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Work and Pensions Committee 

Oral evidence: Safeguarding vulnerable claimants, HC 146

Wednesday 15 November 2023

Ordered by the House of Commons to be published on 15 November 2023.

Watch the meeting 

Members present: Sir Stephen Timms (Chair); Debbie Abrahams; Siobhan Baillie; Neil Coyle; David Linden; Steve McCabe; Nigel Mills; Selaine Saxby; Dr Ben Spencer; Sir Desmond Swayne.

Questions 1 - 57


I: Chloe Schendel-Wilson, Co-Founder and Director, Disability Policy Centre; Nikki Bond, Interim Head of Research and Policy, Money and Mental Health Policy Institute; and Henry Parkes, Principal Economist & Head of Quantitative Research, IPPR.

II: Professor Lisa Scullion, Professor of Social Policy, University of Salford; and Professor Ben Baumberg Geiger, Professor in Social Science and Health, King's College London.

Written evidence from witnesses:

The Money and Mental Health Policy Institute (SVC0042)

Examination of witnesses

Witnesses: Chloe Schendel-Wilson, Nikki Bond and Henry Parkes.

Q1                Chair: Welcome, everybody, to this meeting of the Work and Pensions Select Committee and to the first meeting in our inquiry on safeguarding vulnerable claimants. A very warm welcome to the three witnesses who have joined us for the first panel. Would each of you tell us who you are, please?

Chloe Schendel-Wilson: My name is Chloe Schendel-Wilson and I am a co-founder of the Disability Policy Centre. We are a think-tank that aims to break down barriers for disabled people and people with long-term health conditions across different policy areas and different ways of life.

Nikki Bond: I am Nikki Bond. I am Interim Head of Research and Policy at the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute. We are a research charity that was set up 2016 by Martin Lewis to break the links between mental health problems and financial difficulties.

Henry Parkes: I am Henry Parkes. I am the Principal Economist at the Institute for Public Policy Research, a progressive think-tank.

Q2                Chair: Thank you all for joining us. Can you each tell us whether you think DWP should have a statutory duty to safeguard vulnerable claimants? If so, what do you think it should look like?

Chloe Schendel-Wilson: Yes, I think it should, just like other Government and public departments like the NHS or Justice. The Department for Work and Pensions interacts with lots of vulnerable people so it should have a statutory duty to safeguard them. Of disabled people and people with long-term health conditions, 6.2% are currently unemployed, from the last set of data, and 42.7% of disabled people are economically inactive. A large proportion of disabled people interact with the DWP regularly and I think it is important that we safeguard them and have a statutory duty for their care.

I think what that would look like—and I know we will probably get on to this later, it is why we are all here really—is making sure that people are not cut off from the services that they need from the DWP, whether that is through sanctions and things like that. It is ensuring that people get the support that they need, particularly if they are vulnerable.

Nikki Bond: We agree that the DWP should have a statutory duty to safeguard. Similar to the statistics that Chloe has just talked about, nearly half of adults who receive some kind of out of work benefit have a common mental disorder and that rises to nearly two-thirds of people in receipt of ESA. We are dealing with a group of people who have existing vulnerabilities or circumstances that make them vulnerable. Other bodies and Government Departments have a safeguarding duty and it seems to follow that the DWP should have a similar duty.

I know that we will have discussions later about the definition of vulnerability and what the safeguarding should look like, but there are some things that we can draw on to think about what it could look like. The Children Act requires a range of organisations, including the DWP, to ensure that their functions and services are discharged with regard to the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of children. I think that a similar kind of duty could apply here to safeguard the needs of adults in vulnerable circumstances. There is also the Care Act 2014 with its principles of empowerment, protection, prevention and proportionality that it could similarly use to understand how to safeguard the group that it supports.

Henry Parkes: We don’t see why a statutory responsibility should be controversial at all. DWP is a major point of contact between citizens and the state and how people are treated in that system clearly has very profound impacts on their lives. If we talk about what our social security needs to look like for it to be a true social safety net, it needs to be able to work for everyone. It is not acceptable for people with complex needs to fall through the cracks. As has been alluded to, this is already a thing in other parts of the public bodies and so on, but it is even more important at DWP potentially than a lot of those organisations in the sense it addresses the fundamental need for people to have cash so that they can feed themselves and their families, keep a roof over their head and so on. This could not be a more fundamental thing for which we need safeguarding to ensure that people get what they need.

That is not to say that DWP can resolve everyone’s issues, and certainly not by itself, but it certainly could do more not to exacerbate them. We have heard already about people being put off from benefits or being sanctioned. We know that that can lead to the triggering of severe mental health crises that have impacts that resonate for a long time as the punishment for missing an appointment or whatever it is.

We have not done detailed work on what a statutory duty looks like, we are not lawyers, but on how it should feel, it would involve a lot more thinking and pausing and making more effort to reach out to vulnerable claimants and the people who support them, support workers, family or whoever is the key contact in their lives.

Q3                Chair: Nikki, you mentioned other Departments that have something comparable in place at the moment. Do you favour a cut and paste of something that is already in the legislation somewhere else being applied to DWP or do you envisage a rather different kind of duty?

Nikki Bond: There are lessons that can be learnt and there are good bits about different mechanisms, the statutory duties that already exist, but a review of that, a root and branch kind of consideration of thinking about what the statutory duty might look like—loads of progress is being made across different organisations and our understanding of vulnerability and how we should safeguard people. We would like to see learning from all of the systems that have that responsibility and how they define vulnerability and how they safeguard to learn those lessons and implement them. Particularly when we think about the DWP and the vulnerabilities of the people it is serving, a duty absolutely has to safeguard those people in the best way it can. I think that cut and paste probably is not the way forward right now but learning from the different systems.

Q4                Chair: Where elsewhere is there a specific duty around vulnerability? You mentioned children, which is potentially a comparable situation, but where do we find that for actual vulnerability at the moment?

Nikki Bond: Safeguarding typically sits around children in the Children Act, obviously, and the Care Act. I think with vulnerability—and we will probably come on to this a bit later—it is understanding the nature of vulnerability and how we define harm. That is probably the position that we want to start from when we think about how we safeguard people, what harm are they at risk of, and then thinking about the nature of the vulnerabilities, the characteristics, how that changes, how it fluctuates over time. I don’t think it is about coming up with a static understanding of who is and who is not vulnerable but about a dynamic understanding and framework through which you can apply it and then you can implement safeguarding measures.

Q5                Chair: Do any of you propose a succinct definition of vulnerability? How should it be defined if there was to be a statutory duty?

Chloe Schendel-Wilson: I think it is quite complicated. It would have to be something that the DWP takes a proactive approach to look at, some sort of body or committee that defines forward the agenda for how the DWP can support vulnerable claimants. The NHS defines it as someone over the age of 18, or an adult, who is not able to take care of themselves or protect themselves from exploitation. The Office for Health Improvement and Disparities defines it as someone in special need of care because of their age, disability or risk of abuse and neglect.

I think it probably is quite complicated when you look at the welfare system. That might define a vulnerable adult but it is also important to think about the children who have parents who rely on welfare: what happens to them if their parent suddenly gets their welfare stopped or faces sanctions and things like that? It is quite nuanced and I think that the DWP should come up with its own definition of what that looks like, taking parts from other Departments.

Henry Parkes: We have not proposed a precise definition of vulnerability but it would need to be flexible. There is an approach here where you say, “Vulnerability is defined by—” and it could be a category definition, whereas we think it needs to be more of a functional definition: do we know enough about these people that we know that they can cope with the things that the system might throw at them, whether that is conditionality or being sanctioned or being refused an advance or whatever might happen? I think it is about coming up with a definition that fits with the idea that work coaches and decision makers and whoever comes into contact with claimants are confident that given their circumstances, whatever they might be, they will be able to cope with what is happening. If there are concerns around that, we probably consider them to be vulnerable and, therefore, we need to have more steps in place to prevent the tragic things that we are seeking to avoid in the system.

Nikki Bond: Thinking about where else there is a good definition of vulnerability, we could look to the FCA who have recently done a lot of work on identifying, understanding and conceptualising vulnerability. It has come up with a broad definition that appears to work and is flexible with some good guidelines for firms on how to understand vulnerability and how that fluctuates. Its process for achieving that has been incredibly useful. It did a process of consultation, refinement, working with stakeholders and people with lived experience or experience of vulnerability to arrive at that very definition. I think that that is what the DWP should be doing when it is thinking about how to define vulnerability.

Q6                Chair: When was that definition adopted?

Nikki Bond: I think it was about 18 months ago, but it was following a long process of consultation.

Q7                Debbie Abrahams: You just mentioned there being a dynamic definition of vulnerability. Do you mean that for groups of people or do you mean that a person can become vulnerable at different points in their relationship with the DWP, or both?

Chloe Schendel-Wilson: I think it is probably both. For example, a lot of people who are disabled acquire that with age, something happens to them over their lives. People are not always born with a disability, but also there is nuance. Someone could be using the DWP because they are on a low income and they get support and then they might become a single parent, so you have to take that into account. This is a difficult one. Things are always quite nuanced and people’s circumstances change over time.

It is about flexibility. We hear a lot from the people we speak to in our research that there seems to be inflexibility at the moment and a lot of fear around the culture of claiming benefits and people feeling that they have to jump through hoops, that they are treated like they are trying to be caught out. I looked at the NHS definition of vulnerability and that has six principles around what that means. It seems to have trained its staff on their duty of care for those people. I think that anything that is taken on needs to filter down at every level to frontline staff as well.

Henry Parkes: I agree completely that vulnerability can flow in and out. One of the issues is that work coaches don’t really know their claimants very well and they might not be aware if their circumstances are changing. Something might happen to them and the work coach is probably none the wiser. It does not help, for instance—I am sure we will come on to this later—that the amount of time that work coaches spend getting to know their claimants and the level of trust that exists between claimants and work coaches is pretty low. They don’t know what is on going in their lives, necessarily. They might not be aware if something happens and nor might claimants, from research we have done, think that that is a relevant thing to tell work coaches because they see them as people to be slightly afraid of and just administering the benefit and so on.

It is definitely changes over time, so there is something about identifying vulnerability at the outset when someone makes a claim for their Universal Credit but being open to the idea that things will change. If we don’t improve the quality of the relationships between work coaches and claimants, it will be much harder to identify when the situations change that call for changes to claimant commitments or changes to groups or whatever needs to happen in response to those changes.

Q8                Selaine Saxby: I want to stand up for the work coaches at my Jobcentre who do a fantastic job and in an area of very low unemployment like we have, they do know their claimants. It is important to note that while there is a need for consistency of training, I would hate them all to be tarred with the same brush.

Moving on, and I know we have started to touch on this already, is there anything further you would like to add on what extent DWP takes adequate accountability for safeguarding vulnerable benefit claimants?

