Universal Credit: working smoothly?

After I posted the previous item on Universal Credit, I received a tweet from Bill Irvine at UC Advice and Advocacy  questioning the DWP’s claim that Universal Credit is working ‘smoothly’. I’ve had no direct experience of the process myself, but I’ve been looking around to see what information I can pick up; most of the information on the net is concerned with the way the system is intended to operate, rather than the way it actually does in those places where it’s been rolled out. I’d be grateful for any information people hold.

A useful posting by Claire Pearce-Crawford at LinkedIn’s Welfare Reform and Housing Group, however, makes some important observations about the process followed in one case with an adviser present.  LinkedIn isn’t available immediately to all, so with her permission, I’m duplicating part of it here:

Tenant visited JCP on a Friday, the systems were down and he was advised to call back Monday or use his own PC to make a claim on line. Claimant advised he did not have his “own” PC. He attempted to use the JCP telephone but the systems were unavailable. He left the building and was asked to return Monday.  My advisor actually made the hour long claim using company telephone on the Friday, to prevent a delay in claim.

The interview at JCP
• The interview took over 1 hour, mainly as the start of the interview involved the advisor taking copies of identification, stamping every page of the telephone transcript, and asking the claimant to sign every page.
• The claimant was not directly asked Tier 1 or Tier 2 questions.
• An APA (Alternative Payment Arrangment)  was explained but never offered.
• The claimant was asked who the landlord was but not asked if there were current rent arrears, and was not advised to supply a copy of the tenancy agreement/rent statement.
• The telephone number was given to the claimant for a budgeting advance, but the claimant was told he could not apply for one for at least 24 hours.
• It was very much like a JSA interview but with contracts drawn up.

Other points of interest:
• The JCP advisor only has read only access to the UC claim account, ALL changes have to be made by ringing the service centre ( even small changes i.e. telephone numbers)
• Sanctions were briefly explained
• The JCP coach has no access to payment information, dates or amounts, this is all done by ringing the service centre. (if the coach/advisor can get through).

I’d draw four points out from this.

  1. The initial claim – new claims are still supposedly confined to straightforward cases – is taking much too long for a process that needs to be rolled out to several million people.  The basic pattern appears to be based on the New Jobseeker Interview developed for JSA.  That process bundled claims together with the Jobseekers Agreement, previously two processes, and the more that the system tries to do at once, the longer it will take.  (There are other ways of doing things.  In France, local authorities and selected advice agencies are commissioned to prepare and verify everything needed in an initial interview, and are paid for each complete claim they prepare.)
  2. Claire reports that even simple things like correcting addresses and phone numbers have to be phoned in to the service centre.  This is a major obstacle to efficient administration – the DWP already receives millions of calls, too many of which are people discovering they’ve got to the wrong office.  They need to be looking for ways to cut down phone contact, not to increase it.
  3. