Statistics on take-up

The DWP is running a consultation about a proposal to stop publishing statistics about the take-up of income-tested benefits. I have responded to the consultation in these terms.

1. Do you use information from Income-related Benefits: Estimates of Take-up?

Yes. My book, How social security works (Policy Press, 2011), has a discussion of issues around takeup in chapter 13, and this series is part of that discussion.

2. What would be the effect of not having this information?

This information matters. First, it provides evidence on some of the key dynamics in the process of claiming. The knowledge, experience and understanding of those involved in benefits administration and advice depends on the quality of information which is produced. For example, the practice of the administration of Pensions Credit has been based in large part on the previous learning about claiming behaviour, rather than specific findings about Pensions Credit itself.

Second, takeup is one of the principal tests of effectiveness and efficiency. For example, if we do not know how Universal Credit take-up compares to that of earlier benefits, we will not know if Universal Credit is achieving its aims.

Third, takeup is also an indicator of effective demand. The responses to the previous consultation identified the benefits of the series as including policy development, estimating benefit expenditure and future benefit counts. The series under discussion has been largely stable for some time, but that stability should not be assumed to endure in an extensively reformed system. Without information about take-up, the government will not be able to predict either the expenditure or saving to be expected from a change in rules, and any projections relating to incentives to work would be unreliable.

Fourth, benefits interact. A failure to monitor the interaction of benefits (including the new Council Tax rebates) may compromise the evaluation of welfare reform.

3. Have you any other views or comments on the proposal to discontinue the statistics?

This particular series is restricted to a narrow class of benefits. There are various theoretical explanations for problems in access and takeup. They include factors such as ignorance, lack of knowledge about personal entitlement, uncertainty about personal circumstances, complexity and stigma; they have been explained in terms of thresholds, cost-benefit calculations and attitudes to benefits. Although most of the literature on the subject conventionally focuses on income-tested benefits, none of these arguments implies that the problems are distinctive and unique to these benefits as opposed to other income-tested benefits, or that they apply to income-tested benefits and not to other types of benefit. DWP research has previously considered issues in the takeup of Attendance Allowance and Disability Allowance; it will need to consider Personal Independence Payment too. HMRC issues figures for takeup for Tax Credits, which will need to be available for Universal Credit.

The assertion that scrapping the existing statistics would save the equivalent of two full time members of staff is surprising. A repeated procedure producing consistent figures over several years from established algorithms should not require the same level of staff input as a new procedure.

4. If you are not in favour of the main proposal, which if any of the options do you prefer and why?

None of the options proposed is appropriate. At a time of major reform, it becomes more important to know what is happening, not less important. Most of the benefits mentioned are due to be downgraded or replaced and neither the same range nor a reduced range is meaningful; the range must be expanded to consider the new benefits. Given the importance of the figures, this is an argument not to discontinue the series, but greatly to extend it.

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