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It's time to scrap the rotten, immoral DWP

The inane attempt to prosecute people caring for their disabled loved ones - for unwittingly receiving slightly larger benefits, thanks to an admin glitch - is proof there is no hope for the Department. Once in power, Labour must close the DWP, restaff it top to bottom, and relaunch it under a new name. 

April 11 2024, 17.07pm
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News of the scandalous decision by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to pursue thousands of unpaid carers through the courts, threatening jail time for accidentally overclaiming benefit payments, will come as a shock to those who thought the DWP team did little more than handle a large and tedious administrative task of government.

In fact it’s just the latest episode of the unrelenting abuse meted out by the Whitehall department against poor and vulnerable people. Over the years, the DWP has proved itself both incapable and immoral with such consistency that one can’t blame any particular minister or decision maker; the entire ministry appears to be rotten. An early decision for a new Labour government should be to kill it off and start over. In the middle of the cost of living crisis, it’s the very least that benefit claimants deserve.

Carers are family members or friends who volunteer their time to provide personal care and emotional support to adults facing disability and long-term illness. They include the millions of adult  children who care for elderly parents with conditions, such as dementia, and the informal 24-hour support provided by husband and wives to their spouses when facing cancer treatment, among many other examples

These relatives and close friends are the backbone of our social care system. They step in where the state has retracted, doing the thankless, back-breaking, career-destroying and heart-splintering work of protecting loved ones who are disabled and struggling for independence. They keep their bodies and their minds as healthy as they can. It’s not their job, but a task they accept for the sake of their loved ones - and it comes at considerable  cost.

The DWP recognises that carers do important work, but it values all of it at just £81.90 a week and you only qualify for that if you can demonstrate you’re caring for at least 35 hours weekly. The benefit does allow carers to work part time around their responsibilities to make up this pitiful income, but only to a point: they are banned from earning more than  £151 a week. If they go over that limit, they lose the right to claim the benefit.

The DWP’s computer system - which was designed to track citizens’ incomes in real time using their national insurance numbers and adjust benefits automatically as their earnings and circumstances change - simply doesn’t work as it should. In the case of carers, it has failed to recognise when some claimants earned more than the threshold and carried on paying out the benefit regardless - sometimes over decades. Now these victims of a computer error - of which they are totally unaware - are being told they must pay back the excess awarded to them in error now or risk a prison sentence. Some have been warned they will need to cough up sums up to £20,000 to avoid prosecution. It is abhorrent and certainly - though I usually hate to wheel out this term - Orwellian. The scandal is so vast that former DWP secretary Iain Duncan Smith has spoken out, urging ministers to pause fines against victims while the issue is investigated.

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It’s remarkable that the Department has the gall to attempt prosecution, given its own track record. Over the last decade, and particularly during the years of austerity and brutal benefit reform, the DWP has racked up a series of horrific moral failures that could quite easily have seen some of its own employees - or, in many cases contractors - facing their own prosecution.

Perhaps the most highly publicised was the death of Colin Traynor, who died in 2012 less than four months after he had been found fit for work under the DWP’s new Work Capability Assessment procedure. He had previously claimed incapacity benefit due to his severe epilepsy. After his assessment his benefits were cut by £70 a week. He appealed and was awarded partial benefit but was still expected to work. His family said the stress and anxiety of being expected to live on so little income while being physically unable to work led to a rapid deterioration in his health and an increase in seizures. He died following a massive seizure at the age of just 29, his tragic end sparking a parliamentary debate about welfare reform and the functioning of the department.

A few months later, the DWP chalked up another death - this time by suicide. According to the Disability News Service (DNS): “Edward Jacques, from Sneinton, Nottingham, had been found fit for work after a WCA lasting just 23 minutes. His ESA [employment support allowance] was stopped on 18 September, and he took his own life a week later.” The coroner presiding over the inquest into his death concluded that the assessment he had undertaken “did not fully or properly reflect Edward’s physical and mental health at the time.”

A decade on, and we are still having the same conversation, and people supported by the DWP keep dying. On 4 March 2022 Kevin Gale took his own life at his home address after suffering anxiety and depression, for which he claimed support through the benefits system. One witness called at the inquest into his death described the impact of the DWP’s decision making on people with mental health issues as “debilitating” and described the problem as a “national issue”.

In fact the DNS has already reported that coroner Kirsty Gomersal sent a prevention of future deaths letter - a formal document which is issued to help institutions and public services, such as hospitals or care homes, prevent a recurrence of mistakes that have led to unnecessary fatalities - to current work and pensions secretary Mel Stride. It warned him that he needed to act to prevent the poor administration of universal credit leading to further deaths.  At the time a DWP spokesperson said only: “Our condolences are with the victim’s family. We will review the coroner’s report and respond in due course.”

The culture of the Department is clearly unfit for its purpose. That purpose should be to catch those facing the toughest times in their lives and lift them back up again into independence; whether that’s through nurturing employment support or a handhold through a short term crisis, or a long-standing disability award that allows anyone facing severe limitations on their earning prospects to enjoy a secure, creative, expansive and ultimately fully equal chance at a fulfilling life.

What right does the Department have to persecute unwitting claimants when so many of its own decisions and actions are legally unsound? The latest Ministry of Justice figures from tribunal hearings for personal independence payment claims reveals that 70% of the DWP’s decisions were overturned in favour of the claimant between October 2018 and September 2023.

So is there any chance of a rehabilitation of the DWP in its current form? My engagements with them over a 20-year career suggest “very little.” Its aggressive approach to the administration of government benefits is only echoed in the way it does business with others too, where it borders on the splenetic. I fully expect a difficult phone call after this piece (a fair reflection of the facts and my personal response, as an expert in social policy, to them)  is published. It wouldn’t be the first time.

There's only one thing to be done: Scrap the DWP, rename it and restaff it. Nothing short of a huge shift in culture will do the job. This isn’t about money - the debate about the level of our benefits is another issue altogether - but respect. When Starmer is elected later this year, it’s the one simple thing he can do to set the tone for a new era. When the government respects us as citizens, maybe we’ll start to respect and to trust government once again.

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