Benefits systems must adapt now to COVID-19

Sam Wood
Many people need access to vital welfare benefits.

In response to the issues people across the UK are having in accessing benefits during the COVID-19 crisis, Graham Tegg, solicitor and Director of Kent Law Clinic, said:

In all the years I have practiced in the field of welfare benefits, including being a solicitor at CPAG and Shelter and now at Kent Law Clinic, the plight of people destitute and desperate to access welfare, has never been so urgent.

‘The UK’s benefit system is not known for agility in responding to urgent need. On the contrary, the vast social security apparatus conjures up images of bureaucracy, unresponsiveness, inaccurate decisions and a cold disregard for the needs and humanity of claimants.

‘Record numbers of people are currently seeking to pass through the Universal Credit “gateway” to make claims for urgent financial assistance. It is estimated there have been in excess of a half million new claims in the past 10 days with many more to come.

‘The Government’s refrain is to “do whatever it takes”. With that in mind, the response to the pandemic within the benefit system requires new thinking and immediate drastic action.

‘The benefits system currently operates on the basis of ask questions first and only pay much later to the satisfaction of a remote “decision maker”. This leads to claims pending potentially for months, as prolonged clarification is sought. Amid a pandemic, this is dangerous lethargy.

‘When speed is of the essence and the system is experiencing unprecedented levels of demand it makes no sense to insist upon a precautionary principle of non-eligibility.

Desperate times call for different measures. Obstacles to speedy subsistence payments must be removed. The Department for Work and Pensions should make some obvious and easy to achieve changes to the system that will help ensure that benefit is paid quickly to those in immediate need. The payment of financial support for the destitute is a sprint, not a marathon.

The Government should immediately do all or any combination of the following:

  1. Suspend GOV.UK Verify for new claims; as this creates unnecessary delays
  2. Suspend the ‘right to reside’ and ‘habitual residence’ tests; to prevent non-citizens from being denied urgent help
  3. Proactively offer advance payments and stop hiding behind the obscure statement that such payments ‘may be available’;
  4. Permit payments on claims pending from before the current crisis;
  5. Suspend the benefits cap and the two-child policy – struggling families need support, not investigation.

Graham Tegg, solicitor and Director of Kent Law Clinic, University of Kent

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