Chloe Schendel-Wilson: It feels like so far there has been—this is from people on the ground and people who are interacting with the services—little transparency around if you don’t get the result you were looking for or something gets cut off or you have a problem with the DWP and you feel like you have not been given a fair chance, you have some sort of issue. As in quite a lot of areas of the public sector, it can feel like that it is the final answer and it is the final authority because it is a Government Department and it carries the weight of being a Government Department. The risk is that people feel there is nowhere left to turn and they don’t know where to go. Not everyone thinks or has the resources to go down a legal route or to write to their MP or that sort of area if they feel that they have not been given the right services and they want accountability.

I think that the DWP can do more to make obvious the transparency about its safeguarding procedures, its duty of care and, if there is one, if it is a statutory duty, “If you feel unhappy with the result or the outcome that you have been given, this is what you can do. Particularly with the high profile cases that we have seen, which are obviously the extreme end and the very last resource, if people are vulnerable and they suddenly get their money taken away, which is to pay their rent and their bills and feed their children and put a roof over their heads, that can be a very scary place to be. There can be no harm in doing even more to make sure that everything is transparent for claimants.

Nikki Bond: I think that there is inadequate accountability for safeguarding overall. As part of responding to the consultation, we spent quite a long time talking to other stakeholders and looking for safeguarding documents that the DWP uses. It is a disparate selection of documents. It is hard to understand the DWP’s sense of vulnerability and its safeguarding processes. It is hard with that kind of bag of documents to understand how accountable it is. Given the group of people that the DWP is serving and the needs of that group, there is an argument that—coming back to Debbie’s question earlier—all people in receipt of PIP or ESA could be classed as vulnerable, but I think there has to be a stepped process of reviewing vulnerable to what and what characteristics make somebody vulnerable.

It may be that we arrive at a conclusion that vulnerability is so common within the DWP that the whole system process needs to change, but the processes for taking account of that and for safeguarding people seem sadly lacking and it is hard to understand what it does.

Henry Parkes: I agree with that. It is not clear what the Department’s commitments are in different areas. We know that there are lots of high profile cases of systemic failure and we know, therefore, that sometimes it is not working but we have nothing to go on for how much safeguarding activity is happening, for whom, whether it works and is effective. I know that we will talk later about internal process reviews but they are an indication of where things have gone wrong and the Department learning lessons from that, which I imagine are lessons about safeguarding and so on. At the moment, we know that it does those reviews but we don’t know very much about them or what learning it takes away from them and so on. In short, there is definitely a lack of transparency and accountability, in our view.

Q9                Selaine Saxby: Building on that—and you have more or less already answered the question but I will ask it so I have covered it for you—is the DWP adequately transparent about safeguarding failures when they occur, in your opinion?

Nikki Bond: No. There is little publication. Rethink has done huge amounts of work and research on this and there is little publication of the safeguarding processes and failures. We have a limited understanding of the themes of those failures and so it is hard to understand if the DWP is making progress to improve the things that have been identified. Hearing from people on the ground who are in touch with the DWP daily, they are not experiencing improvements in safeguarding processes and people are still experiencing harm. That leads us to conclude that they are inadequate.

Chloe Schendel-Wilson: There was a report done by Rethink Mental Illness a couple of years ago and it could find very little data from its research. The National Audit Office also did a report a couple of years back and there is very little data to be found in the public domain. Most of the data that Rethink Mental Illness got was through freedom of information requests. There was very little that was easily accessible. In the National Audit Office report, the DWP said that it would continue to publish lessons that had been learnt and use the IPRs as a continuous improvement tool and talk about lessons that have been learnt and track and monitor this. Whether that got lost in the pandemic or I couldn’t find it, but I could not easily find where that central body was or if it had been set up following on from those recommendations. I think that there needs to be a little bit more done on public trust and full transparency.

Henry Parkes: I agree with that. The only thing I will add is that it is the time to get this sorted with the other things that the Department is doing. We are stepping up conditionality for certain groups who might overlap with the vulnerability groups. The sanctions rate is quite high at the moment. There has never been a more important time to get these things right if we are going to push ahead with those kinds of proposals.

Q10            Dr Spencer: My questions will be focused on getting a better understanding of the practicalities of what is being proposed for implementing such a statutory duty. If a statutory duty was brought in, who would be responsible for discharging this duty, in your view? Would it be departmental or managers of Jobcentres or at the individual work coach level, or everybody? Who would be responsible and ultimately held accountable for a failure or a breach in this duty?

Chloe Schendel-Wilson: It would probably be all three. It would be departmental in that the duty and the level of direction should be from the Department itself. As has happened in the NHS, there should be much more done to make sure that Jobcentre coaches and managers understand the duty and that is feeding into their day-to-day interactions with claimants. Accountability would be straight from the top, just like any other Government Department. When we think about the people that we are interacting with and dealing with, the type of issues that we are dealing with, we would not accept that level of lack of accountability with any other body and we need to take that into consideration as well.

Q11            Dr Spencer: On the accountability, in the NHS duties of care the practitioners are also accountable if there has been a breach. Are you saying it would be purely departmental accountability or do you think everyone should be held accountable for breach of the duty?

Chloe Schendel-Wilson: I think that the ultimate responsibility comes from the Department but there should be some sort of duty on centre managers, the people who are in charge of Jobcentre coaches.

Q12            Dr Spencer: Individual work coaches as well or just centre managers?

Chloe Schendel-Wilson: It is for the centre managers to take the accountability. If something goes wrong, they should take responsibility. It is just like the boss would take responsibility ultimately in a company.

Q13            Dr Spencer: In social care or health settings individual practitioners would also be held accountable for breaches of statutory duties, doctors, nurses, social workers. There are certainly challenges in this. Do you think, in practicalities, that this would be centre managers? Is that the view of the panel, away from individual practitioners? Is that the sort of model you are going for?

Chloe Schendel-Wilson: I think that practitioners should have accountability, but whether I was a member of the public and I made a complaint or there was an issue that resulted in a complaint, ultimately it would be the centre manager’s job to make sure that the job coaches are responsible, and they would probably have to fire them or whatever that would be. Every level should have that level of accountability but it should be up to the managers rather than the job coaches to take ultimate responsibility for the area that they run.

Nikki Bond: On your point about other services, I think the distinction is that the other professionals are registered professionals and answerable in that way. Work coaches do not have that level of registration or oversight. I think there is a departmental responsibility and a manager responsibility. It resting with individual work coaches feels not quite right at the moment, particularly when you think about the training that work coaches are given. We did a recent Freedom of Information request and found that 38% of customer contact facing staff had not had mental health training, so how can we hold people to account for their safeguarding responsibility if we are not adequately training them in the first instance? Those are my anxieties about that.

Henry Parkes: We have not done detailed work on this. Obviously there is a question about where the buck stops, which would need to be worked through and your instinct is probably right that it is the middle manager level. At the moment, particularly given the resources of individual work coaches and the pressures that they are under, it might be quite a lot to expect the accountability to lie at that level. It is a great question but we have not done much detailed work on it.

Q14            Dr Spencer: I think this is one of the key issues about the proposal of a safeguarding duty, because that is very serious, a statutory safeguarding duty. I speak from my personal experience in the health and social care sector. People who have professional regulations and are very highly trained are discharging these duties and that is quite a serious undertaking, quite a big thing. It seems a bit odd to me to have a system where you have a statutory duty that is discharged by the manager but the people who are doing all the detailed work, doing the detailed assessments, are the work coaches and yet they are neither professionally regulated nor are they held accountable for their work in the professional regulation sense. Have you spoken to work coaches for their views on the statutory safeguarding duty? Are they keen to have that? Do they think it will be helpful in doing their work or have they raised concerns about it?

Nikki Bond: Money and Mental Health has not spoken to work coaches about their appetite for that. I think you are right, there are lots of concerns about who would be discharging that duty. In other settings they are registered professionals and work coaches are not registered professionals, so it is giving them that responsibility. I am not sure that because it feels tricky to implement should mean that we shy away from introducing a safeguarding duty, given the level of vulnerability that we are dealing with and the level of harm that is clearly experienced. There is probably a lot more things we can do about what that looks like.

While we have not spoken to work coaches about whether or not they would like a safeguarding duty, we have spoken to people with lived experience and on the receiving end of the benefit system about whether they would like more accountability from the DWP and would like it to have a safeguarding duty. There is a pretty much unanimous feeling that they would like that and would like greater protection.

Q15            Dr Spencer: When do you think a safeguarding duty should be activated? At what point in the service would that legal responsibility kick in? Would it be when someone applies or after a work coach assessment? When do you anticipate the safeguarding duty would cease? There will be a lot of people who are going through the system who have had some sort of intervention and would that duty remain going forward? How do you envisage the responsibilities evolving?

Chloe Schendel-Wilson: It depends, obviously, on the person’s vulnerability and why they may be going through the DWP and interacting with the DWP. It does not seem to make sense that if someone has been signed by a GP as being medically unfit to work, the Department that is administering the money that they need to survive does not have a statutory duty. That feels like a real gap in the system. It also strikes a bigger problem of welfare reform around why is it necessarily someone in DWP who is doing that assessment. If someone has been signed by their GP that they are medically unfit to work, do they need to go through the bureaucracy of a whole other system and going through job coaches?

It feels like there is a problem in the system that as soon as somebody, whether through the NHS or another body—for various reasons it could be another Government Department—has been signed as being a vulnerable person, that should automatically roll through to the DWP. There should not be an extra level for people to have to deal with, for staff as well as for claimants.

Q16            Dr Spencer: My final question, and that was a nice lead-up to it, is that of course most of the people who you think a safeguarding duty would be beneficial for are people who have already been within the auspices of the health and social care system and, by definition, they will have registered professionals who have statutory duties for care and, by definition, safeguarding. What benefit will an additional safeguarding duty to a non-health-based organisation, that will not have the adequate training and professional registration, give over and above the fact that these individuals are already within the framework of a safeguarding duty through the NHS and other social care?

Henry Parkes: My understanding is that there are some people who have disengaged with other services at this point. They might have involvement with only the DWP and they have disengaged more broadly. People can fall through the cracks if they are not having contact, if their contact has fallen out with, say, the mental health service. It is another layer of protection in the event that people fall out of the other services, which we know that people do.

Q17            Dr Spencer: Wouldn’t it make more sense to refer them to adult social care and have adult social care deal with that and discharge the safeguarding duty?

Henry Parkes: Yes, this is about referrals as well. It goes back to my point about DWP not being responsible for everybody’s problems. If we think about why the statutory duty is needed, it comes down to making decisions about cutting people’s benefits and so on and being like, “Hang on, we have this requirement that we consider XYZ”. At the moment, that occurs through guidance and that is fine, so it is strengthening that and making it more muscular. There is also a benefit of we need to see a cultural transformation at DWP that sees people as individuals and a system that is more compassionate. Part of it is about setting this in legislation, giving people the right to recourse, so if the safeguarding is not observed they can say, “You were meant to do this and you didn’t”. It would be helpful if that was on a statutory basis to protect them.

Q18            Dr Spencer: I will, like Selaine, defend my case workers as in job coaches. I think they are really good and I have seen the work that they do. Also particularly our youth hub, which has been brilliant. I don’t necessarily recognise their portrayal in the work—

Henry Parkes: It is very clear to me that there are some excellent work coaches and I am not talking about across the board incompetence or anything like that. We are just talking about the fact that this needs to work across the board. If a few people are not as good at it or come under particular pressures, their caseloads are particularly high, whatever it is—I am not in any way implying that all work coaches are terrible or anything like that but they need to be very consistently good for people not to fall through the cracks.

