Socialist Party
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31 March 2020

Fight for safety, staffing and services - Covid chaos for benefits claimants

By a Jobcentre worker

More than half a million claims to working-age benefits such as Jobseekers' Allowance and Universal Credit have been made in the last two weeks. And that number seems to be accelerating as the coronavirus develops into a crisis of capitalism.

In one day last week, 105,000 claims were made in a single day. This is happening at a time when 43% of staff at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) are self-isolating because they are vulnerable, are looking after children, or have symptoms of the virus.

With hundreds of thousands of telephone calls to the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) going unanswered from those being sent home on unpaid leave by billionaire bosses, it is clear that coronavirus might be the most immediate cause of the chaos. But Tory austerity has a huge amount to answer for. With more than 30,000 jobs lost since 2010, DWP is a shadow of its former size. Many of the staff lost were among the most experienced too.

Meanwhile, Tory determination to push ahead with the supposedly "digital first" Universal Credit has been shown for the sham it is. Claimants in their hundreds began to show up at Jobcentres because they were not getting answers to questions asked via their online journals, or when they made phone calls. Initially, DWP tried to keep Jobcentres open, but this was quickly abandoned in the face of fury from staff, and rapidly accelerating restrictions from the government. Jobcentres have now been closed to all but the vulnerable.

Common interest

Claimants and staff have a common interest: for an effective social safety net to be provided to all those affected by the crisis, and to protect all those - both staff and claimants - for whom face-to-face is the only way of getting help. To deliver services properly, DWP needs tens of thousands of permanent staff immediately, not merely the 1,500 it has begun to recruit. On 27 March, DWP announced an internal move of around 3,000 staff from "non-essential" duties to primary benefits such as Jobseeker's Allowance. Even this will not be enough to cope with the colossal demand.

Recruitment, if not accompanied by the reversing of the office closures programme that has decimated DWP offices over the last five years, will produce problems when it comes to social distancing. DWP must be pushed to open temporary Jobcentres in towns around the UK. But they must also acquire sufficient buildings to house thousands of additional staff whose job will be to work with claimants to get enough evidence so their claims can be put into payment as soon as possible.

Staff need sufficient protective equipment, and a stringent cleaning regime for offices. This is far beyond what privatised cleaning services can provide, unless DWP offers to throw more money at a contract - padding the profits of companies like Interserve at a time of national crisis.

These services must be taken back in-house straightaway, with the purpose of immediately recruiting more cleaners and offering pay rises for these poorly paid staff. Where effective cleaning, protective equipment and supplies such as hand sanitiser are not forthcoming, the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union, which represents staff in DWP, should be prepared to organise walkouts. Walkouts over safety have happened, or come close to happening, at a number of offices such as Dalston in London and Springburn in Glasgow.

A trade union-led campaign on the basis of 'safety, staffing and services' would get a huge echo from staff, who are under enormous pressure, and could be targeted at supporting the huge numbers of new claimants.

These claimant numbers are not going to simply disappear once the initial crisis, of self-isolation and social distancing, abates. The depth of the economic crisis facing the global capitalist order is reflected in the $2 trillion stimulus package being mustered by the US Congress; this is roughly half the total cost of World War II to American capitalism, adjusted for inflation.

The priority of DWP must be getting benefit claims into payment, and ensuring that people have enough to look after themselves and their families. A trade union-led campaign on safety, staffing and jobs could link up with unemployed workers, including those organised by Disabled People against Cuts, to demand significant changes.

Increased benefits

The Tories have increased the value of Universal Credit by 20 per week, in response to the crisis. For a single claimant over 25, the value of a UC claim will rise from 317.82 to 409.89 per month. But this does not even return benefits to the level they would have been at, had they kept pace with inflation instead of either being completely frozen or rising by 1%, since the last crisis

Other aspects of the benefit system have been improved in response to the crisis, such as increases in the value of housing benefit for those renting from private landlords, and easing of the rules which discouraged many self-employed workers from claiming UC. Yet, this is not close to providing the universal safety net demanded by socialists. More can be done. Emergency payments for all unemployed workers, equivalent to a living wage, should be a central demand of the labour movement, to ensure all workers weather the storm of this crisis.

Additionally, as an immediate measure, all sanctions must be scrapped. DWP has issued guidance to workers that indicates that where workers have been put on unpaid leave, or are likely to return to work, their "claimant commitment" (the document they are obliged to sign which lays out what they have to do to look for further work, in order to get benefits) does not have to include work search requirements. But this is initially for a month, with nothing clearly stated about what will happen after that period.

DWP, in order to reduce workloads, has introduced a strategy it calls "trust and protect"; this is a temporary relaxation of the evidence requirements on claimants to get claims into payment as fast as possible. It is a complex task, trying to get DWP the evidence it requires when it comes to children, childcare, private rental agreements, self-employment, habitual residence, educational status or how much capital you possess.

The strategy announced by DWP will take claimants at their word, with claims being "repaired" later, after the crisis. Given how complex providing this information can be, it would be absolutely unacceptable for claimants to be subjected to fines or repayments just because DWP doesn't have sufficient staff to cope with the pressure on the benefit system. Yet nothing has been said about what will happen after the crisis.

Requirements dropped

For those people claiming "new style" Employment and Support Allowance, which is for those who are unable to work due to their health, the requirement to be assessed has been temporarily suspended. Claimants will be awarded three months "limited capability for work", with no evidence requirements, if they are suffering from coronavirus; work search requirements will be dropped, and "work prep" - steps that claimants can take that are about getting ready for work without actually looking for a job - can also be reduced or removed. Yet this guidance is not as prominent as it could be; local PCS reps have been taking the lead in publicising it to members.

To cope with the volumes, many of the most experienced decision makers dealing with disability benefits like PIP are being moved to other benefits, such as Jobseekers Allowance. The impact on PIP claimants, who are in the process of disputing a disallowance, will be a very long wait. The process can already take more than a year in some cases. If no action is taken, these claims will simply close, until such time as the dispute is finally heard, having gone through a much depleted DWP and HM Courts and Tribunals Service. DWP does not seem to have even considered this. Again, the task seems to fall to grassroots union reps.

Socialist Party members in PCS, working on the shop floor of DWP offices, will continue to fight for unity between the workers who deliver social security and those workers who rely upon it. This unity is a class unity: to defend our safety, to deliver a crucial public service and to secure the sufficient staffing to do so, while also fighting for the best possible social security network for the unemployed, those too ill to work, the disabled and those who are retired.