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England, Human rights/equalities, Initial decision-making, Northern Ireland, Research, Scotland, Social security and welfare benefits, System design

Universal Credit – When evidence becomes politicised

Screenshot 2018-06-16 15.32.42

In our Research Roadmap published in February of this year, UKAJI cited the roll-out of Universal Credit (UC) as an example of the extraordinary impact of administrative justice on the day-to-day lives of people. In this blog post, we consider the recent report by the National Audit Office (NAO) on its independent review of UC, and in particular the NAO’s observation that the Department for Work and Pensions has resisted accepting the accumulating evidence on hardship caused by delays and sanctions in the administration of UC. How can researchers help to counter this politicisation of evidence?

By Margaret Doyle

UC replaces six means-tested benefits and tax credits with a single benefit, usually paid monthly in arrears. The intention of the policy, introduced in 2010, was to streamline the benefits system, make it cheaper to administer benefits, and make it more worthwhile, financially, for claimants to be in work. We noted in our Research Roadmap, published in February this year, that the evidence accumulating from the advice sector and food banks indicated that waiting periods for UC decision-making leave individuals without funds for significant periods of time and that many individuals struggle with a ‘digital by default’ claim system.

We referred to research carried out by Citizens Advice in 2017 that reported on difficulties claimants faced in accessing the online-only ‘full service’ roll-out of UC, an issue also noted by Roger Smith in 2017. On our blog, Michael Adler has explored the rule of law implications of benefit sanctions, highlighting a number of potential reforms that would align sanctions policy with rule of law requirements – reforms he suggests are unlikely to be made given the government’s commitment to conditionality and sanctions. Also on UKAJI’s blog, David Webster has explored developments and research on UC sanctions, including the 2015 Social Security Advisory Committee (SSAC) report Universal Credit: priorities for action. Nearly three years ago the SSAC was calling for a halt of the UC roll-out until a firm evidence base could be established.

‘The key to the future must be to ensure that the conditionality and sanctions regimes under UC are firmly based on evidence as to their effectiveness in achieving the policy objectives.’

Social Security Advisory Committee

The SSAC has scrutinised the implementation of UC in a number of papers, most recently in March this year. Its work on evidence gathering on sanctions goes back to before the introduction of UC and includes a 2012 review of the existing evidence on the impact of sanctions. In that report, the SSAC emphasised the importance of robust data collection on the new system of UC:

‘The introduction of UC provides an opportunity to ensure that appropriate data are collected and research designed to offer a more sophisticated understanding of the factors which affect individual decision-making and the role played by conditionality and sanctions. The key to the future must be to ensure that the conditionality and sanctions regimes under UC are firmly based on evidence as to their effectiveness in achieving the policy objectives.

DWP statistics

The most recent Department for work and Pensions (DWP) statistics on UC sanctions were published in May 2018. The report, Benefit Sanctions Statistics, covers data to January 2018 on UC as well as Employment Support Allowance and JobSeekers Allowance. The headline figures for UC are:

  • In February 2018, the percentage of UC claimants with a drop in payment due to a sanction was 4.1%, and is down 0.5 percentage points from November 2017.
  • From November 2017 to January 2018, 49% of all Universal Credit decisions resulted in a sanction. This is up 12 percentage points from August 2017 to October 2017 (previously reported period).
  • 68% of UC decisions to apply a sanction in November 2017 to January 2018 occurred due to failure to attend or participate in a Work-Focused Interview.
  • The average UC sanction lasted 30 days (August 2015 – February 2018)

The DWP explains that benefit sanction statistics are primarily sourced from data originally collected via administrative systems and are published every quarter in February, May, August, and November. Guidance to the statistics is available here: Universal Credit Sanctions: Experimental Official Statistics- Background information and methodology (May 2018).

The NAO review

The evidence continues to suggest significant concerns with UC and with sanctions more widely. This week the National Audit Office (NAO), reporting on its independent review of UC, suggested that a culture of claim and counterclaim has dominated the UC debate, fuelled by the DWP’s distrust of evidence that it considers to be agenda-led. The NAO’s headline conclusion is that neither it, nor the DWP, believes ‘it will ever be possible for the Department to measure whether the economic goal of increasing employment has been achieved. This, the extended timescales and the cost of running Universal Credit compared to the benefits it replaces cause us to conclude that the project is not value for money now, and that its future value for money is unproven‘. Nevertheless, the NAO concludes that given how far the policy has been taken, ‘there is no practical alternative to continuing with Universal Credit’, because it ‘would be both complex and expensive to revert to legacy benefits at this stage‘.

‘The Department does not accept that Universal Credit has caused hardship among claimants, because it makes advances available, and it said that if claimants take up these opportunities hardship should not occur.’

