Almost 500,000 people in UK apply for universal credit in nine days

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DWP redeploys staff to deal with ‘unprecedented’ numbers of people seeking benefit amid coronavirus crisis

Signage for the Department for Work and Pensions in Westminster, London.
The DWP has so far redeployed 1,500 members of staff to help with the sharp rise in universal credit claims, and is to increase this to 3,900 by the end of the week. Photograph: Kirsty O’Connor/PA

Hundreds of thousands of people have applied for universal credit following the UK outbreak of Covid-19.

The Department for Work and Pensions said on Wednesday 477,000 people had applied for the benefit in the past nine days and they were redeploying thousands of civil servants to help process the claims.

Thérèse Coffey MP, the work and pensions secretary, said: “In the last nine days we’ve processed nearly half a million claims.

“We don’t know if they’re self-employed or at different stages, and I want to assure people that help, even if it’s not currently the level of help they would like, is there to help them through the safety net of the welfare state.”

The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, is due to give more details of support for the country’s 5 million self-employed people later this week as it emerged thousands of people applying for universal credit are facing huge online queues.

One person Tweeted that there were 145,000 people ahead of them waiting to access the claims website with wait times of more than an hour.

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The minister was answering questions from the work and pensions select committee alongside Peter Schofield, the department’s permanent secretary, who set out how he has drastically redeployed staff to try and process the claims.

Processing universal credit claims is now the department’s main focus as it is experiencing an “unprecedented” volume of people contacting them and seeking benefits, he said. Seventy thousand of the claims were from those asking for an advance, suggesting people began to struggle with money as soon the virus began to spread more widely.

“We made a decision that managing claims and making payments is a number one priority for DWP. Operationally we can deprioritise other things,” he said.

Disability benefits will no longer be assessed in job centres, ending face-to-face assessments which he said meant they are “extending existing awards” and no longer re-assessing personal independence payment claimants.

The department has so far redeployed 1,500 members of staff to help with the sharp rise in universal credit claims, and is to increase this to 3,900 by the end of the week.

Within weeks 10,000 employees working in functional jobs such as finance and on longer-term programmes within the department will be brought into the universal credit team.

Schofield said: “The first people will start arriving in London job centres today from corporate centre type roles across DWP.”

He claimed the online system to apply for the benefit was so far working well but admitted there had been problems with the online verification stage.

“It’s still too early days to know whether people are getting through those in the time that I would expect them to. I suspect there are more people so far who are finding verification is holding them up,” he said.

Asked by committee chair, Labour MP Stephen Timms, if it was acceptable to tell the half a million people who applied for universal credit that they will have to wait five weeks for their first regular benefit payment.

Coffey said: “Advances can be made to people pretty quickly.”

She said they will be “sticking with” the advance system and technically it is difficult to make changes to universal credit structure that people have been asking for.

Turning the advance into a non-repayable grant, as has been suggested by some MPs, is “operationally not feasible” in the short-term, she said.

She was backed by Schofield, who said the department would stick with the existing policies and frameworks relating to the benefits system so it kept functioning.

Of the 230,000 people who applied for universal credit last week, 70,000 asked for an advance to deal with immediate cashflow problems, which Timms suggested put them into debt to the DWP at the start of the coronavirus crisis.

Coffey said: “I don’t see it as being in debt. I see it as about spreading effectively an annual payment into 13 payments, rather than 12. Then people can chose early on what level of advance they get.”