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Many policy issues touched upon in this briefing are fast-moving areas which are subject to change. This paper should be read as correct at the date of publication (26 October 2021).

Changes made to the benefits system

The coronavirus pandemic, and the public health response, has had dramatic effects on the UK economy. In the spring of 2020, the effect on household finances prompted the Government to make changes to how the benefits system worked, alongside introducing other measures such as the Treasury-run Coronavirus Job Retention “furlough” Scheme. These changes were wide ranging and included:

  • Increasing the level of some benefits. Universal Credit and Working Tax Credit were increased by around £20 a week, and the amount available to support private renters was increased.
  • Rule changes to support social distancing, isolating and shielding.Changes were made to Statutory Sick Pay, and to sickness and carer benefits to help people follow public health guidelines.
  • Expansions of eligibility for some benefits. Rules were relaxed for some groups such as prisoners on temporary release and workers claiming tax credits whose hours were affected.
  • Suspending some conditions for claiming benefits. Conditions such as meeting work-search requirements and attending regular interviews at Jobcentres were temporarily halted.
  • Changes to assessments and Jobcentre appointments to allow social distancing.Nearly all face-to-face interactions with Jobcentre staff and assessors were suspended, and disability benefit reassessments were paused.
  • Redeploying staff into claims processing. Features of the system that require significant staffing, such as making deductions to benefits for certain kinds of debt, were suspended.

The removal of crisis measures

As the spring 2020 surge in benefit claims slowed from the summer of 2020, some measures began to be withdrawn. Others were extended, often repeatedly, along with the Treasury-run support schemes, into the autumn of 2021. By this time, most domestic public health measures had been lifted.

As of October 2021, only a small number of the benefit measures introduced in response to the pandemic remain fully in place, with no plans announced for their withdrawal. Those which look likely to leave a longer-term mark on the benefits system beyond the pandemic include:

  • Higher maximum levels of support for private renters.
  • Disruptions to the caseload rollout of Universal Credit. The rate of natural migration increased due to a high number of new claims during 2020. At the same time, plans for migrating existing claimants who are receiving ‘legacy’ benefits, which Universal Credit is replacing, have been delayed.
  • Lessons learned from changes to disability benefit, particularly the wider use of paper based, telephone and other remote assessments.

Most rule changes introduced to the benefits system through regulations have been withdrawn. However, one provision affecting Universal Credit claims remains in place. This allows Universal Credit claims which have been reduced to nil because of high income, to be reinstated without making a new claim, or a reclaim, for up to six months. There has been no announcement to withdraw this.

The ‘Plan for Jobs’

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is now managing a significantly higher number of benefit claimants than it anticipated before the crisis, and has introduced a ‘Plan for Jobs’ which aims to help people get back into work and prevent long term unemployment.

This briefing

This briefing looks at the expected process of withdrawing crisis social security measures. It is split into three parts:

Section 1: Changes to social security during the crisis, which summarises changes made in spring 2020, and the extensions and withdrawals of these measures.

Section 2: Reopening and plans for recovery discusses the DWP’s plans for recovery from the crisis, both in summer 2020 after the initial surge in claims receded, and in the longer term.

Section 3: Details of changes and expected withdrawal dates, outlines major changes to social security made during the crisis, expected withdrawal dates, and current status.

We cover developing policy, so the contents of this paper will be updated periodically.

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