Chloe Schendel-Wilson: I think that it is not about individual work coaches. It is about the culture overall and the feeling that a lot of people who obtain welfare feel that they are having to prove themselves or jump through hoops. We are doing research where the majority of people say they feel they have to prove their disability to the people they interact with in the DWP. It is more the culture around what happens when someone claims benefits and how they are made to feel. Are they made to feel supported or are they made to feel that they are jumping through hoops?

I will quickly go back to the first bit of your question a minute ago. I think if nobody was falling through the cracks, we would not be having this conversation, but in an ideal world government would not be siloed. We would have the interaction between someone’s social worker and healthcare assistant or whatever it might, but the fact is that there are people who are falling through the cracks. There have been errors with the support they receive from DWP and they have not gone to a social worker or someone else in public life and sometimes the worst has happened. The fact that we have cracks, we have people falling through the cracks shows the need for a safeguarding policy specifically for this Department.

Q19            Nigel Mills: Is the problem that vulnerable people are not getting what they are entitled to or are they not entitled to what they need? I am asking is the process getting people to the wrong result or is it getting them to the result the system thinks they should get but actually they need something different? The system needs to change or what we offer needs to change rather than the decision-making process.

Chloe Schendel-Wilson: I think the decision-making process does need to change. As I said before, if someone has been medically signed off from their GP, it does not need to go through a whole other process for the DWP.

Q20            Nigel Mills: But GPs don’t want that job, do they?

Chloe Schendel-Wilson: No, of course not, but is there a way that if someone is registered disabled or in need of special support, they should not have to go through that process? I was looking at the areas of the work capability assessment that need to be performed and even the language can feel quite dehumanising for people. If someone is in need, they can often feel that it is not a supportive environment for them.

Q21            Nigel Mills: There is a danger that what you are advocating requires GPs to share medical information with DWP proactively, which I have not seen many constituents begging me to put in place for them.

Chloe Schendel-Wilson: No, it is just having to go through that process and feeling like you are going to be caught out or going through a process that can be quite dehumanising for people. If people are desperate and they see a Government Department as the last resort for people, the last authority for people, it can create the wrong sort of environment for people.

We may not be on to this, but there is a lot of research done in the disability sector about people that don’t do things that could eventually lead to employment because they are fearful that their benefits will be stopped. The Activity Alliance, which is a disability charity in sport and physical activity, brought out some research a few years ago and half of the disabled people they spoke to said they did not take part in physical activity because they thought that if they were seen to be too active someone would stop their benefit. It is almost that the system can trap people there and not give them the steps that they might need to take the next step. If we want people to go to work, sometimes we are preventing them rather than helping them.

Henry Parkes: On your first question, there is some accounting for the fact that people have complex needs and so on in the design of Universal Credit. The whole idea of the claimant commitment is that it should be a reasonable two-way conversation between people about what it is reasonable that a person can do, given their circumstances. That all sounds very reasonable and sensible and we can all agree to that in principle, but we know in practice that on occasion or in some instances the claimant commitments are not being flexed. They are cookie cutouts, “You will do this and that is the end of it”. There is a theoretical flexibility but that is not always being seen in the way that it should be when people come to make a claim.

In Universal Credit we have monthly payments by default to mirror work, or that is the idea, but that does not work for a lot of people. We have, therefore, more frequent payments so that people can manage their money who might find that difficult, but the problem is that the process of asking for more frequent payments is hidden in the system. Someone has thought about it somewhere but it is not something that work coaches will proactively offer or it is accessibly gate capped whereas we might say, “This is a good idea, let’s allow more people to access that service” as they have in Scotland through the Scottish system.

Q22            Nigel Mills: The question I was trying to get my head around is that we, in Parliament, give DWP a set of rules that it is there to administer and we hold it to account for spending money in the way that Parliament intends. If I create a duty of safeguarding, you may find a position where the rules say, “This person doesn’t get this but I think they need it but I can’t give it to you”. Then what do I do? I have got two conflicting duties. I am either knowingly giving money out that I am not legally allowed to or I am harming somebody in the loosest sense. It creates a bit of a conflict, if we are not careful, of what wins, the rules set out in the law or what I think this person really needs. I don’t know how many cases that would happen in.

Nikki Bond: I think that some of these conversations and questions come down to the assessment and the quality of that assessment and how well people are able to articulate and evidence their needs to professionals. You are right, there is a jarring between if there is a safeguarding responsibility that equally somebody is assessed as not requiring that kind of support or not meeting that threshold. There was a recent consultation about work capability assessments. The exception that you are talking about is there is a current substantial risk regulation that sits in place, which means where people maybe don’t meet the right point requirements to get the capability to work related activity but there is a substantial risk regulation that would allow them still to be awarded. It is proposed that that is removed.

I think it is about getting the assessments right in the first instance. We know through the number of mandatory reconsiderations that go on that assessments are not always accurate and people are having to appeal them. Coming to Henry’s point, appealing some of the inaccurate decisions falls on people who are unwell or vulnerable to manage and navigate an appeal process or advocate for themselves, which is all just incredibly difficult. Accessing the easements that are intended to support people and if they worked properly would go some way to supporting people, but when people are unwell they can’t advocate mental health crisis easements or advance payment arrangements for their housing benefit.

Nigel Mills: Yes, I absolutely agree that if we did the job right the first time more often we would have a lot fewer problems to work out solutions to.

Henry Parkes: It is a problem if safeguarding policies are in conflict with other policy objectives and we need to have the conversation if we agree to the principle of safeguarding and these things come into conflict. It may force a conversation that we might need to have in some cases where at the moment we can go, “That is unfortunate but it is not in statute”. I think it would force those conversations and that would be a positive thing. We would have to resolve things and policy might have to change, but I think that would kind of be the point.

Q23            Nigel Mills: Talk me through accessing benefits. I understand if I am seeing a human being in my local Jobcentre there is some chance that they ought to be able to work out if I am vulnerable and should be able to treat me differently, but I suspect there is quite a large number of claimants who never have any interaction with a DWP employee at all because I claim PIP or ESA and I might get an assessment by Atos or Capita, whoever it is. I will probably get a letter and I might appeal and I might get a phone call at some point, but no human in the Department has ever actually seen me or done anything. How do they know I am vulnerable? Should there be a box on the form I should tick to say, “I think I might be vulnerable” or should it be because of the conditions they can see I am putting on the form? How does the Department know that this person who is newly accessing might need some more help?

Nikki Bond: I think that is a really interesting question and one where again we can draw on financial services. They have been grappling with this issue for a long time. You make an application for a loan. They are considering how to use data to understand if somebody is experiencing some vulnerability or difficulties. If you take a long time on a form you will get a little pop-up box that says, “Do you need any extra help?” I think there are lessons to be learned from that kind of process.

There is also stuff going on in essential services sectors on a universal “tell us once” kind of system whereby people can identify and let people know about their needs and vulnerabilities. It is out there universally for certain systems and people that they want to know about it and it is available. Yes, there will be people who are never seen by a DWP employee but we should be looking to other sectors to see how they are doing this to spot vulnerability, whether that is use of data or disclosure systems, to build that into the DWP processes.

Q24            Nigel Mills: We saw the Scottish new approach to this, which tries to be a bit more customer facing and I think they would say seeks to help them through the claim journey rather than try to trip them up as the ethos of it. Do you think that kind of change is working in Scotland and is it something we should have as our way of making benefit claims, the system helps you set out your evidence rather than expects you to and then tries to trip you up when you have done it?

Chloe Schendel-Wilson: Yes, I think it should. There were some positive noises at the beginning of this year that it should be what you can do rather than what you can’t. That feels like a general trend of direction that would be positive. As we were saying before, on data sharing the public sector will have to find an answer to—I don’t have the answers—whether it wants to share data across services or not. There are benefits and risks on both sides, but I think moving in that direction is definitely a positive. It is not contradictory and you can encourage people into work and support them into work, if that is the aim, while also acknowledging if Joe Bloggs did not turn up to his assessment yesterday we know that he is vulnerable, therefore we are not going to sanction him straightaway. It is having those safeguarding procedures in place to make sure that people don’t fall through the net.

Henry Parkes: I think that the principle of putting dignity at the heart of the system, which I think is the Scottish Government approach to this, is a good one. It speaks to a need for a broadly cultural transformation at Jobcentre Plus on how benefits are delivered, but it is not enough to say that. How we deliver that is the sort of things we are talking about today, making sure that those values live through the policy and implementation changes we need to see.

Q25            Nigel Mills: We have a system where you can nominate an appointee if you are not able to make the claim yourself. I suppose that should be a big clue that the claimant is vulnerable. Is that a system that works well or does it just create different challenges?

Chloe Schendel-Wilson: We definitely need to do more research into this in the disability sector in general, but in the little research that there is people say that it is definitely working and it is the right thing to do once someone gets that sorted but like many things it is very bureaucratic as well.

Nikki Bond: I think the appointee system is incredibly valuable to those people who need it and use it. There is no denying that. We hear from our research community of people with lived experience of mental health problems that they don’t need an appointee, which is very absolute. It gives a lot of power and authority to your third party and people want something more granular than that. They want support to manage their Universal Credit claim. They don’t want somebody to receive money on their behalf.

The current system and how it is set up, particularly with Universal Credit, makes it hard to get support from a third party. They have introduced an explicit consent model, which is hard for people to navigate. They are having to navigate the very process that they find challenging to be able to delegate explicit consent to a third party. When we have spoken to people they talk about, “I want to be able to give view-only access to my journal to my mum so that my mum can prompt me if I have got an appointment that I have forgotten or my work coach has put a message on there”. They don’t want people to be able to do things on their behalf. They want to be empowered, but they need the support and guardrails in place and currently the system does not support for that.

Henry Parkes: Definitely appointeeship will be appropriate in a limited set of circumstances but the halfway house of having representatives will be helpful to a quite large pool of people. I won’t repeat too much of what has already been said but on the shift to an explicit consent model, it has to be in writing, it has to be renewed, in England at least, every two months, which is a bit of a hassle. Even if the claimant is happy for it to be for a year, tough, it has to be done every two months. If we think back to how it was used under the implicit model, that obviously had some risks associated with it as well: basically it was the case that if you are with someone and you said, “I give permission for you to speak to this person” they will have permission to speak to that person. That is a common sense approach to understanding who should be able to help with a benefit claim.

The other thing I have heard from speaking to welfare rights advisers is even where there is an established thing that this person is the representative and the system recognises that, we have had a big influx of new work coaches over the last few years and some of them may be less aware of how things work and may be refusing to speak to people or contacting the claimant directly when they should be contacting the representative. It is making sure that where the policy is in place it is implemented correctly.

Q26            David Linden: The DWP would say that it has a number of safeguarding measures in place already to support people, such as help to claim, advanced customer support senior leaders and discretionary housing payments. How successful are those safeguarding measures in implementing that protection for folk?

