medConfidential briefing on Work and Pensions Committee Evidence Session on 23rd April 2020
“The reason why we’re able to do so startlingly well on claims … is because of the automation in the system.
If you wanted to block defer the recovery of advances, that’s all automated in the system, so we’d have to strip out the automation and put human beings onto doing those deferrals…”
“So it’s a choice between de-automating the system and giving humans a lot more new tasks to do, or keeping automation in the system and allowing the new claims to all get paid.”
“The Biggest Reason” – A Question for HM Treasury
“We looked at all options at the very beginning … Even if we were able to secure the £2.2 billion a year it would require to do that, it is not operationally deliverable. That is the biggest reason, amongst many others, why it wasn’t even really considered as an option... because it isn’t operationally deliverable, it isn’t something we considered.”
The consequences of the COVID crisis will go on for years; long after the initial health service response, the social pieces will need to be picked up by UC / DWP, for as long as it takes. But DWP’s current culture seems entirely unfit to resolve fundamental issues that will only increase over time.
The ‘social safety net’ is Universal Credit during the initial impact of the 2019/2020 coronavirus pandemic – and one million people in a week were able to sign up to the digital service.
Some government and public services have responded to COVID-19 with institutional flexibility and a focus on the delivery of their public task for their users – most notably GDS and NHS digital services, i.e. NHS Digital, NHSX, et al. Initially, DWP (Digital) took the alternate approach of changing almost nothing in the UC digital pathway, and instead only moved staff between call centres. (Only in week two of full lockdown did DWP start changing minor steps in its workflow.)
At the time of writing there are currently around 1.5 million people in various queues within DWP, waiting for a payment. While the first publicly visible queue (the GOV.UK Verify ID process) was cleared within 24 hours – and while moving people through any particular step faster is clearly helpful – clearing a surge in numbers at one step simply leads to another queue at the next step, and the next; all of which are now hidden within DWP. medConfidential has long experience with Verify – where it works and where it struggles – and notes the systemic flaws in UC’s digital implementation that DWP will blame on anyone but DWP.
The COVID crisis offers insights into DWP’s manual processes hidden within the five week wait
If UC had to pay all applicants some money the day after they applied, the various failures DWP has hidden behind the ‘five-week wait’ would be far more starkly illustrated. This wait allows UC to ignore broken processes internally, because – under ‘normal’ conditions – it leaves DWP time to paper over the cracks.
Giving evidence on the 23rd April, Mr Couling suggested that fraud was endemic in advances. Even if DWP’s claim was true, does DWP not have confidence in its ability to reclaim payments in future (as it is doing for past DWP payments it believes should be reclaimed now).
The current surge in applications may provide evidence of where those failures are, most notably in the ‘historic deduction repayments’ process. If the assessment were a fully automated process, it would be treated like the return of advances; removing the measurement two weeks into lockdown “suggests” a staffing issue.
Given the volume of claims, we will likely see other failures or abandonment of processes if we choose to look for them.
We suggest the Committee ask how many DWP staff are normally deployed on calculating historic deductions and what those staff have been redeployed to do.
If (say) 5000 staff were transferred from finding historical deductions; how much money do those staff recover per week, and how much does it cost DWP to deploy that many civil servants? Is this an effective use of public funds?
 While we cover problems with the digital service in this document, physical offline mandatory processes are posing a significant health risk: https://twitter.com/neilcouling/status/1247848823713665025?s=21
 historic deduction repayments are also known as ‘necrodebts’ are the specific colloquial term for money DWP wishes to reclaim from records in long-dead systems of both DWP and its predecessors. The requirement to recover them was written into DWP’s business case for UC, as enforced by Treasury. Necrodebts are akin to, but different from, Australian ‘robo-debts’ which were automated guesses of what should be reclaimed. Australia’s was a fully automated system; necrodebts appear to be a largely manual system – both are symptomatic of both Governments’ approach to the social safety net.