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Social Justice

‘What kidnappers do’ – DWP forcing universal credit claimants to pose for photo with daily paper

One person trying to claim universal credit was told to have someone else take a photo of them holding a street sign in their right hand.

People are being forced to submit photos of themselves holding a local daily paper outside their home in order to claim universal credit.

The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) verification process contains a detailed list of bizarre requests potential claimants must follow. It also includes requiring people to send in a photo taken by someone else of them holding their street sign in their right hand.

The instructions were posted in at least one person’s universal credit journal – the online platform used to manage benefit claims – by a DWP employee, according to the Public Interest Law Centre (PILC). 

This is part of a package of measures to clamp down on benefit fraud, the DWP told The Big Issue. Separately, the director general for universal credit confirmed the requirements were legitimate and said they were part of the government’s effort to verify people who signed up for benefits during the pandemic, when face-to-face meetings were not possible.

The instructions, issued to a person making their first claim, read: “Further to today’s phone call, I now require you to provide the following information. If you don’t provide all of the information that we’ve requested your claim will be closed.”

The directions asked the claimant, who remains anonymous, to upload a photo of their ID plus a separate picture of the ID held next to their face.

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They then asked for “a photo of you stood outside the front door (open behind you) of the property you live at. Ask someone to take this from the street so whole property can be seen.

“A photo of you stood next to your street sign with you[r] right hand holding it. Ask someone to take this photo from a few metres away so that the background can be clearly seen.

“A photo of you holding your local newspaper for the area you live (not a national tabloid newspaper). This should be dated the same day you upload the photo.”

The final point is “what kidnappers do”, the PILC said.

The person could still be required to attend a job centre meeting even after providing the requested pictures “before any consideration is given to awarding [their] universal credit”, the post in the journal stated.

“In the first lockdown we suspended face-to-face verification,” Neil Couling, director general for the universal credit programme, tweeted when PILC posted a screenshot of the journal entry.

“Prior to Covid in cases where there was a doubt we used to call people into Jobcentres. Initially we used a ‘Trust and Protect’ approach [when verifying claimants’ identities].

“We knew some would abuse that, I’ve been very open about that, but it was for the greater good. But we always said we would go back and check. And this is part of that, given restrictions mean we can’t yet use our Jobcentres to the full.

“So this is a temporary process, tailed for the restrictions we are still under. Eventually we will be able to return to interviews in Jobcentres in cases of doubt about identity. So there’s nothing to worry about here for claimants, they can engage with confidence.”

Couling referred to an annual DWP report published in July which warned identity theft led to around 4,000 people being asked to repay money they did not claim in the first place.

The instructions posted in the universal credit journal did not state what the claimant should do if they did not have access to a smart phone, could not get another person’s help to take the photos in the time given, could not reach their local street sign, if a daily local newspaper was not published in their area or if they could not afford to buy one.

“This kind of communication only shows how utterly disconnected the DWP is from the lived experience of people surviving on a low income,” Benjamin Morgan, research and communications coordinator at the PILC, told The Big Issue after the organisation’s client received the instructions.

“There are a range of reasons – ranging from disability to not having a permanent address – why claimants might reasonably find it impossible to fulfil such conditions.

“Policing universal credit claimants in this way is both humiliating and dehumanising.”

When a person does successfully sign up for universal credit, they face a five-week wait for a first payment which has been blamed for soaring poverty and food bank use.

The 5.2 million people currently claiming the benefit will receive their first reduced payment in the coming weeks after the government cut universal credit by £20 per week, taking £1,040 from claimants’ annual incomes.

A DWP spokesperson told The Big Issue: “At the start of the pandemic we suspended face-to-face verification of new claims as part of our Trust and Protect scheme to ensure all legitimate claimants got paid.

“We always said we would go back and verify claims, in order to protect the public purse, as some people sadly chose to abuse the temporary arrangements. 

“We are now checking cases and have implemented this approach temporarily in a small number of cases where a claimant has been unable to interact with us remotely, ahead of the return of in-person verification at jobcentres.”

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