Henry Parkes: We should judge it by its results. There is something about what the policies are and whether they are sufficient, but we know that people are falling through the cracks and I don’t think that we necessarily have a brilliant sense of the extent to which that is true. We have already referred to the Rethink Mental Illness research, which says that based on the surveys the number of serious case reviews that are going on relative to the number of things that we expect might be happening in the system suggests that things are not being sufficiently investigated.

To understand the extent to which safeguarding works, we need to understand how many people experience very severe issues as a result of their engagement with the benefit system. I don’t think there is a very good answer to that and it is not very transparent at the moment.

Nikki Bond: Yes, there are measures in place. How well they work for people is incredibly variable. The help to claim service is an excellent service that helps people make their initial claim, but I know that in the last contracting period they removed the face-to-face element of the help to claim service. We know that a lot of people who struggle with making a benefit application are struggling with the digital nature of it and the complexity of their needs means that they require face-to-face support. It is really disappointing that that is no longer commissioned to be delivered in a face-to-face way.

There are other things in place like the advanced customer support and liaising with other agencies where people are at risk. Then there are things like the Universal Credit six-point plan framework, which they use to identify individuals who may be presenting with suicidality. Again, that feels pretty imperfect in lots of way. It feels quite procedural. There doesn’t seem to be any consideration built into that plan for the follow-up support that somebody might need for their benefits on the back of—it is very, “These are the steps that an adviser should take when they are presented with somebody who is mentioning suicide” but there is no follow-up of how they should continue to be supported and managed within the system. There are processes in place but significant improvements could be made to them.

Chloe Schendel-Wilson: Yes, I think there could be definite improvements. The fact that the number of IPRs is going up and more and more are being reported shows clearly that there are people who are falling through the system and we need to do more. The fact that there is no easy way of measuring this and no real transparency, particularly for people to see what these measures are, is a sign that more needs to be done. Also the way that the investigations are done needs to be improved. At the moment for people who have committed suicide and fallen through the cracks it will either be from a coroner’s report that recommends that DWP investigate this or there may be a complaint from family or friends. It is a very sensitive subject but not every death by suicide of people who are claiming welfare is being investigated. There is definitely more that needs to be done in this area.

Q27            David Linden: Mr Parkes, you made reference to the fact that relatively speaking we have had quite a lot of new work coaches. Just as colleagues in the committee have done, I also pay tribute to the work coaches who work in my own constituency. With the new cohort of work coaches who have come in, do you think the DWP has an adequate understanding of what a vulnerable claimant is?

Henry Parkes: I think they do have a sense of vulnerability, clearly, and understand that vulnerability exists in the system and that there are claimants who are vulnerable, but I think there is an assumption that the policies that they have in place are effective for resolving those issues. Going back to what I said before about claimant commitments, the policy is in place because there might be people who come through the door for whom the standard requirements of a claimant commitment are not appropriate. By having a conversation, we will figure that out and things will be flexed for them.

As I say, that is very good on paper but not very good in practice. It is an appreciation that people are different and we need to tailor to individual needs but that is not always coming through in what happens to people. From interviews I have done, claimants often don’t realise that there are things in the system that they can take advantage of. The policy might be sat in a drawer but if it is not being brought forward—we have already referred specifically to access to easements, which are a recognition that there will be times in someone’s claim where they might need to take a step back and not focus on work searches because they have other things going on in their lives. That is a really good policy.

We now have discretionary easements, so an easement can be given for any reasonable reason, but they are a hidden feature of the system. Also there is no data on who gets them, for what reason, where in the country. We know that easements might be applied consistently well and there is a good understanding of them in some parts of the country and in other parts they have never heard of them, that kind of thing. There are lots of policies in place, but it is making sure that they are deployed at the right time and that people know that they are there.

Q28            David Linden: If I am someone who has profound mental health issues, is there an adequate alert tool in place for the DWP to pick up on that at the moment?

Nikki Bond: On the alert tool, I know that there was talk a couple of years ago about adding vulnerability markers to the DWP system. We have been unable to find an update on how far that has been rolled out so far and what it looks like. I think there was a suggestion that they were going to look like electronic post-it notes on systems. I don’t know how well that is working and I think that makes it really hard.

We have some processes in place that mean that people’s vulnerabilities can be taken into account but unless you know that somebody is vulnerable, you are then relying on somebody to either tell you or to access themselves the easements that can help them. We know that people struggle to access those. We know that when you are having a mental health crisis or if you are struggling with mental health problems and anxiety or depression, your ability to ask for an easement or to advocate for yourself is compromised somewhat.

Those processes need to be better baked into the systems and proactively offered rather than provided once people have asked for them and the vulnerability markers need to be developed with that broader understanding of what vulnerability is.

Q29            David Linden: Let’s be really generous and say that the markers are in place at the moment and in an ideal world the markers are there, my next question is: if there is a marker in place that shows that a claimant is vulnerable, should they be subject to conditionality sanctions and so on?

Chloe Schendel-Wilson: No, they shouldn’t.

Nikki Bond: In an ideal world, I think that people with certain levels of vulnerability or in certain periods of time should not be subject to sanctions. That is ultimately what we would like to see. However, we are aware that the appetite for removing sanctions is pretty limited. If we are being pragmatic, it boils down to getting accurate assessments in the first place so that people are appropriately placed in the right conditionality groups so that they are exempt when they need to be. It comes down to getting the assessments right in the first instance.

Henry Parkes: We would absolutely not have sanctions for people who are in a vulnerable situation. One thing that comes across from interviews that I have done for my research is that it is obviously about being sanctioned but also the fear of being sanctioned is ever present, “Am I going to get paid? Am I going to slip up?” That can have an ongoing impact on people. It is not just about being sanctioned, it is the idea that you could be sanctioned in future that also causes a lot of problems. It also causes a breakdown in trust. You have been sanctioned and you think, “This person hates me and doesn’t think I deserve money”, so there is an impact on trust.

If we think about what sanctions are for, or what we claim we think they are for, it is to move people closer to the labour market. The evidence for that is very scant across the board, but I think particularly for people who are this far away from the labour market and where there is plenty of evidence that it causes quite a lot of harm for these groups, it is mad to me that we continue to think about sanctioning people when we know that those issues are present.

Q30            David Linden: Before I come on to the last couple of questions about the impact on people with mental health conditions, pre-existing conditions, when we look at the whole attitude of markers being in place, how you support folk, the Government recently had their summit on AI. Can any of you speak more broadly to the impact of algorithms and the use of AI in the system at the moment?

Henry Parkes: I have thought a little bit about it in the sense that there are situations at the moment where AI could be helpfully deployed to reduce error in the system. We know, for instance, that there are lots of issues in UC design where the computer has in an automated fashion taken account of people’s earnings and they have been paid twice in an assessment period and, therefore, they end up not being paid any benefit because in theory they earn £50,000 a year or whatever it is based on their RTI data. There are situations where we could make the system run smoother where something like that happens, their benefit drops overnight in a way that looks a bit strange, being able to say—ideally you would have human review but being able to deploy AI to substitute for things that should be human reviewed—if there are too many decisions we could deploy AI to make that more manageable and reduce this kind of error and fraud in the system.

Q31            David Linden: I will finish with the last couple of questions to Ms Bond. What impact do DWP processes have on claimants’ mental health?

Nikki Bond: As has been alluded to already, the processes greatly exacerbate people’s mental health problems. We know that people are struggling to navigate the application process, the assessment process and the system for getting support. When people are already struggling, that exacerbates the challenges that they are experiencing. When people are trying to lift themselves out of common mental health problems or a period of mental illness that they are experiencing, it exacerbates that. We have heard stories of people who are admitted to hospital and then they are getting letters that their benefits are going to stop. They are facing going out and being discharged to no income and having to set all of that back up. It does not set you up for recovery very well.

We have also heard stories of people who were in the benefit system and fear of benefits being cut off or fear of not being able to comply with conditionality drives an extreme feeling of low worth and the persistent poverty that people are existing in. A research report we wrote a few years ago called “Silent Killer” looked at how those systems can drive a feeling of suicidality and self-harm because people do not know how to deal with this and how to get themselves out of their circumstances.

The systems greatly exacerbate it. There are some real overarching things that could be done, like introducing a safeguarding duty, which we are wholly in favour of. But there are also some smaller bits that can be done in improving the assessment process, helping people present their case in the best way possible. We know that it can be incredibly difficult to go under an assessment and be asked multiple questions and answer them. It is hard to put your best foot forward and articulate yourself as well as you would like to.

Simple things like giving people advance sight of the interview questions that they might be asked allows people to prep, and shifting some of the questions on assessments so they are less physical health-centric and more mental health-centric. Consultations that came out about the work capability assessment suggest we are going in the opposite direction of that. There are lots of recommendations we could talk to there.

David Linden: I think you have covered what would have been in my second question, so I will stop there.

Chair: We are a bit up against the clock now.

Q32            Debbie Abrahams: It is worth remembering why we have instigated this inquiry. In the last three years, just under 200 people have been investigated for dying, some through suicide, but not exclusively. For some of us here, this has been a concern over many years. My first experience of this was 12 years ago, shortly after I became an MP. All the way through the process, the Government in their different forms and guises have instituted different internal processes to investigate these and to learn lessons from these appalling actions, yet we are still here with the same issues.

Do you agree with what the NAO found when they investigated suicides—and they only investigated suicides independently and published their report in February 2020—that this is just the tip of the iceberg?

Chloe Schendel-Wilson: I think probably it is, maybe because this is an issue that has had all the things that we have spoken about, whether people feel that they can—whether there is enough transparency and enough accountability, whether everything is getting reported. Look at the numbers of people in this country that commit suicide, sadly. It is in the thousands and people in those numbers may or may not be on welfare. We are investigating only such a small percentage of people. Again, a lot of that data either comes straight from the coroners or it is because family and friends have submitted a complaint and raised this.

It feels like we are still playing catch-up. We are still getting the cases that are known to us, but how systemic the problem is is largely still unknown. I read about a case—I think it was in the NAO report—where someone had written on their suicide note, “Thank the DWP for me” or something along those lines. That was not passed on through the coroner as being the reason for their death. It seems like there is a huge systemic problem where things are not being picked up.

Nikki Bond: I agree. It is absolutely the tip of the iceberg. Where coroners are ruling that the DWP directly played a part in somebody’s decision to take their life is minimal. The reasons for suicidality are complex and multifaceted. We know that, but we also know that people in financial difficulty are more likely to experience suicidality. We have lots of statistics on that, which I can send through.

That comes down to persistently not having enough money to make ends meet. I think that focusing on suicides solely is quite narrow. We should broaden that out. If that is the bar we are looking at, it is a pretty low bar. People are suffering every day from contemplating suicide because they think it is the only way out because they feel so trapped, or they are self-harming. We should be doing more to investigate that broader range and going into hospital and mental health crisis. The number of times we have heard from our research community about what triggered a sanction decision or benefits being cut off meant that it led to a crisis—

Debbie Abrahams: I did not mean to stop you. I totally agree with what you are saying. For example, Errol Graham starved to death, and that was not a death by suicide. He starved to death. I am just conscious, you have not had your time.

