New rules restricting MPs from intervening with officials directly to resolve benefit payment problems on behalf of constituents are a major barrier to justice, ministers have been warned.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has told MPs it will not discuss individual universal credit cases with them unless the claimant has given formal “explicit consent” by issuing detailed instructions via their online DWP account.
MPs said the restrictions will create a fresh layer of bureaucracy and pile extra pressure on vulnerable people who have approached their MP as a last resort to resolve problems such as non-payment of benefits.
Up to now, MPs have been able to contact the Department for Work and Pensions directly to deal with benefit problems on the basis that they had the “implicit consent” of the claimant who raised the issue with them.
“It [the restriction] makes the job more tiresome, slows it down, and creates more work for constituents. It’s barmy and unnecessary, and it’s a major barrier to justice,” said Frank Field, the chairman of the work and pensions select committee.
Welfare rights advisers have also raised the issue, warning the DWP last year that restrictions around “explicit consent” made it near-impossible for them to resolve benefit issues on behalf of some vulnerable clients, including for example those with learning disabilities, or those gravely ill in hospital beds who are unable to access their online DWP accounts.
Field said he had raised the issue in person recently with the work and pensions secretary, Damian Green, who Field said was sympathetic. However, this week, a caseworker in Field’s constituency office trying to resolve a benefits issue on behalf of a constituent was refused by the DWP.
A DWP spokesman said: “This issue has been raised with the department and we are actively looking into it. The DWP always takes steps to protect personal data and make decisions in the best interests of the claimant.”
Karen Buck MP said: “People come to me because we [MPs] are the only named people in the system they can find. If we have to turn people away, asking them to jump through hoops before we can help them, it is only going to make people feel disempowered.”
She added: “The more complex the demands we put on vulnerable people, the easier it should be for representatives to intervene on their behalf.”
The note to MPs, sent in February, says that before MPs become involved in a case constituents must provide the DWP “with the specific details of the issues they would like us to discuss with you” via their online journal, through which all their universal credit business is transacted.
The DWP’s director general of universal credit, Neil Couling wrote to welfare advisers in January arguing that explicit consent was necessary because of the risk of that disclosure of material to third parities would breach data protection rules.
He wrote: “I realise that as bona fide advisers this may seem unduly cautious, but we face regular attempts by unscrupulous organisations and individuals to access information from us and we need to take all reasonable steps to protect the position of claimants and their data which we hold.”
The explicit consent rule applies to claimants on the full service universal credit, of which there are around 450,000 in the UK. It does not apply to people claiming legacy benefits such as housing benefit.
Patrick Butler, The Guardian