The pandemic has highlighted the importance of a strong and well-functioning social security system. When lots of people suddenly needed support we saw how well the universal credit (UC) system can process claims quickly and pay people on time. During the early stages of the pandemic the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) processed nearly one million claims in a fortnight. This was possible in part because the UC computer system automatically calculates awards.
The use of automated calculations in UC arguably improves the system in many ways. It means the DWP can provide support in a time of national crisis, and it avoids some of the problems that can exist with maladministration and human error in a manual system. However, as evidence shared in this report demonstrates, the use of automation in social security administration is not without problems.
This report focuses on some of the problems UC claimants are experiencing both making a claim for UC and receiving accurate payments, which appear to be caused by the digitalisation and automation of the UC system. Claimants who have specific life circumstances are experiencing similar problems because the UC computer system seems unable to calculate their UC payment correctly and in accordance with the law.
Some of the issues set out in this report may seem niche. But given that the number of people claiming UC in the past year has doubled, from 3 million in March 2020 to 6 million in April 2021, these issues are likely to have implications for many families. Many of those affected will repeatedly experience problems with their UC claim, requiring them to proactively contact the DWP every month to try to resolve them. This causes added stress and difficulty. Some people may not realise there is a problem, which is worrying if it means they are going without the necessary benefit entitlement to meet their needs.
The DWP has shown a willingness to address certain issues, and has put practical solutions in place to assist claimants affected (for example, untidy tenancies, discussed below). However, other issues that appear to require bigger changes to the UC computer system still need to be addressed.