Henry Parkes: I was going to agree that the threshold for harm is clearly very high. We know that there are flaws in the way that these things can be reported, the typology of people who can report, for instance clinical professionals. There is not a clear route for that in general. A lack of transparency on how you raise these issues seems to be present. I think the reason why we do not know the full size of the iceberg is because our processes to understand how this is failing are flawed at the moment.

Q33            Debbie Abrahams: That is very helpful. Were you aware—and I think probably the answer is no but let me ask the question—that at Errol Graham’s inquest, David Carew, who is the DWP’s chief psychologist, said that there was a new safeguarding policy due to be released in 2019? Are you aware of a new safeguarding policy that resulted from that? It was the reason that the coroner did not issue a prevention of future deaths report, which would have been the sixth in five years. No. Okay, that is fine. I just want to get it on the record, if I can.

Nikki, I think you said that we need to understand the harms that could be contributing to this, and we have talked through conditionality and sanctions and work capability assessment process. We also talked earlier about vulnerability as something that can be a fluid position. Do you think the system itself and the policies within the social security system cause harm?

Nikki Bond: Certainly drawing on evidence from people in our research community, the way in which the systems are run and delivered directly contribute to harm. The assessment processes are a significant source of harm. That fear that you are going to be sanctioned at any point is a significant cause of harm. We have reams of evidence to support the harm that each of these systems is causing.

Q34            Debbie Abrahams: Does anybody want to add to that? In response to the questions about Scotland, for example, there is a culture that seems to be very different. What about how we provide the services for claimants? Do you think that contributes to a vulnerability as well?

Chloe Schendel-Wilson: The DWP, just like the NHS or the Department of Justice, is a Department that is dealing with a lot of vulnerable people. Maybe the way we frame that, and you hear it a lot sometimes, the narratives that can be said, whether in the media or in public life, we are not acknowledging that the majority of people who use these services will be vulnerable. We are providing a public service to them that they need to get by. We are not trying to catch them out or anything like that.

From what we have seen, people say that if they have particular conditions, particularly mental health conditions, it has made it worse, “They have made my anxiety worse or my depression worse”. I think we are perpetuating harm with the way the system works. We have spoken about technology and things like that but there should be a very person-centred department who are dealing with vulnerable people and right the way at the top as well. A lot of the research we hear is that things are too inflexible. Someone might be able to work for a day or things might fluctuate but, right the way through, everything is quite binary. That can certainly not help people in the way that it is supposed to.

Q35            Debbie Abrahams: I wonder if you are aware of a couple of pieces of research. I mention this in particular about Universal Credit and this has been published in a peer reviewed health journal. It was shown that the actual application process for people who did not have any harm or expressed any mental health condition at the start made them psychologically distressed. I do not know if you were aware of that. What I am trying to get at is that the system itself can cause harm, but at the moment it is not being addressed in its different guises.

Chloe Schendel-Wilson: Tinkering around the edges and making small changes here and there, when I think real reform needs to take place across the whole of the department to really change that.

Debbie Abrahams: Do you want to add to that?

Henry Parkes: Yes. It is no surprise to me that that happens to people, to be honest. There are a few things that we could probably do in the delivery of Universal Credit, for instance, that would help a lot. Obviously, one is about getting conditionality right and what are the root causes of getting it wrong. One of the issues is that vulnerability often is not being correctly identified. Even if we had some great policies about what we do if people are identified, there is still a failure of identification, which comes back to what I was saying about trust.

One of the things that we thought about is that a Jobcentre is an open office environment. You are quite typically in close quarters with someone else, or certainly in some Jobcentres that is the case, and you are expected, basically to a stranger, to spill your guts about what is going on in your life and why you might need special treatment in certain ways. That is very unreasonable. If you were going to a GP, you would not have another GP appointment going on over here.

Other issues around digital access cause a lot of stress and seem to cause a lot of the problems in the system, such as, “I could not get online” or “I could not log into my portal”. That is a mixture of not having broadband access, which is still a common problem in some groups, and not having access to laptops, tablets and so on. The idea that you are able to undertake full-time work search without access to a stable internet connection and a laptop to do that work search causes a lot of stress. It is, “How am I going to do this?” You go to the library where there are not many computers. The computers at the Jobcentre are terrible. We do not necessarily give people the tools. We expect them to be able to do certain things but then there are big barriers to them being able to fill those commitments, even with the best intentions.

Thinking about the sources of stress, we have already talked about sanctions, the presence of them and the ongoing underlying stress that that causes and also the acute impacts when people are without money for however long it might be.

Q36            Debbie Abrahams: On the process that we have now, when harm unfortunately occurs and it has, as I said, morphed into various different groups, we have the special case panels, which review the individual case reviews, and the IPRG, which is meant to track the recommendations on this. These are all internal groups. Do you want to make brief comments on that? It has been a recommendation of previous Select Committees that it might be appropriate to have an independent group that would investigate these in a similar way, for example, to how the IPC investigates issues for the police.

Chloe Schendel-Wilson: As I said before, all cases are very complex and if somebody has been in a serious harm there can be multiple factors for that. If these failings were going on in any other area of the public sector, people would rightly expect a lot more transparency and accountability. There would be a lot more public outrage if this was going on in the health system. Obviously a part of them would have to be internal, but it is right that these processes and transparency around what is going on and failures that are taking place should be in the public domain so that the Department can be held accountable by the public.

Nikki Bond: Yes, we agree entirely. It is hard to understand what the DWP is doing and the progress it is making without that information being published. An independent review of that seems a very obvious route to go down. One of the big takeaways for me is the expansion of what initiates a serious case review.

Henry Parkes: Obviously we do not necessarily get into the details of what is going on in these individual cases, but what are the recurring themes? What is the Department learning from it? It is all very well and good to say it is doing them, but where is that going? An independent involvement would be useful in that regard.

Q37            Siobhan Baillie: I will keep it very brief because of time. How will the proposed reforms for the work capability assessments help vulnerable claimants?

Chair: Picking up Siobhan’s point, can I ask for brief answers given the time we are at?

Henry Parkes: I will briefly answer. In particular for vulnerable claimants, the biggest risk is that we currently have a provision in those assessments for if you are found to be capable for work and a substantial risk of harm would come to you. That is a bit of a backstop in the system at the moment. It is a recognition that we have a fairly rigid point system about if you score this, you will get it. If not, then not. It is saying that, okay, we have a point system but also there will be legitimate reasons, not picked up by the point system, where it will be very clear to people that this person is not going to be searching for work and should not be expected to in the short term at least.

At the moment there is this backstop. It is a bit of a catchall to pick up on those situations where the assessment criteria are not quite capturing the challenges that the person faces. We know that it would be very harmful for them to be found needing to search for work ongoing. I think that they are thinking about reviewing that. Fair enough, review it, but the idea that there should not be something to capture those cases is a big concern.

Nikki Bond: I do not think the proposals for the changes to the work capability assessment will be helpful at all to people with mental health problems. The two activities that they are proposing removing are the coping with social engagement and the getting around. They are the main activities that people with mental health problems rely on to get the points awarded. I think the belief that sits behind some of this is around the expansion of working from home.

There is a lack of consideration of how social anxieties show up. It is not just about close physical proximity to somebody. You can still have that social anxiety that impedes you if you are trying to do some remote calls or you are trying to work remotely and things like that. I do not think they are helpful at all and they will disproportionately disadvantage people with mental health problems.

Chloe Schendel-Wilson: For disabled people and people with long-term health conditions, a lot of this seems to be that the requirements have changed because people can now work from home or they can work flexibly. Flexible and remote working has opened up a new world for a lot of disabled people in the way they can work. For it to work it needs to be employer-led too and ideally maybe even have a trial with a certain number of claimants and a certain number of employers that can take on people and will lead this.

There is risk if you suddenly say to people, “There you go, you do not need this support any more because you can work from home. We have changed your requirements.” If that person can’t find a job or is with an employer that they—a lot of disabled people face discrimination in the workplace and, even if they are flexibly working, can still face a lot of challenges, that person can still be left stuck. I think for it to work it needs to be done in partnership with employers and ideally tested before it is rolled out nationally.

Chair: Thank you all very much. Thank you for the very helpful answers you have given us. That concludes our questions to you. If there is anything that occurs to you afterwards that you would like to let us know, please do email and we are very grateful to you all. We ask you now to step down, and we will move on to our second panel.

Examination of witnesses

Witnesses: Professor Lisa Scullion and Professor Ben Baumberg Geiger.

[This evidence was taken by video conference]

Q38            Chair: Welcome back, Ben.

Professor Baumberg Geiger: Nice to see you.

Chair: Welcome also, Professor Scullion, on the screen. I will ask both of you to very briefly tell us who you are.

Professor Baumberg Geiger: I am Ben Baumberg Geiger. I am a Professor of Social Science and Health at King’s College London, and I co-lead a programme within ESRC research centre, which is focused on work, welfare reform and mental health.

Professor Scullion: I am Lisa Scullion. I am Professor of Social Policy at the University of Salford. Since 2017, I have been leading a longitudinal project funded by the Forces in Mind Trust, focusing on the experiences of veterans navigating our social security system. Along with my colleague Ben, who is with you today, we also led a project during Covid focusing on people’s experiences of claiming benefits during and in the aftermath of Covid. I was part of a five-year project that some of you may be aware of called Welfare Conditionality that ran from 2013 to 2018.

Q39            Chair: Thank you both very much. I think you heard the discussion we had with the first panel. What do you think are the pros and cons of DWP defining vulnerable claimants? If you think that is the right thing to do, how do you think the Department should decide who to class as vulnerable?

Professor Baumberg Geiger: I understand where this comes from and there is obviously an important need behind the Committee’s inquiry that you are holding, but I do have some concerns over the idea of vulnerability and how it is being used. The nicest quote that I saw when reading around this is someone called Anna Severwright who said, “If I put you in a room with a lion, you would be vulnerable”.

Vulnerability is situation dependent. It is not an inherent property of people that they are vulnerable to all things. It is about whether the requirements of the system are not fair to certain people and that is making them vulnerable. Tied to that, there is a whole host of people, disabled people’s organisations, Baroness Jane Campbell and others, who have a lot of problems with the word “vulnerable”. It is othering, it suggests weakness, it has things around stigma, and it is a substitute for talking about things like having a fair and decent system that works for everybody and respects people’s human rights.

I know the Committee is talking about vulnerability, and I will refer to vulnerability but with some concerns over it and also being aware that vulnerability is something that is an interaction between the system and the person. I saw that CPAG said in its consultation—the inquiry response also said this—that you want to not have one idea of vulnerable claimant. It is helpful to think what are all of the different assumptions that DWP systems are making about people and to what extent are those assumptions sometimes not met.

A lot of those assumptions are about capacity to engage. Some people cannot engage at all because they are in crisis, they are in hospital. What does the DWP do around that? Some people struggle with paperwork or with digital systems. Some people are not good at negotiating their own conditionality with a work coach, perhaps because they do not have insight into their condition, which is true for some people with cognitive impairments, psychosis, and so on.

