Public trust in the DWP’s ability to protect the poorest and most vulnerable people in society has become so damaged that it is no longer fit for purpose and should be axed, a leading thinktank has suggested.
In a new report, supported by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Demos says welfare reforms first introduced by the Tory-Libdem coalition and then continued by the Tory government have “caused more harm than good”, and demonstrate a “lack of compassion” that has become synonymous with the DWP and the welfare system.
The thinktank states: “The Conservative government and its predecessors promised transformation, yet their changes have amounted to little more than palliative tweaks.
“Universal credit and the replacement of incapacity benefit with ESA caused more harm than good.
“Poverty levels remain unacceptably high. The disability employment gap has not decreased.
“And a punitive regime of benefit conditionality has regularly left many people destitute.”
The report’s author Tom Pollard, formerly of the mental health charity Mind, has spent 18 months with the DWP and warns that staff have become afflicted by a “benefits lens”, where they see benefits as a tool for punishing people rather than helping them into work.
Sanctioning claimants for minor infringements, such as arriving late to meetings, has “created a confrontational dynamic of power asymmetries” – “benefits are the carrot, sanctions are the stick”.
This approach means claimants now see the DWP and Jobcentre staff as the enemy, rather than a friend that exists to help them in their hour of need.
“There’s such a rift between the DWP and hard to help groups that I don’t know how you could get back to engaging on meaningful terms – there’s too much baggage”, says Pollard.
The DWP’s narrow-minded focus on “weeding out instances of fraud and error” has been harmful to the Department’s relationship with benefit claimants, says Demos.
And a growing “culture of suspicion” means the DWP has become incapable of providing a vital public service that puts people’s needs first.
One expert witness told Demos that the DWP is plagued by an “institutional culture that pushes people outside of the system, rather than supporting claimants within it”.
Another expert said the relentless negative portrayal of benefit claimants in the media as cheats and “scroungers” has fuelled a culture of mistrust at the DWP. “We need new rhetoric around helping people, rather than disciplining them”, they said.
Some experts told Demos that abolishing the department “would be an unnecessary move”, and that “the DWP must better distinguish between conditionality and sanctions”.
But Pollard argues that “for many people claiming welfare, the problem is not a question of motivation, but rather one of disability or illness that impedes securing work”.
Other Government departments could do a much better job of supporting the poor and vulnerable, Pollard suggests.
A DWP spokesperson said: “This report is completely misguided and we have no plans to reduce functionality at a time when unemployment is at its lowest, welfare reforms are rolling out across the country and millions are saving for a private pension for the first time.
“Jobcentres are a local presence yet benefit from a national framework. DWP supports around 20 million people to get into work and save for their retirement, as well as giving stability to those who cannot work, and will continue to do so as one responsible organisation.”