National Audit Office

In the report, Rolling out Universal Credit (June 2018), the NAO noted that the DWP had responded to some concerns raised about UC by making operational changes (such as improvements in the digital system), but had failed to engage with the evidence supplied by organisations supporting UC claimants. The DWP has, the NAO says, ‘defended itself from those that it viewed as being opposed to the policy in principle‘. The Department does not accept the UC causes hardship, and this belief has led the DWP to dismiss evidence of claimants’ difficulties and hardship instead of working with these bodies to establish an evidence base for what is actually happening. ‘The result‘, the NAO states, ‘has been a dialogue of claim and counter-claim and gives the unhelpful impression of a Department that is unsympathetic to claimants.

‘It has not always been able to examine and respond promptly to wider concerns raised by these organisations. This is because it does not systematically capture the views of external organisations and has not been clear about how it tracks and responds to the operational impacts of policy design choices. The Department told us that there are some cases “where the anecdote is stronger than the management information”. It told us that it could not publicly comment on the accounts given by stakeholders of specific claimants’ experiences because of claimant confidentiality, but that the facts as presented were incorrect and misrepresented.’

The NAO cites a number of areas where the impact of sanctions is evidenced by data rather than anecdote. On food bank use, for example, the NAO reported on evidence from the Trussell Trust that food bank use had increased nationwide: ‘foodbank use had increased by 30% in the six months after Universal Credit full service rolled out in an area, compared with 12% in non-Universal Credit areas. In three of the four areas we visited for which we have data, the use of foodbanks increased more rapidly once full service had rolled out. Hastings foodbank saw an increase of 80% following the rollout of full service in the area …‘.

Citizens Advice latest ‘Advice Trends’ publication notes a steep increase in numbers of cases on UC it has dealt with from May 2017 (6.584) to April 2018 (17,803). The cost of supporting UC claimants is not included in the DWP’s overall assessment of costs. of UC The NAO reports that ‘advisory and advocacy service providers have seen demand for advice rise since Universal Credit was introduced in their area. Support agencies expressed concerns to us that the current level of support they provide to claimants will not be sustainable as the caseload increases. Some have invested in additional resources to support claimants. The Department does not include these wider costs to the system in its Universal Credit business case.’

Some area of impact, however, are felt but can’t be evidenced because of the lack of DWP analysis. On rent arrears, for example, the NAO notes that ‘local authorities, housing associations and landlords have seen an increase in rent arrears since the introduction of Universal Credit, which can take up to a year to recover‘, leading to some landlords being reluctant to rent to UC claimants. Yet the DWP ‘has not undertaken any national, representative analysis of whether Universal Credit is creating additional rent arrears’, aside from a ‘very limited’ analysis with one housing association. The DWP also has no idea of the numbers of UC claimants who are vulnerable, because it has found it difficult to identify and track them and it ‘does not have systematic means of gathering intelligence from delivery partners‘.

On a more positive note, the NAO said that DWP had told them that it ‘has started to recognise the needs of third parties and work more closely with organisations such as local authorities and Citizens’ Advice‘. It also stated that the DWP’s most recent claimant satisfaction survey ‘showed that 83% of Universal Credit claimants expressed satisfaction with the service, a similar level to those claiming other benefits’.

Issues for researchers and research users

The DWP’s reluctance to accept evidence from research produced by organisations it deems to be opposed to UC policy raises questions about not just the capacity but the willingness of government departments to ensure that policy is based on robust evidence. When a policy area is as politicised (some might say toxic) as UC, this can make conducting research appear futile, particularly worrying considering that social security is the largest administrative decision-making system in the UK. Researchers could draw on the findings of the NAO report, and the priorities in UKAJI’s Research Roadmap, to address these concerns.

Among the issues and opportunities for researchers to consider are improving the evidence base and the way it is used; exploring UC as a case study on agile methodology by government; and the approaches taken by devolved governments to social security administration, including values and organisational culture. These are explored briefly below.

1. Better data

One of many recommendations the NAO makes in its report are that the DWP should work with ‘delivery partners’ (advice agencies, local authorities, landlords) to establish a shared evidence base for how UC works in practice, and the DWP should ‘ensure that delivery partners’ feedback on both implementation issues and the impact on claimants is considered alongside the existing feedback from frontline staff and programme managers. It needs to systematically collect, analyse and publish data and evidence from delivery partners and produce a shared understanding of what is happening on the ground and how it is addressing any issues raised.’

UKAJI members have argued for large-scale research projects to be undertaken in social security to build on those undertaken by Citizens Advice and NAWRA; see Tom Mullen and Robert Thomas on the need for research into internal review of decision-making by the DWP. Without such projects, there is a risk that evidence that is considered ‘anecdotal’ will be more easily dismissed (as not robust or, in the case of the DWP response to evidence on UC, as biased) and that is will remain impossible to identify the scale or frequency of problems that need to be addressed.