I want to mention, by the way, because I am not going to talk about it very much later, that I am aware of times that the system assumes that people can have a good conversation with their partner and bring them into a Jobcentre. I know of people experiencing domestic violence who have not been able to access the system because of that and so on.

As well as all this capacity to engage stuff, you also have the risk of harm, either physical harm or mental harm. In thinking about it, it is useful to break all of this down, partly to understand what vulnerability might mean and partly also because that gets you thinking about processes that correspond to the vulnerability that is being created by those processes and what you can do about it. I not only think it is more accurate but that it is more useful.

Professor Scullion: I agree with everything Ben has said there. When I was thinking about this question myself, it is a real challenge because I have been doing research on one of the groups that would probably be put in the category of potentially vulnerable. I have been working with veterans, but veterans themselves may not like that they have been placed in a category that describes them as vulnerable.

The issue for me, similar to what Ben said, is that there are moments when people are more or less in need of support, and these things change over time. You categorise them as being in a vulnerable group but there may be timepoints when they do not need additional support. There will be time points when they do need that additional support.

For me, it is the challengeI do not have an easy answer to this, unfortunatelyof whether you need to focus on particular client groups or whether you are focusing on particular needs and circumstances that people have over time. I think that is the challenge with this question.

Q40            Chair: Ben, going back to what you were saying about breaking things down, practically, what change or changes would you envisage to make that happen?

Professor Baumberg Geiger: One of the problems with Universal Credit—which, whatever you think about it, it has some good ideas within it—is when it was being created they were not thinking about health problems and caring responsibilities at all. I know this because I had a chat with Deven Ghelani, who I like very much and is a great person for you to have in, and I am sure you do a lot. Deven was involved with that and he said, “We were not thinking about that. We assumed that this was going to be an operational problem that other people could deal with down the line.” This misses two things. One of them is lots of these things are tricky and assuming them away as somebody can figure that out later is not super helpful, but also it is about how you create vulnerability in the system. If you have a system that has strong requirements, it makes a lot of assumptions about what people can deal with, what people can do, lots of people are going to be vulnerable. If you have a system that works in a different way so that it tries to work for everybody, there will be fewer people who are not going to be able to meet it.

Partly by breaking it down, it is about looking at the whole system—I am sure we will come back to this in specific points—right from application forms, trying to deal with things online, you see digital system vulnerability flags, what happens to that information. It is working through the engineering of the whole system with a mind of what assumptions are we making. I know we are going to talk about this a lot, but to quickly flag it—I have lots of statistics I can give you later on. Lisa has enormous amounts of experience from her projects. I think that the idea that there is a small number of people out there that are not capable of making the assumptions of DWP systems is flawed.

Chair: I think Debbie has a quick point to make.

Q41            Debbie Abrahams: I was going to follow up then. You were saying that we have not thought about the system. The point that you have just raised I was trying to get at in the other panel. Does that get back to that it is the system itself that is creating vulnerabilities and exacerbating existing vulnerabilities where they are? What does that mean about how we risk assess, consider different demographic groups and the impact of new policies, new systems and so on, on them? What should we be doing around that?

Professor Baumberg Geiger: There was an interesting conversation that I think Ben Spencer had in the last session—he has now gone—around the role of work coaches. I was thinking, okay, maybe there are three ways of—this is all very general and we can come to specific things, particularly around conditionality, but also lots of other things later on. In a general sense, you can have a system that does not make as many demands on people, so fewer people will be classed as vulnerable. Then you can have a system that for the people that the DWP is assuming things that are not true for them, you can deal with it at a system level. These are things like vulnerability flags, general collection of medical evidence and so on, or you can get it to be down to work coaches.

A lot of work coaches are great and do brilliant work, but we also know of times, even from the DWP’s own internal reviews, where the six-point plan was not followed. We know that sometimes things are not being followed by work coaches. If you depend on work coaches, we might need things like professional standards in regulation and training so that there are people who are capable of doing the things that are being expected of them, or we need a system that is not asking work coaches to do things that are not reasonable for them to be responsible for. At some stage you need to think through every assumption that is being made and every point that someone can have responsibility and you need a plan for it.

Q42            Neil Coyle: Apologies for coming in late. Do you think that DWP is sufficiently transparent about its safeguarding processes and its data on safeguarding the information it holds?

Professor Scullion: When I was asked to contribute to this, I was looking around, and I have been over the course of the projects as well, but it is very hard to find the policies in my experience. What I have found that is publicly available is often written by other organisations who are talking about DWP policies. The short answer is that I found it not very transparent to find what some of the policies and procedures are.

I am aware of the six-point plan that people talked about. I am aware that there may be different processes in place for different aspects of the system. There may be different policy for work capability assessments and other elements of the system, but I cannot find the policy. I think it was referred to in the previous session about something was meant to be published a couple of years ago. I have not been able to find that, but that may be me not searching thoroughly enough. I have not found it and I have not found data either. That is my short answer on that.

Neil Coyle: I think that is a no.

Professor Scullion: It is a no.

Professor Baumberg Geiger: I should say that Lisa and I have both worked on secondment in DWP. We are not talking about anything in our times there because that is not part of the role that we are here for and is not public, but we are the type of people who should be able to know where to find public documents and how the system works. We have been part of the system, we talk to people in the system a lot, and we find it hard let alone anybody else. It is not very transparent.

Q43            Neil Coyle: Is that on the processes or is that on the data that is held, or is it both?

Professor Baumberg Geiger: It is both. I know the Committee has done lots on data. It is worth saying that in an ideal world we would have DWP benefit data linked to health data—something my institution does very well—where we would be able to look at the vulnerability flags, when they were put in, with what consequences, how that relates to people’s journey through the mental healthcare system, for example, but we do not have that data.

One thing that I have been trying to do ever since I was on secondment in DWP and the rare times that I am allowed to speak to Ministers, I always raise with them but have not got anywhere, is we want to be able to go in and see what happens. I am a researcher. Lisa and I talk about this in lots of projects. We want to go in and watch what happens in a conversation between a work coach and someone with some vulnerability. We would like to go out with the teams doing home visits to see what is going on, and I think this would be good for DWP because often things are not as bad as some people fear. It also means that you cannot improve things because you do not have any scrutiny of processes.

Q44            Neil Coyle: Is it that you want to go in and analyse the information that is held and observe certain situations or is it that there should be a more routine publishing of data and information? Rethink, I think it was, sent in information about publishing the lessons learned from the internal process reviews. Should that not be routinely published or should it be a specialist study? The public transparency is more welcome, in my opinion, but I am interested in your view.

Professor Baumberg Geiger: There is transparency on three levels: transparency to stakeholders on processes, transparency to researchers on data and access, transparency to claimants on—in the Netherlands they have a general administrative law that places a burden on the state to be transparent to citizens in its dealing with them. That shapes lots of things about disability in the benefits system. We do not have quite that obligation, and I think it is a problem for claimants. I am sure that Lisa can talk more about the effects on claimants.

Professor Scullion: I wanted to come in a little bit on what Ben said about our own experience as researchers and trying to engage and trying to be able to access some of these processes from a research perspective. I agree with Ben that sometimes it feeds into the mistrust and suspicion I think that the public have, that it is so difficult to get access to DWP as part of research processes and that we do not get that transparency in the research we have. Where the veterans project is leading, I have a positive relationship and have been able to build up that trust and have had access to DWP staff. It has taken a long time.

I have also had access to a small number of benefits assessors. That took two years to negotiate access to, but what we were able to understand through that process was important to give us a sense of some of the issues from their perspective. Also, I think it is important for highlighting where there is good practice, but these things are hidden because you do not necessarily get that access. I think it sometimes does DWP a disservice for when it is doing things well because it is not allowing us access to that information, processes and the people who are part of that.

Q45            Steve McCabe: I seem to come across a lot of constituents who have reading difficulties, low digital skills, live in supported accommodation, have mental health issues or learning disabilities, and they all seem to have an incredible amount of difficulty accessing benefits that they appear to be entitled to. PIP, in particular, seems to be a major issue. I do not know if it is the same for my colleagues or if I have an unusual set of constituents. Do you think that DWP support is adequate and sufficient to help people with those difficulties access the benefits that they are largely entitled to? Can I start with Ben?

Professor Baumberg Geiger: I am happy to go first but, Lisa, do you want to go first in some ways, because I was thinking that this in some ways comes out of a lot of the research that we have talked about that you do?

Professor Scullion: There are lots of things to unpick around the—I am going to speak from the perspective of the research and what has come out of the research that I have been involved in. We are coming across lots of the people that you are talking about and your constituents and your caseload in our research. I do not think it is unusual to just your constituency.

If I can run through a few of the issues that have come out of the research, that might be helpful. Ben might touch on this as well on the level of support that is having to be provided to claimants for making applications in the initial part of that process, support provided by third sector and other stakeholders. In our research, we have examples of the clinical time of NHS staff being taken up supporting people with benefit claims. There is the displacement of support to other organisations.

We have issues around the inconsistent support that is then provided by the DWP to people who are in the system and how that depends very much on work coaches. That is something that you obviously talked about in the previous session and we can talk about in more detail. There are issues around the work coach time. Again, we could talk about that in more detail.

There is also a complex issue when we are talking about the Department for Work and Pensions that maybe has not been touched on in the previous session about who is providing some of these services. Some of this support or the contact that claimants have is from contracted-out services, private providers who are providing telephony and support, or to private providers who are undertaking assessment.

You have all these various contact channels and all these various actors who are part of this system. I wanted to flag a few of those things that I am hoping that we can come back to in little while. Sorry, Ben, I am not sure if that is answering what you were going to talk about.

Professor Baumberg Geiger: In one of our surveys during Covid, we asked claimants about who they got support from for their claim. It is obviously different for Covid claimants but you also had all the people that were already claiming benefits. It is clear that 40%-plus of disabled people got support from someone to claim and they managed to claim successfully. All the people that did not get support, who are missed out from that—and it comes from a lot of different sources. Loads is from people’s partners, their friends and family, GPs, housing associations, formal things like Help to Claim, charities, but all sorts of other different groups of people, people helping out at libraries and so on.

It is great that people are making use of all of this different support, but it makes you worried about the people that are not winners in that lottery of having that support available. If people need that much support to get through the system, even with the provisions of things like Help to Claim and universal support, a lot of people will be falling through the cracks, as in Lisa’s research and among your constituents.

Q46            Steve McCabe: Does there need to be a change in the way policy is articulated so we have active welfare when it comes to getting people back to work? A very proactive system is a good thing, it seems to me. Do we need the same to ensure that people get the benefits they are entitled to? It feels as if it is a rather passive system where the benefits are there if you can get through the maze. I do not know if I am overdoing it, but that is how it feels to me sometimes.

