A new report has recommended a review of the benefits system in order to support people who are claiming benefits during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The DWP quickly reacted to process an unprecedented number of new claims last year when lockdown began. A £20 per week boost to Universal Credit was announced to help claimants cope with the pandemic and lockdown restrictions.
However, important questions remain with regard to the application process and the adequacy of payment levels.
Many claimants were found to have a substantial gap between their basic costs of living and the amount of money they received.
The results demonstrated that nearly 60% of new benefit claimants and 43% of existing claimants had experienced a drop in their income which they were unable to manage by simply cutting back on their expenses.
Seventy-one percent of claimants reported some financial strain, and almost two-thirds of these individuals stated that they would not be able to replace or repair major electrical goods if they broke, and also stated that they would not be able to save ten pounds a month.
One in six new claimants and one in five existing claimants had skipped a meal in the previous two weeks because they could not afford food.
Strategies people used to ‘get by’ included obtaining money from banks (using a credit card, an overdraft, or a bank loan) or borrowing from friends or family, as well as receiving ‘gifts’ from friends or family.
There was also evidence of people using food banks and accessing local emergency assistance from government agencies or third-sector organisations.
Additionally, 46% of new claimants reported difficulties applying for benefits. These are just some of the topics covered in the survey, which includes topics such as having the ability to call, identifying their net household income and expenses, providing information about housing or childcare costs, providing supporting documentation to prove eligibility, and filing a joint claim as a couple.
Many claimants were mystified by the poor level of benefits they were entitled to. Nearly two in five Universal Credit claimants (18%) say they did not understand how the amount they received was determined.
Claimants reported that while many DWP staff were kind and helpful when they spoke to them, they reported feeling that they were not always able to provide competent and comprehensive answers, possibly reflecting the rapid transition of staff to frontline roles to handle the large number of new applications.
Claimants frequently sought outside assistance. Applicants drew on all of the various social media groups, family and friends, employers, and the broader social networks in order to complete the application process.
The report is based on findings from the Welfare at a (Social) Distance project, a national research project that explores the post-Covid-19 welfare system.
The project is managed by the University of Salford’s Sustainable Housing and Urban Studies Unit (SHUSU), in collaboration with several universities from the United Kingdom, the United States, and Australia.
It represents the most ambitious project in the UK addressing the UK benefits system, occurring during Covid-19, and it is providing fast data to the DWP and other critical organisations to assist with the response to Covid-19.
Dr Kate Summers, Fellow at the London School of Economics, who led the report said: “We should think more ambitiously about what ‘success’ means within our social security benefits system.
“Yes, the benefits system held up through the first wave of the pandemic, but fundamental issues remain in terms of the adequacy of payment levels, and people’s ability to access and understand the system.
“Many people who were new to the benefits system last year hoped and planned for their claims to be short term.
“As the pandemic has continued, the system is unlikely to provide adequate support in the medium and longer term, as people’s capacity to cope financially is eroded.
“Some of the most severe forms of deprivation are most common among people who were making a claim before the pandemic started.
“These claimants, including those on legacy benefits, must not be forgotten in upcoming policy decisions.”
Commenting, the SNP’s Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, David Linden MP, said: “This study makes for very grim reading and proves beyond doubt that UK government welfare protections must be strengthened to provide adequate support not just for the duration of this crisis but for future generations
“The social security system should be a safety net for everyone – but for that to be the case there must be significant investment from the UK government and changes must be made.
“The Chancellor must confirm in his Budget announcement that the Universal Credit uplift will be made permanent and rolled-out to legacy benefits.
“Beyond that the scheme must be urgently improved so it is more generous, flexible, and responsive to people’s needs – including by scrapping the debt-inducing five-week wait and introducing an immediate upfront payment. People shouldn’t have to wait weeks to get the help they need right now.
“The UK government must also look again at the SNP’s other practical proposals range to improve the system – including extending the backdating of benefits, removing the reductions for those with savings, ending the shared accommodation rate, and reducing the long wait to get help with mortgage interest.
“Although there is light at the end of the tunnel with the vaccine roll-out, there are still millions worried about how they are going to make ends meet.
“The flaws in the UK’s welfare system are not new – but the scale of this unprecedented crisis has shone a light on this and made it clear they must be urgently addressed so millions are not left struggling to get by now and in the future.”