England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

Covid-19: Can the DWP cope?

In a normal two-week period, around 100,000 people will apply for Universal Credit.

But between 16 and 31 March, 950,000 people were forced to apply, as workers continue to lose out on income and livelihoods as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic.

The huge numbers mean that claimants are facing extremely long queues to try and get through to making a claim, and DWP staff are being moved from other areas to handle the work. Recently, all workers on temporary contracts in the DWP were made permanent in an effort to deal with the extra work during this crisis, which is of course welcome.

These moves, however, will be completely inadequate. The Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), which represents DWP workers and other civil servants, has been constantly fighting for more staff across the whole department for years. Since 2010, over 40,000 DWP jobs have been cut; before the pandemic began, PCS was demanding at least 20,000 new staff across all of DWP. Around 40% of DWP staff are also currently off work due to self-isolation, as they should be – but this all paints a dire picture of the DWP’s capacity to provide a vital service to the most vulnerable in society.

For those forced to claim Universal Credit, misery and hardship awaits, as the government is refusing to scrap the five-week waiting period for receiving the first payment. Claimants desperate for money are being forced to apply for an upfront advance which is then deducted from following benefit payments. What this really means is that more than 700,000 people are losing a fifth of their Universal Credit payments.

For those who were self-employed, and now have to claim, the Chancellor Rishi Sunak has raised the payment amount to the equivalent of Statutory Sick Pay – which is only £94.25 per week.

Compare this to the £200,000 the DWP has spent on advertising for Universal Credit that was found to be misleading, and the £1 million paid out in compensation to its own employees on the grounds of disability discrimination!

This last point reflects something that is extremely crucial for socialists and the left in general – solidarity with DWP workers and PCS members. Anger towards the nightmare that is Universal Credit – as well as other benefits, especially for the sick and disabled – must be directed at its rightful source, and we must resist any sense of ‘us-and-them’ between claimants and workers.

Universal Credit workers in Walsall and Wolverhampton have previously gone on strike over staffing levels and workloads, while the DWP is pushing ahead with its programme of office closures and job cuts across the country. And before the pandemic, the issue of outsourced services such as building repairs and maintenance raised its head when the DWP was even forced to terminate the contract of the provider it was using!

Workplace struggles over health and safety conditions, mirroring both the public and private sector, will likely take off; all DWP workers are identified as ‘key workers’, and despite the correct measure to temporarily shut Jobcentres and cancel face-to-face appointments for all but the most vulnerable claimants, 67% of civil servants say their workplaces do not even have ‘social distancing’ measures at work.

The years of job cuts and chronic understaffing mean that the DWP is increasing pressure on existing staff to go into work. For example, even those who live with a vulnerable person are expected to go into the office, while some managers have irresponsibly been calling local schools of their own accord to demand they allow space for the children of DWP staff, as they are now key workers!

The Coronavirus pandemic will clearly show to a huge layer of people the sheer inability of the Tory government to really act in the interests of the working class; while nurses and doctors face PPE shortages, workers are facing mass layoffs or attacks on pay that have to be fought against. The civil services trade unions, including the PCS, must take a militant stand for our members.

Socialist Alternative stands for fully-funded, decent public services with the proper levels of staffing. We say:

  • Scrap Universal Credit! Guarantee all workers, the elderly, and disabled a decent wage, pension, and benefits.
  • Full sick pay for all workers! No to jobs being sacrificed for profit.
  • Scrap zero-hours contracts.! For decent, secure jobs with trade union rates of pay and conditions.
  • Solidarity with all PCS members in struggle over office closures, pay, and attacks on working conditions.!
  • Bring all services and institutions, as well as the commanding heights of the economy, into public ownership – with under democratic workers’ control and management!
  • For the socialist transformation of society – plan it for the need of the many, not the profits of a few!

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