Professor Baumberg Geiger: Lisa and I did a joint project on non-take-up during Covid-19. One of the things that is striking is that we do not have a good organised take-up campaign at national level. There are some people that do things well. Deven Ghelani, who I mentioned before, about our policy and practice now, is doing lots of good work at councils, for example, in proactively identifying people from things that the council knows about them. They are probably entitled to some stuff that they are not claiming, but there is only so much that councils can do through that data-led approach. What you want is an attempt to make sure that everybody gets the things they are entitled to.

Q47            Steve McCabe: Lisa, you touched on this earlier. I come across a lot of people who tell me that their experience of interacting with the DWP often exacerbates their mental health condition or other problems. I think you referred to that with veterans. What can we do to stop the system retraumatising people?

Professor Scullion: Again, that is quite a big question. Some of the work that I have been doing through the project with veterans has been applying the trauma lens. There is a whole movement internationally, but also in the UK, around the adoption of trauma-informed principles in our various human services. The Scottish Government have been talking about this. In many ways I think they have been leading the way in the UK. They have a national trauma training programme that is led, I think, by NHS Scotland. They are looking at cross-government adoption of trauma-informed care. The NHS does a lot of this, children and young people’s services do a lot of this. This is about looking at principles of trauma-informed care and how they can be applied within different services.

A couple of years ago, in the research with veterans that I have been leading, we made the first call for how we should look at these principles in the benefit system. I am aware that the Department for Work and Pensions has a trauma integration lead and is doing work around this now. I suggest that the panel speaks to that person. I am happy to introduce you to the person—I have met with them a few times—if that is of use to understand what they are doing. I think there is an appetite for looking at trauma-informed principles within DWP. Social Security Scotland has made pledges around trauma-informed care as well. It feels like we are in the early stages now of looking at how these principles could be embedded within this system.

One of my key recommendations is how that is properly explored and how we do that in an evidence-informed way, also being mindful that the DWP is the biggest Government Department and, as I say, very complex with the different benefits, the different organisations involved in the delivery of some of that support, the contracting to private providers. It is quite a huge undertaking if you are going to start looking at the integration of trauma-informed principle, but certainly trauma-informed principles would help ensure that people are not being retraumatised. Central to those trauma-informed principles is recognising that the way you deliver your services can be retraumatising and then taking steps to make sure that your operations do not do that.

That would be a key way for me that you can do that. There are lots of examples in the study I have done with veterans that shows good practice within DWP in some of the approaches that they have. I am aware that there are armed forces champions, for example, within DWP. This is a model where a person has a specific role and has more awareness of a specific group of people and the needs they might have. They have been providing personalised support to veterans within the system, but they have also been given time, more time than perhaps you would have as a standard work coach. It is that time and personalised support.

In our study, we have seen some positive outcomes for veterans who have had that support. We know that there is the stuff going on. Again, it is all hidden, because it is not necessarily out there in the public domain. These are some of the things, thinking about trauma-informed principles, that would be a good step.

Q48            Steve McCabe: Is it your understanding that the person you referred to, the integrated lead, their role is to try to ensure that the principles of the trauma-informed care movement are embedded and applied throughout the DWP. Is that what the work is about?

Professor Scullion: I obviously do not want to speak for the person who is leading that project. I am aware that they exist. I have had conversations with that person, and I have offered my support as a researcher in how we can provide an evidence base to support the work they are doing. My understanding is that they are at the beginning of the project that will look at how they can start embedding these principles. I imagine it is a huge undertaking and I think it would be good to have a conversation with that person about the work they are doing. It is very important work and I think support with that work would be valuable.

Steve McCabe: Thank you. It sounds like it would be good to talk to that person.

Chair: It would be interesting.

Professor Baumberg Geiger: There is a large minority of claimants who report having PTSD. It is about 14% of UC, ESA and JSA claimants. A further 7% report personality disorders, which are often associated with trauma. I think that the idea that there is only a small proportion of claimants where trauma-related things are relevant is false. This is a major issue for a large number.

Q49            Debbie Abrahams: I want to explore a little more what we were talking about before about how we can ensure that we consider the increase in likelihood of somebody becoming vulnerable as they use the system. Are you aware of anything internationally or elsewhere in our neighbouring countries where there is a system-wide approach to this?

It is not just looking—as I think you were referring to, Ben—at how work coaches and so on operationalise and consider the safeguarding, the vulnerabilities and the assumptions they have about that but at a system level when we are introducing new policies. For example, with this new work capability assessment, how are we considering the impacts and challenging the assumptions that have been made or, as you said, have not been made? How are we considering the impacts of that, the likelihood of the increased vulnerability on different demographic groups including, for example, veterans? I was also thinking of different regional areas. What are you aware of that is already out there and how could that potentially be applied here?

Professor Baumberg Geiger: While I have done a lot of international comparisons, because I have not been doing governance processes exactly, I have been particularly focusing on benefits, health and disability, I do not know exactly how other countries do it. However, I have a couple of impressions and I think it is a really good question. It is something to go back to and find out more about.

One impression is that in countries like the Netherlands where they have an obligation of transparency, they need to be thinking about the way in which the state makes its obligations to its citizens. In some countries these are set out in law in particular ways. It is not that you would have a vulnerability team to ensure that safeguarding processes are transparent. It is just how you do policy. You know that if you don’t do it this way you will be hauled in front of the courts, because this happens regularly. There is a team in the Dutch social insurance agency, for example, that is responsible for making sure that everything they do meets its legal obligations around them.

The UK, particularly at certain times in the last 10 to 15 years or so, was probably creating more vulnerability through its processes than most other countries were. If you take things like disability assessments, I am yet to meet anybody in any country that has enjoyed going through a disability assessment. They are a difficult thing to do right and they are often not enjoyable. The UK’s disability assessments were particularly bad, and I am yet to find any other country where there is a documented peer-reviewed paper showing the link to suicides, for example.

Partly I think that they do have different processes, but partly also I think it is the way that we have implemented things that has made this a bigger issue. There are things like digital inclusion, for example, or things around couples that are common across countries.

Q50            Debbie Abrahams: Thank you. Lisa, do you want to add anything to that?

Professor Scullion: Again, I cannot speak for other governments and government departments, but I have had some contact with people in Services Australia. Again, they may be people to connect you to. I have certainly connected colleagues at the DWP with colleagues in Services Australia because Services Australia has been going through a process of cultural transformation—I think that is probably the fair term to use—in their services about how they talk about people and having a dignity and respect narrative. It is moving away from some of the stigmatising narratives that have historically been used for people in their system. I think that it is looking at some of the trauma-informed principles as well.

Services Australia has come out of a period where there was a challenge with a policy that it applied a number of years ago. It is since then that some of these things have happened and it may be something that people are aware of, the Robodebt scheme. You may be aware of the commission on its Robodebt scheme. I think some of this has led to a look at the system and how you transform that system for the people within it. It may be worth looking at what is going on there.

Q51            Debbie Abrahams: That is very interesting. Getting on to my substantive question, which is on a particular policy area of conditionality, which, Lisa, as you say you have been very—well, you have both been very heavily involved in that. I can remember the 2015-2018 project that you were on about that. I am particularly interested in the conditionality processes that we have and how they can increase vulnerability.

As an aside, I went to a Museum of Austerity, which is an arts exhibit with a hologram of different people who have died through the benefits system. David Clapson was one who died after he had been sanctioned. He did not have enough money to keep his insulin cold. I went with his sister Gill at the weekend to look at this and to hear what he went through. He died of diabetic ketoacidosis because he could not keep his insulin cold in the fridge. It was not a mental health episode, but it was as a result of sanctions. Do you want to explore from your evidence and your research the impact of conditionality on mental health or other conditions?

Professor Baumberg Geiger: You can go first, Lisa.

Professor Scullion: Yes. I could talk for a very long time so I will try to be brief.

Chair: Briefly if you would, yes.

Professor Scullion: Over many years of studying this part of the welfare conditionality project, but also the work we have done on veterans, my short answer is that we and other researchers have repeatedly shown that conditionality is ineffective in moving people towards the paid labour market, particularly people with more complex needs and mental health issues. The research has shown that over many years. We are seeing that with our veterans study at the moment.

There are particular issues that are coming out when we look at the trauma lens about how it undermines issues of trust. There is an issue of double standards being applied to people, so there is the transgression that leads to a sanction but no reciprocal pressure for DWP staff where mistakes are made by them or the system. These are all problematic people in trauma-informed care and issues of choice, collaboration and empowerment are really important.

Conditionality obviously runs completely counter to this, so people feel trapped, dominated and powerless, particularly where they are being pushed towards precarious, low paid work or work that is not appropriate to them or courses that are not appropriate to supporting them into meaningful work. We are already aware of all these aspects that can sometimes happen in the system.

The research has shown that you can end up with counterproductive compliance. People end up complying because they are trying to avoid the more punitive side of the system rather than engaging in things that would meaningfully support them to take steps towards paid work. That is as succinct as I could make it.

Debbie Abrahams: Thank you.

Professor Scullion: Ben probably has things that he wants to add.

Professor Baumberg Geiger: Yes. There is a couple of different issues in thinking around conditionality and vulnerability. One of them is just whether conditionality is applied fairly. The other one is that even if it is applied fairly, is it a helpful and sensible thing to be doing? This is in the context of agreeing with everything that Lisa just said about that in general this has not been shown to be a helpful thing to do.

On the fairness of conditionality, there are loads and loads of reports and qualitative research from charities and from claimants directly testifying themselves—I am sure you get some of these in the inquiry submissions—saying that conditionality is being unreasonable. In some work from a survey last summer—which will hopefully come out soon, but I can send you versions of it if you want to refer to it sooner—we find that among people with health conditions or care barriers, 52% of them say their work coach is not taking everything into account in setting their level of conditionality. About 45% of people agree that the conditionality requirements are reasonable for them, 25% actively disagree and the rest are a sort of a “neither” or “don’t know” category.

We already knew that a lot of people were saying that they are expected to do things they do not feel are reasonable. That is pretty widespread. It is not just a marginal and rare thing. One of the ways in which it can be harmful for people is they are being required to do things they cannot do and just the process can feel very unfair for people. The things around administrative justice safeguards are very weak in the UK system at the moment. Similarly, in the same survey, we find a lot of claimants say that when they disagreed with their work coach, they did not feel comfortable or confident in being able to challenge them, which the system critically depends on.

One thing is about administrative justice, but the other thing is about whether this is a helpful and sensible thing to do anyway. Partly because of the problems in implementing it fairly, the international high quality evidence—limited though it is—suggests that applying conditionality to people with health problems pushes them away from work rather than closer to it. It is difficult to implement well and, even if you are implementing it fairly, you are still quite likely to be driving people away from the labour market for the very reasons that Lisa just said. If people are not sure how they would get on in a workplace, they need a safe space to try it out and see how it goes. If you do not provide them a safe space, they will go back into, “I am just not going to be able to try anything because there is no safe space to try it in”.

We can talk about other systems in IPS and so on, but in general I do not think it is applied fairly and, even if it is applied fairly, I do not think it is effective for this group.

Debbie Abrahams: Fantastic. Thank you very much.

