar levels but in a simpler world where people claimed housing benefit separately.

What’s the impact in practice?

For claimants of UC the initial digital form completion looks like it’s going well. But as many of you will know the bottleneck seems to be  the verification of identity stage. This is the point where you prove who you are, where you live, who else is in your household, and so on. In the current UC system that could be done in a personal interview with a Work Coach at your local Jobcentre.  For obvious health reasons that route is completely closed off now.  So calling a UC Service Centre is  your only way in: and they have been battling with these volumes in the last few days. That’s why press stories about huge telephony queues are the order of the day.

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What’s the DWP response?

Recruitment, redeployment, and overtime are central to this. We know that temps in DWP are rapidly being made permanent in many places and over 10 thousand new staff recruited. But training takes some time, and of course just as for the NHS, the police and other parts of the public services some DWP staff are themselves isolated in their own homes. Existing DWP staff are being moved into operational work; Jobcentre staff refocused on service centre work; and head office buildings closed. Most head office staff and key managers are working from home and certainly internal DWP systems are struggling to cope with that too. And policies are being changed fast: you will have seen the dropping of all conditionality interviews as just one big example of that.

So in any dealings you have with DWP people over the next few weeks and months do remember the pressure they are under. They know, as the nation’s safety net of last resort, that this is what they are there for. As a seasoned DWP watcher internally and externally over many years I have never seen the Department pick up the baton so swiftly. Simply understanding that and expressing support as part of the public employability system will be hugely welcomed by these key delivery civil servants.

That will apply through three big phases in the months to come:

  1.  First the one we are in right now where hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens find themselves in a welfare system they had never expected to be part of. 
  2. Then a second phase where unemployment stabilises at a level we have not experienced for a long time and the risk grows of huge numbers locked into longer term unemployment.
  3. And then a third phase as the economy starts to recover and getting the most disadvantaged back into work will be at a premium. 

That will be a challenge for us all. But it’s times like this when new partnerships are born, and collaboration is the order of the day. People in the employability system are good at that, so share your views on @IEPInfo or www.myIEP.uk.

Patrick Hughes FIEP, Director of Salientwork Ltd and facilitator of the IEP Summit

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