Withdrawal of crisis social security measures risks overwhelming support organisations during pandemic, study finds

Categories: School of Health and Society

As the government prepares to deliver its next Budget, a new report is calling for a review of the support available to those who are claiming benefits during (and beyond) the Covid-19 pandemic.

Dr Daniel Edmiston and Professor Lisa Scullion

The report shows that many people, particularly those who are younger, from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds, and those with a limiting health condition or disability, rely on extra support to make a claim for benefits. 

During the pandemic, this crucial benefits, employment and crisis support was often provided by voluntary organisations and councils at scale and pace, and was vital in helping individuals navigate the social security system and manage financial hardship. 

But the surge in claimant numbers has put these services under significant pressure and the report raises concerns about how the withdrawal of crisis social security measures, introduced during the initial phases of the pandemic, could put these services under additional strain.

More than a third (34%) of all claimants receive some kind of help when making a claim for benefits and this rises to 40% of those who made their claim prior to Covid-19. 

The most common sources of support are partners, friends and family, local charities/groups, and GPs or other health professionals. However, a range of local and national organisations also support individuals, such as those working within Citizens Advice, ‘Help to Claim’, council welfare rights services, and housing associations. This support proved crucial in helping individuals make a claim, understand eligibility, and get relevant evidence to complete their application.

About one in six claimants (17%) did not access benefits support because they: couldn’t or didn’t want to help by phone/over the internet, didn’t know how to access help during the Covid-19 lockdown, or they didn’t know who to get help from. This rises to almost a quarter (23%) of claimants experiencing a limiting health condition or disability.

Almost all support organisations interviewed for this report, expressed concern about the extreme financial hardship and poverty they saw amongst service users, which was also affecting new groups for the first time. There was a strong sense that an unseen, often out of reach, crisis was being experienced by certain groups of claimants and those financially struggling. Despite efforts to adapt working practices and provide remote support, many recognised that those exposed to the worst effects of Covid-19 were not receiving the support they needed either locally or nationally.

The report comes from the Welfare at a (Social) Distance project; a major national research project investigating the benefits system during Covid-19 and its aftermath. The project is led by the Sustainable Housing & Urban Studies Unit (SHUSU) at the University of Salford, working in collaboration with the University of Kent, the University of Leeds, the LSE and Deakin University, Australia. It represents the largest project in the UK focusing on the benefits system during Covid-19 and is providing rapid data to the DWP and other key organisations to support the response to Covid-19. 

Dr Daniel Edmiston, Lecturer in Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Leeds, who led the report, said: "In supporting people to navigate a benefits system with which they are often unfamiliar, these organisations play an important role for people in receipt of working-age benefits. Our research indicates that those providing benefits, crisis and employment support have faced increased demand for their services throughout the pandemic and additional challenges from social distancing. In certain cases, this has undermined the coverage and quality of support available to claimants and those financially struggling. 

“As pre-pandemic aspects of the benefits system return, it is vital that these local organisations and actors are properly consulted and adequately resourced. Any policy changes should be sequenced carefully and communicated well in advance to prevent support services from being overwhelmed."

Professor Lisa Scullion, Co-Director of SHUSU at the University of Salford, who leads the project, said: “This year has challenged the UK social security system like no other, with an unprecedented number of new benefit applications and soaring demand for support.

“The government must now recognise the challenges of the ‘return to normal’ in order to make sure services and individuals are supported through this transition period, particularly in the face of medium and long term challenges such as depleted staff resilience, changing policy landscapes and the continued economic fallout of the pandemic.”

The Welfare at a (Social) Distance project is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council as part of UK Research and Innovation’s rapid response to Covid-19. Over the course of the project, researchers will be publishing regular reports, blogs, and briefings about different aspects of the benefits system.

For more information on the project, to sign up for updates, or to share your ideas or personal experiences please visit https://www.distantwelfare.co.uk/

For all press office enquiries please email communications@salford.ac.uk.