Q52            Siobhan Baillie: Work capability assessment consultation. I was thinking as you were speaking, Ben, about the architects of Universal Credit, the way that it has been set up. I also know that there are no main political parties suggesting they would get rid of Universal Credit, apart from possibly the SNP. We have the system that we have and I think some of the biggest reforms coming through are with this work capability assessment. I am interested in your views on that.

I have not read all your research. You guys are obviously phenomenal in your expertise on this, but I struggle with how we address the sheer numbers of people out of work due to mental health concerns. This is massive and the interventions that we have heard today that are required to get those people back into work is almost daily, hourly, checking in, support and things like that, so separate from the work capabilities. What can the state afford to do to help with the mental health issues? On the consultation to start off with. I will let Ben go first.

Professor Baumberg Geiger: Those are two massive questions, but I will bear in mind the Chair and try to be brief.

Siobhan Baillie: Every time we have these sessions I am really struggling with what any Government could do to improve things meaningfully.

Professor Baumberg Geiger: On the WCA specifically, and the one consultation and then also the wider proposal for getting rid of the WCA, I cannot find a way of putting it than I think the consultation is very bad. There is no evidence base to back it up. It comes from a place of saying, “We want to have more people subject to conditionality because we don’t know what to do with them”. I will come back to the second point in a bit.

One of the proposals is to completely get rid of the substantial risk safeguards in the WCA. Currently these people are treated as assessed as having substantial risk of engaging with conditionality at all. One of the DWP’s proposals is to get rid of that or it is consulting on a proposal to get rid of that so that more people can be subject to conditionality. I think there is a lack of evidence base for it. I have real concerns about it, given what I have just said about the way in which conditionality is being applied.

It also goes back to Henry’s point that you have the reality of the system and its effects on people’s mental health, but you also have their fears about it, and you need to address both of those things if you want to ensure it is not going to create harm. That said, in an ideal world we may want to get to a system where we got rid of the WCA and just had the PIP assessment. To move from where we are to that ideal world involves having a totally different benefits system. It does not involve just going, “Within the current system we have we are just going to get rid of the WCA and hope that everything will be okay”. As I said, there has not been attention given to what is a fair and personalised conditionality for everyone, including vulnerable claimants.

Lisa, do you want to come back on the WCA things and then maybe we can both come back to what we can do to try to get these large numbers of people with mental health problems back into work?

Professor Scullion: Yes, just very quickly. I agree with what Ben said. I suppose I always return to the evidence base of the research that I am doing. The interviews that I have done over many years have also highlighted to others around issues with the assessment processes, the work capability assessment and PIP as well. Many of the veterans in my study have a real struggle with PIP and have been rejected a number of times. They have been told that they are not eligible a number of times. For us, there are concerns around if you are moving towards PIP, what does the PIP process mean for the people who struggle with that process?

For me, the concern is, as Ben said, the kind of outcome of what is being proposed is more people being brought into the conditionality regime. This speaks very much to the concerns we have raised before that that then becomes the responsibility of work coaches and their discretion. It is important that the work coaches are appropriately trained and using the easements and discretionary powers. These are the concerns that have come out of our research on the proposals.

Q53            Siobhan Baillie: I know that there is criticism of the consultation being eight weeks and I have heard what you just said, but there is also an urgency with this situation because at every business meeting I go to employers are crying out for workers. There are nearly 900,000 job vacancies, 5 million people on work benefit. There is some urgency. I can also see why the Government are trying hard to find routes through to support people, with the belief that for many people being in work will also assist mental health in some ways. It is the practical things because I did not get that from the previous panel at all.

Professor Baumberg Geiger: There are so many things that we could and should be doing to help people with mental health problems back into the labour market and to have a better time of it when they are there. Even with the urgency, I think returning to something that we know does not work—I can see that they are desperate to act given the situation but subjecting more people to conditionality, when we do not have things to do conditionality right, will push more people away from the labour market rather than into it.

What do we know works? Two of the many different things. One is individual placement and support, from the DWP side. I know you have heard about it a bit. There are some great trials going on in it. The things that are good about that is, first, you get a lot of support for helping people, and that support continues when you are in work. Secondly, it is iterative. With vulnerability we have to know exactly what will work for you and that is almost impossible for anybody to know even if you had a two-day assessment. You try something out in a safe space and you support people, if it does not work out, to learn from that and to find something that works better for them.

IPS is iterative and, as I understand it, IPS also has challenge not conditionality. You are not threatening people, but you are sometimes giving them a challenge of, “I know you think you can’t do anything but do you think you could try this?” There is a form of challenge that is not just, “If you do not do this, I am going to take your benefits away”. I think challenge not conditionality is another—it is not always necessary even in IPS. IPS, great, we know it works. It needs investment rather than pretending there is a cheap, quick fix.

The other side of it is that it amazes me we have had so many conversations about labour market shortages and so few conversations about how to create a workplace that everybody can be included in. Why are employers not doing so many more things, not just around home working and Covid but all of the other forms of flexibility?

I work a lot with Catherine Hale, who founded the charity Chronic Illness Inclusion and talks about people with energy limiting impairment. She knows from her work with the charity Astriid that there are people out there with chronic illnesses and energy limiting impairments who want small packages of work, very flexible, working from home. They have skills and they want to contribute to the labour market. However, employers are not providing it.

Those are the two things that I would say: real support not with the threat element and, secondly, working with employers to say, “You have skills shortages. How can we help you carve out spaces for people who are out there to fill them?”

Q54            Siobhan Baillie: Do you genuinely think that that level of support, iterative, providing the space, all the work that goes into finding the employer that would be able to give them that time, and then if it was not working on day two or three, to step away—all of that because it is a hell of a lot of intervention—can be done at the scale that is required at the moment because of the numbers of people that are claiming? That is the thing that worries me. We can all agree that that would be a great process and I am sure we have lots of examples of why that would work, but at the scale that would be required to support—I do not want to just talk about money or the affordability but just the scale of even the employees on the job search because I do not see—

Professor Baumberg Geiger: I will say something briefly on that and then, Lisa, I am sure you will want to come in on, for example, the veterans project and how can that help get people to work.

On the scale, what do we need? First, we need to stop talking about things as if there is something cheap that will magically solve the problems. We need to be mindful of efficiency and the funds available, but sometimes it is a case of saying, “If we are going to tackle the problem, we need to put some money into it”. If we don’t have the money, that is okay, that is our decision but then we cannot just magically tackle the problem. Avoiding magical thinking is important in this area. I have only been working on these issues for 15 years or so, which is long enough but I know people who have worked in it for longer, and there is so much magical thinking of people saying, “Actually, these people don’t have many barriers to work, and we can fix it magically like this”.

Given the money involved—sorry to come back to the Netherlands again, but one of the things I really liked that they did is it is not a zero conditionality system but you have to really be putting an effort in to get sanctioned. What they have instead is a 10-point plan for their labour market experts that is focused about getting people’s engagement back. Rather than say, “Comply with this or we will take your money away”, it is, “We think that you should be doing this at this point. Okay, you’re not doing that at the moment. Why is this? Is this because you think it is not going to be useful? Is this because you don’t think you are capable of it at the moment?” It is trying to get people to engage.

Some parts of that might involve a referral to IPS, but I don’t think it is bringing people into something that they are really worried about with conditionality, which we do not have good administrative processes for. I think it will make things worse rather than better. Lisa, I know you are going to have thoughts from the veterans project.

Professor Scullion: To be honest, there is not much additional to what you have said about this. I do not think it is helpful for us to think that this is a quick fix, thinking about some of the conversations I have had with Services Australia, for example, where this is a whole cultural transformation in how we think about the system. If we are thinking about costs as well, I mentioned the displacement costs. Well, there is lots of costs to people who are trying to navigate the benefit system and experience problems, who are being displaced to other organisations and we could reduce those costs in fixing things within this system. I think that if we are concerned about costs, fixing this system will help with some of the costs that have been displaced elsewhere. I agree with Ben on the points he made.

Professor Baumberg Geiger: One final thing that I forgot. The other thing is just to remember that all countries have large numbers of people out of work due to ill health and disability. We have this slightly strange focus in the UK at the moment in not negligible shifts but, relative to the scale of the problem, small shifts since Covid that we focus on. The fact is that we could do better, we could be world leading and we are not, but even a relatively world-leading country like Switzerland will still have large numbers of people out of work. There is no point in pretending that our aim is to completely get beyond that. It is just to be better and to be well treated.

Chair: Thank you. We are definitely into extra time now, but Neil Coyle has a quick question.

Q55            Neil Coyle: A quick follow-up on a couple of the points just made. In the context of the longest NHS waiting list in UK history, has DWP done any analysis or impact assessment of its proposals on the NHS of removing support from disabled people and making them potentially much more reliant or unable to manage health conditions? Is that analysis done by DWP? If not, is there any independent research out there on those issues?

Professor Baumberg Geiger: It is a question that comes up a lot. OBR was definitely looking at it earlier in the year, but I cannot, off the top of my head, remember what it said in its report. I assume that some people in DWP are trying to do things, but I know that OBR was trying to do data linkage to have a look at the role of NHS waiting lists that, as far as I remember, suggested there was some contributing role and obviously, if you are really sensible, to reduce them, but it is not the case that waiting lists explain everything that is going on with the labour market, much as it would be sensible. Go back to the OBR report and, indeed, you might want to bring in some of the people from OBR because it was doing interesting work on it.

Chair: Might you send us a link? If that is available it would be useful.

Professor Baumberg Geiger: Yes.

Q56            Chair: Thank you. Ben, a final point from me. We started off with you warning about the dangers of classing people as vulnerable. Then you spoke quite favourably about vulnerability markers in Universal Credit. Just to clarify, in your view when should and should we not refer to people as vulnerable?

Professor Baumberg Geiger: It is an excellent question, and I was thinking about it a lot, and I am sure Lisa has been thinking about it since we were talking last week as well.

There is an argument for not talking about vulnerability at all. I do take that seriously, but I am also aware that, given the context of the inquiry and the context of DWP systems, we might want to talk about vulnerability. If we are going to do it, though, we need to think about this as it is the system making people vulnerable in that sense. The system is saying that, “We assume that you can do this” when actually you might not be able to. In that sense, having markers for people where there is some aspect of their engagement with the system that is not reasonable to assume I think is very sensible.

However, we need to come back to that it is not an inherent thing about these people that they are vulnerable in every respect. It is because the DWP systems are assuming something that is not reasonable for that person. If you are going to have a system that works that way the very least you can do is have a marker to say, “You cannot assume this thing that we critically depend on”.

That is my way of thinking about it. We can have a separate conversation about the word “vulnerable” completely, and I know lots of people I really respect dislike it. If we are going to talk about it, it is not about the people. It is about the effect of the system and its assumptions about people.

Q57            Neil Coyle: It is a potential vulnerability to meet the social model more comfortably?

Professor Baumberg Geiger: Yes. There are lots of analogies to the social model in that.

Chair: Thank you. That is very helpful. Thank you both very much. We have mentioned a couple of things that you are going to dig out and send to us. If there is anything else that occurs to you, please do let us see that. Thank you very much for the very helpful evidence you have given us this morning. That concludes our questions and it concludes our meeting.