DWP reveals coronavirus demand for Universal Credit as MPs launch inquiry

By Richard Wheeler, PA Parliamentary Editor

Calls to a benefits helpline soared beyond two million in a day as people sought help amid the coronavirus outbreak.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) confirmed it received more than one million claims for Universal Credit (UC) between March 16 and April 3.

This compares to approximately 55,000 claims “in a normal week”, according to the department’s permanent secretary Peter Schofield.

Labour MP Stephen Timms, who chairs the Work and Pensions Committee (Anthony Devlin/PA)

He added calls to the UC helpline are “extremely high” and noted approximately 1.8 million calls were made between March 23 and 27.

Mr Schofield also said: “On the 30 March and 31 March we received 2.2 million and 1.8 million calls respectively.”

His remarks were contained in a letter to Stephen Timms, the Labour MP who chairs the Work and Pensions Select Committee, which has launched an inquiry into the DWP’s response to the coronavirus outbreak.

They want to understand how well UC is working given the “unprecedented” number of new claimants, if there have been improvements in the delays faced by claimants in the second half of March, and how quickly people are receiving an advance on their first payment.

Mr Schofield, replying to questions posed before the launch of the committee’s inquiry, said 41,000 new claims were paid an advance in the week beginning March 16 and 72,000 in the week beginning March 23.

He said he was unable to provide details on claims submitted more recently as they are being processed.

Asked about the average time taken for a person making a new UC claim to receive an advance, Mr Schofield did not offer figures and said the department is “committed to delivering advances as soon as possible” to those who have requested them.

He also said claimants were experiencing delays in the system but the capacity has been quadrupled and the current average waiting time for registration via the Government website is “now less than five minutes”.

Pressed on whether new claimants would have to wait longer than the expected five weeks after the start of their claim to receive their first payment, Mr Schofield reiterated 10,000 staff have been redeployed to help and recruitment is ongoing.

He said: “Prior to the Covid-19 outbreak, we had been consistently achieving around 85% payment timeliness in the first assessment period – a high standard.

“Recent new claim volumes have been more than 10 times higher than normal – the whole department is focusing on ensuring that the highest possible standards are achieved.”

Mr Timms said the DWP’s frontline staff are “making a herculean effort to deal with the unprecedented numbers of new claims” for UC and thanked them for their efforts.

He added: “It is disappointing that the permanent secretary can’t tell us what proportion of people who’ve asked for an advance payment have had one, or tell us anything about the delays that people are facing on DWP’s phone lines.

“So we can better understand the issues faced by people who rely on the benefits system, we’d like to hear from people about their experiences getting the support they need.

“We are keen to hear about any specific problems claiming benefits and also more generally about whether people are getting enough money to support themselves and their families during these immensely difficult days.”