Joanne Huggins worked on the universal credit helpline in the Grimsby service centre for nearly two years before quitting in April. She had worked in social housing and understood the social security system but was still surprised by what she found. “I did not expect it to be so fundamentally flawed,” she told Patrick Butler, in a Guardian interview back in July.
She had hoped she would be able to help resolve the problems reported by claimants, some of whom would call in upset after payments were late, or were unexpectedly reduced, but soon found the system resistant to offering quick or easy assistance.
“It felt like these were not people that you serve, not customers, not important, but people who get in the way of what you are are trying to do, which was to hit call targets,” she said.
She said it was “heartbreaking” having to block or deflect vulnerable claimants, telling them that they would not be paid, or would have to submit a new claim, or have a claim closed for missing a jobcentre appointment, or be sanctioned – a penalty fine for breaching benefit conditions – or go to the food bank.
She added that the system felt crude rather than intuitive, and her role often felt adversarial. Huggins said: “It was more about getting the person off the phone, not helping.”
Bayard Tarpley also worked in the Grimsby centre. He said the system was not only avoidably complex but failed to anticipate that claimants may find it difficult. Tarpley gives countless examples of how his experience showed that the system is designed irrationally, or clumsily, or in a way that confuses staff as well as claimants and leads directly to people not receiving the lifeline financial support they need and are entitled to.
“Universal credit is like one of those old Disney cartoons with a leaky boat. The holes spring up, and Bugs Bunny or whoever sticks a finger in, but then a new hole appears, and they end up sprawled across the boat trying to block all the leaks. The holes aren’t the problem, though, it’s the boat”
Staff often get confused by the welter of system updates, guidance and memos.
“This results in a massive variation in understanding between agents, teams and especially service centres, meaning that claimants can call three times in a row and get three different answers to a query.”
“This piled excessive responsibilities on to call centre staff. When people call up with very specific questions about how their terminal illness affects their benefit, it’s me that answers that question. It’s me that has to judge whether it’s appropriate to ask a claimant if her third child is the result of sexual assault because it may affect her benefit entitlement.
“The decisions I make on a daily basis have an impact on how quickly someone is able to pay their landlord, turn the heating back on, get their children to school. I have made decisions that have resulted in people being evicted, and decisions I have made have led people to tell me that it is the reason they are self-harming.
“I would argue that I am scarcely qualified for any of those things, never mind all of them.”
Now, the former Universal Credit service centre advisor, Bayard Tarpley, has revealed details of a ‘deflection script’ that staff are given to get claimants off the phone. Speaking to Sky News, ahead of a major report on Universal Credit that is due to be released by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) today, Tarpley echoed earlier concerns raised by Huggins. about call targets.
He said: I think certainly from a frontline position I wasn’t particularly confident that Universal Credit was meeting that goal of helping people work and making them better off based on their circumstances.”
“We were encouraged to end the call sooner so that we could quickly get through things.
“There didn’t seem to be a lot of changes that were specifically there to support claimants.
“So there was there is something called the deflection script. It was a piece of paper that explains what to do when someone calls in.
“Even if a problem could be solved then and there on the phone we were encouraged to do everything in our power to get them to hang up the phone and do that online.”
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) released a statement that denies the existence of such a deflection script but added that “staff may use aides to effectively deal with claimants.”
A spokesperson added: “We take the training of our call handling staff extremely seriously to ensure they are prepared to handle a range of enquiries, regardless of how long they might take – there is no policy to get callers off the phones.
“Since 2010, one million people have been lifted out of absolute poverty, with on average 1,000 more people going into work each and every day since 2010.”
Whistleblower Tarpley concludes:
The DWP’s ‘culture of denial’
With the chancellor under intense pressure to act in his budget next Monday to cushion the impact of the the universal credit system, the public accounts committee has warned that the government has ignored the concerns of those at the sharp end. The committee took evidence from charities and local authorities, which told MPs they had seen sharp increases in rent arrears and food bank usage among new recipients of universal credit, not least because of the five-week wait for the first payment.
The DWP’s own survey found that 40% of people were experiencing financial difficulties eight or nine months into their claim, and work and pensions secretary Esther McVey recently admitted the rollout would leave “some people worse off”.
The committee has said McVey’s department has repeatedly been unresponsive to on-the-ground evidence about the practical problems with universal credit, and what it called the “unacceptable hardship” faced by many.
“The department’s systemic culture of denial and defensiveness in the face of any adverse evidence presented by others is a significant risk to the programme,” the MPs said, citing the DWP’s response to an earlier critical report by the National Audit Office (NAO).
McVey was forced to apologise to parliament earlier this year, when the NAO’s head, Sir Amyas Morse, complained that she had misrepresented the report as positive, when it had called for a “pause” in the rollout of universal credit.
Several of the organisations that gave evidence told the committee they had a positive relationship with local jobcentres, but found it impossible to influence the DWP nationally.
Meg Hillier, the public accounts committee’s chair, said: “This report provides further damning evidence of a culture of indifference at DWP – a department disturbingly adrift from the real-world problems of the people it is there to support.”
The committee said the help available to people moving over to universal credit, known as “universal support”, which is funded by the DWP but commissioned by councils, is patchy, and “not fit for purpose” – because it does not include debt advice, for example
By June this year, 980,000 people were already in receipt of universal credit, with another 7.5 million due to move over to the new system. So far, only new claimants, or those whose circumstances have changed, have been moved on to universal credit.
The government recently delayed so-called “managed migration”, which will allow existing claimants to be moved across, from January 2019 to later in the year, apparently because it feared being defeated by backbench rebels in parliament if it tabled the necessary regulations.
The committee criticised the DWP’s claim that switching to universal credit will save taxpayers up to £8bn, by coaxing more people back into the workforce. They said that the department cannot say how it will measure whether the targets have been hit – or how many of those moving into work would have done so under the old system anyway.
A DWP spokesperson said: “We will carefully consider the findings in the report – a number of which we are already working on. For example, we have recently begun a new partnership with Citizens Advice to deliver better support to the most vulnerable, and are working with stakeholders to ensure the Managed Migration process for people moving onto Universal Credit works smoothly.
“So far this year we have already announced several improvements to Universal Credit, such as plans to reinstate housing benefit for vulnerable 18-21 year olds, making direct payments to landlords, offering 100% advances and providing an additional 2 weeks of housing benefit for claimants.”
The so-called improvements are very clearly not enough. Legacy benefits were calculated to meet very basic living costs. Because universal credit leaves many people worse off, it means that they are facing unacceptable levels of extreme hardship and situations of absolute poverty – where people can’t meet their fundamental survival needs such as food, fuel and shelter. In this respect, Universal Credit is now not just failing our contemporary standards of addressing poverty but those of William Beveridge in the 1940s.
Until that issue is addressed, universal credit will continue fail the people it was allegedly designed to support.
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