The DWP's suspension of Universal Credit claims must stop. This is why.

By Emma McClelland and Olivia Vicol - 01 February 2022

In 2020, Boris Johnson described the Covid-19 pandemic as the 'great leveller'. For low-paid workers in precarious jobs, reliant upon one of the least generous social security systems in the developed world, this must have been hard to hear. For those who fell between the cracks, such as families with no recourse to public funds, even more so. 

Universal Credit (UC) is no level playing field. And it's getting worse for the same groups of people hit hardest by the pandemic. Claimants, particularly EU migrants, are now seeing their payments suspended, suddenly and without explanation. In the last four months, we've heard from 12 people in this situation, and we know the DWP's 'Risk Review Programme' has suspended the claims of more than 149,000 people since May 2020.

In this piece, we explore the issue of ongoing UC suspensions and the impact they have on people's lives, using anonymised examples from our own casework. By doing so, we hope to demonstrate the inaccuracies in the DWP's justifications and demonstrate the harm they continue to inflict on the most vulnerable in our society. 

The problem with Universal Credit suspensions

Layla* is a mother of two. She works a zero-hours contract because her son has a brain tumour and she has caring responsibilities, as well as the job of taking her daughter to and from primary school. Layla was granted pre-settled status in 2019 and applied successfully for Universal Credit. This year, despite the fact that she has always worked, she had her claim suspended. She received a letter from the DWP saying they had made a mistake and that she had failed the 'habitual residence test'. She has been reliant on her local community to help her and her family stay afloat. 

Odin*, another of our beneficiaries, lost his zero-hours job working in a kitchen, and got in touch when his UC payments were suspended. He called the UC helpline several times and was promised a call with a translator, but this never happened. Nobody has been able to explain why Odin's claim has been suspended. Despite being told the DWP don't accept PDFs or screenshots (!) and despite his own struggles with IT literacy, he has uploaded evidence, including his P45 and last payslip, and updated his circumstances as required. At risk of eviction and homelessness, Odin is now also being supported by the Public Law Project. 

These are two of the fourteen people we have been supporting at the Work Rights Centre. Across the country, there could be thousands more. According to the DWP, as many as 149,000 claimants had their payments suspended.

MPs demand answers in a Westminster Hall debate

On the 26th of January, Kate Osamor, Labour & Co-Op MP for Edmonton, secured a debate in Westminster Hall to challenge the practice of suspending UC claims without explanation. Drawing on the example of 29 of her constituents whose lives were plunged into destitution after their Universal Credit payments were suspended, she argued that all claimants deserve an explanation, that everyone should be presumed innocent until proven guilty, and that the DWP should reinstate payments. Notably, she added, given how all affected claimants in her constituency were Bulgarian, the DWP should conduct an equalities assessment and consider barriers to providing documents.

Osamor illustrated this through reference to one of our own cases, also mentioned in an article by The Independent, where a Bulgarian national was asked to provide every page of their old passport, despite the fact this was impossible (the Bulgarian embassy in London takes expired passports when citizens apply for a new one). Unfortunately, the DWP did not change their stance.

Four reasons why the DWP Minister's defence is wrong

We were disappointed to see Kate Osamor's arguments rebuffed by the DWP Minister for Welfare Delivery, David Rutley. In summary, he argued that disclosing reasons for UC suspensions would show fraudsters how to game the system; that 65% of people whose claims are suspended don't contact them, implying they must be fraudsters; and that reinstating payments is not possible, but the fact that claimants can rely on work coaches should be sufficient. More worryingly, he noted that an equalities assessment wouldn’t be necessary, as nationality had nothing to do with the claims.

We remain unconvinced by the minister's explanation, for four main reasons.

  1. The 'security through obscurity' argument invoked to justify suspending payments without explanation has long been discredited by security experts. Its effectiveness in preventing fraud is debatable, but there is a real risk it's used to justify non-transparent decision making. In this case, suspending Universal Credit payments can ruin lives. Nothing this consequential should evade public scrutiny. Claimants should know why they are being targeted.
  2. The idea that claimants who fail to contact the DWP implicitly accept the suspensions is little more than speculation. Every frontline adviser knows that claimants struggle to engage with authorities for a range of reasons, including language, IT literacy or mental health barriers. In fact, the DWP's own research found that almost half of Universal Credit claimants have difficulties with the online system.
  3. Assuming that work coaches can compensate for the loss of  payments also misses one significant point. As many as 40% of UC claimants are in employment. Despite what some commentators imply, Universal Credit is not an alternative to work; it is a lifeline for thousands of people who work in precarious jobs that simply don't cover living costs. 
  4. Suggesting that an equalities assessment isn't necessary because the DWP doesn’t consider nationality in determining claimants' eligibility for Universal Credit, or the suspension, is also a stretch at best. Every Universal Credit application asks claimants if they are British citizens or foreign nationals. Furthermore, under the Equalities Act 2010 the department has a duty to eliminate unlawful discrimination and advance equality of opportunity. This includes taking action against indirect discrimination.


The Real Impact of Universal Credit Suspensions

The stories of our beneficiaries affected by suspensions are often harrowing. Over the past couple of months we have heard from people who had to resort to desperate measures, including sharing a room with their parents, relying on foodbanks, or taking out loans. Many of them are single mothers.

Our attempts to communicate with the DWP and change the current practice of suspending Universal Credit payments without explanation have been unsuccessful. But we will continue to document the harm this policy is causing, and work with like minded partners across the third sector to challenge it. Universal Credit is a lifeline. No one should have this lifeline interrupted without an explanation. 

To learn more about our work, sign up to our newsletter. If you know someone who needs help to challenge a decision that affects their Universal Credit, contact our team.

* Names changed for anonymity

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