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18 November, 2020 Open access

SSAC raises concerns that some claimants are being excluded from their full entitlement to benefit for indefinite periods due to suspension of face-to-face assessments

DWP and Department for Communities must establish maximum time periods during which face-to-face assessments and decisions will take place, says Committee

The Social Security Advisory Committee (SSAC) has raised concerns that some claimants are being excluded from their full entitlement to benefit for indefinite periods due to the suspension of face-to-face assessments during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

In an occasional paper, A review of the COVID-19 temporary measures, published today, the SSAC acknowledges the impressive response of the DWP, the Department for Communities (DfC) in Northern Ireland and HMRC to support social security and tax credit claimants during the pandemic.

However, while acknowledging that the response – both in terms of policy design and operational delivery – has been impressive, particularly as it necessarily had to be developed and delivered at considerable pace -  the Committee says that -

'Given that some temporary measures are being revised and extended in duration, we wanted to take the opportunity to review the effectiveness of the measures that have been introduced.

We also wished to explore the degree to which they could be refined further, or improved, as Ministers consider transitioning some of them into a longer-term or permanent approach.'

To this end, the Committee identifies six areas for consideration - 

'... the Departments provide further support to work coaches to allow them to proactively identify the circumstances that will impact on whether a claimant can work, including circumstances that may be more difficult to manage under the pandemic. This will require government to provide and publish strategic policy guidance on what the appropriate flexibilities should be that work coaches can then implement through local discretion.'

'... DWP and DfC continue to work on providing timely updates to claimants and support organisations on the COVID-19 related changes that are being made. This includes developing a communications strategy, and tracking its outcomes, to help identify whether or why individuals may be disengaging with, or dropping out of, the social security system.'

'... the DWP and DfC act now to evaluate the outcomes and experiences for claimants as a critical early element of that research, and for this evaluation to be published... We recommend also that DWP and DfC  establish maximum time periods during which face-to-face assessments and decisions will take place.'

'... a plan is developed to phase [the MIF's] re-introduction, and that potentially affected claimants are given plenty of advance notice – of 1 month at the very least – of its return. We also recommend that universal credit eligibility is aligned with the point at which the claimant becomes redundant to deal with any delays in making a claim.

Clarity is needed on how SEISS payments (and any replacement scheme) interact with universal credit and clarity is also required on the Departments’ policy for the recovery of overpayments and debt during the pandemic, with guidance on exemptions to overpayment recovery that would be appropriate during the pandemic.'

'There is an existing exemption that provides a 9 month grace period before the cap is applied. This is for those who earn above the earnings threshold in every month for the previous 12 months. We recommend that this exemption is made more generous as continuously earning above the threshold will have been more difficult for many in recent months.

We also recommend expanding the exemption to [the shared accommodation rate for under-35s] for emergency accommodation to include housing in the private rented sector. We recommend that these measures are retained for the duration of the pandemic. Local Housing Allowance rates should continue to be related to local rent levels beyond the pandemic.'

'... the positive impact of the £20 per week uplift for universal credit is considered when deciding whether to extend or end this uplift. The DWP and DfC should review the support available to carers in recognition of the increased necessity and role of informal caring as a public health service.

Finally, we recommend the government considers whether temporary access to universal credit could be granted to extend eligibility during the pandemic for domestic violence victims who have no recourse to public funds and 16 to 17 year olds whose access to traineeships has been delayed by the pandemic.'

For more information, see A review of the COVID-19 temporary measures: occasional paper 24 from gov.uk