Researchers may be interested in the gitbook UKAJI has published on social security administrative data. This provides a snapshot of social security data sources across the UK, specifically relating to Employment Support Allowance (ESA) and Personal Independence Payment (PIP) benefits. There is a need to develop this and other research resources on administrative data.

The need to have better information and to make better use of information across government is one of the three strands of research priority UAKJI has identified in its Research Roadmap. Among the specific needs around data and information we highlighted are:

  • Understanding (through audit) what data is collected by departments and on tribunal appeals and judicial review
  • Understanding how datasets are established, accessed, shared and analysed
  • Using data to set standards across the system
  • Identifying what information exists on key matters such as costs and how this can be improved and greater consistency achieved in order to enable better comparison across departments
  • Achieving more granular management and demographic information on users in order to help identify non-users
  • Identifying what data is not collected and should be, and how openness and transparency can be improved through access to datasets and permissions
  • Investigating the role of private contractors (e.g. Capita, ATOS, Resolver) in data collection and control within administrative justice
  • Considering the ‘data relationship’ between government and new technologies (the Cloud, GAFA)
  • Working to improve consistency of available operational and outcome data across systems

2. Agile methodology

Also of interest to administrative justice researchers is the NAO’s observation that UC is the ‘largest agile development attempted by the government’ (the NAO explains that ‘agile ‘is a software development approach characterised by the division of tasks into short phases of work and frequent reassessment of plans to reflect changes in priorities and feedback from customers testing and using the system. It differs from traditional ‘waterfall’ approaches in that it builds and releases software in phases instead of trying to deliver it all at once near the end.’ It is an approach taken currently by the Ministry of Justice and HMCTS to its reform programme to digitalise courts and tribunals. This ‘agile’ approach, the NAO notes, ‘has allowed the Department to adjust its plans based on what it learns about what does and does not work, and to reprioritise activities to incorporate policy and other necessary changes as it develops the system. It has allowed the Department to add functionality and improve processes in a controlled way, but has led to scope creep and delays in the automation of the service.’

In their report on the digitalisation of tribunals, Joe Tomlinson and Robert Thomas discuss the current orthodoxy of e-government, including the use of agile methodology. ‘Agile’ is a data-driven, iterative design process used in courts and tribunals reform but also in designing administrative decision-making such as social security. It involves testing and reviewing and implementing change in stages. An agile approach can make research difficult, as timescales and aims shift with evaluation. But it is also in itself an area on which researchers might focus attention.

3. Different approaches through devolution

The approaches taken to the administration of social security in the devolved governments is another area for potential research. In Scotland, where responsibility for administering 11 benefits were transferred In a policy paper the Scottish government has confirmed its commitment to a human rights approach, as set out in the principles it has adopted for its approach to social security. Although UC is not one of the transferred benefits, Scotland secured a change to allow payments to be made to Scottish claimants fortnightly rather than monthly, to increase flexibility. Scotland has created a new agency, Social Security Scotland, to administer the benefits, and has also established an independent commission to provide scrutiny of the new social security system.

‘Social security is itself a human right, essential to the realisation of other human rights.’

Scottish Government

Devolved administration of public services provides an opportunity to explore the impact of organisational culture. A report last year for the Equality and Human Rights Commission, by Simpson, McKeever and Gray, looked at putting human rights principles at the heart of social security system design and how the principles of dignity and respect should be interpreted in this context. As the researchers noted, although the Scottish Government does not have the power to change the policy on sanctions on UC, it ‘might be possible to develop an organisational culture that takes a more empathetic and proportionate approach to minor breaches, such as missed appointments, and less readily resorts to sanctions‘. The researchers also pointed out that Northern Ireland has much lower rate of sanctions per claimant population, noting the effect of organisational culture: ‘Decisions can be shaped by attitudes as well as regulations … and devolved policymakers have argued that DWP’s organisational culture promotes liberal use of sanctions in a way that the Northern Ireland Social Security Agency does not.


The NAO report on UC highlights the risk that, particularly with highly politicised policy areas, research evidence will not have the impact it should have. ‘Claim and counterclaim’, as the NAO describes it, is not a form of dialogue that suggests careful listening, and it limits the capacity of government departments to take account of evidence. Researchers could take note of the findings to identify where they can help ensure that evidence has more real-world impact.


About the author:

Margaret Doyle is Senior Research Fellow with UKAJI, University of Essex School of Law.



  1. Pingback: Universal Credit – When evidence becomes politicised | UKAJI – leftwing nobody - June 18, 2018

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