Ministers have agreed to scrap controversial new rules restricting MPs from intervening on behalf of individual constituents to resolve problems with benefit payments.
The U-turn comes after the Guardian revealed MPs were being blocked by Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) officials from pursuing individual universal credit casework issues on data protection grounds.
Officials had refused to discuss specific cases with MPs unless the claimant concerned had given “explicit consent” for them to do so by issuing detailed instructions via their online universal credit account.
After complaints from MPs, who called the rule a “major barrier to justice”, it is expected the DWP will issue new guidance on Thursday clarifying that elected representatives can access universal credit information on behalf of claimants.
However, it is understood that welfare advice workers, council staff, and landlords trying to resolve universal credit issues will still need to obtain explicit consent before being allowed to access information on behalf of clients.
Welfare advisers have warned the DWP that the explicit consent rule – which does not apply to other benefits – has created avoidable delays in resolving issues for vulnerable clients at a time when universal credit-related problems are rising.
They say it will create barriers to helping clients who find it hard to access or navigate a complex online-only system alone, including people with learning disabilities and mental illness, and those in hospital who may be physically unable to log on to their DWP accounts.
“The overriding issue is that claimants are being left with universal credit problems unresolved for longer, causing distress and exacerbating health problems,” said Daphne Hall of Lasa, a social welfare law charity.
Landlords – both private and social – say it is already difficult and time-consuming to resolve universal credit problems such as non-payment of housing support that can lead to eviction. Data-sharing restrictions exacerbate frustration with what some regard as a distant, unresponsive DWP bureaucracy.
Pressure on the DWP to act grew this week after the leader of the House of Commons, David Lidington, confirmed MPs and elected councillors acting on behalf of constituents did not require explicit consent under data protection law.
Frank Field MP, the chair of the Commons work and pensions committee, said: “Common sense demanded this change of heart from the government. I’m pleased that our campaign has gained such an outcome.
“But there are many more emergency workers on the frontline at local authorities, housing associations, and welfare rights groups, for example, who are still unable to pursue cases on behalf of some of their most vulnerable clients.
“This heightens the risk of those clients becoming destitute. Might not the government now apply its common sense approach across the board, by allowing those frontline workers to pursue urgent cases directly with officials, so that justice can be gained quickly for those who would otherwise be exposed to destitution?”
Labour’s shadow work and pensions minister, Margaret Greenwood, said: “I am pleased that the DWP has now changed its position on this cumbersome and overly bureaucratic process.
“When a constituent visits their MP’s surgery they need to know that they are able to ask them to take up issues on their behalf without such barriers being put in their way. This is especially the case for people who may be in distress and for those who may have difficulties in navigating the social security system.
“The relationship between constituent and MP is based on trust. MPs handle sensitive data on behalf of their constituents every day of the week. It is important that they are allowed to represent their constituents effectively.”
The DWP’s director general of universal credit, Neil Couling, wrote to welfare advisers in January to say that although the explicit consent rule may seem “unduly cautious” it was necessary to prevent breaches of data protection law.
The explicit consent rule applies to claimants on the full service universal credit, of which there are about 450,000 in the UK. It does not apply to people claiming legacy benefits such as job seeker’s allowance or housing benefit.
Patrick Butler, The Guardian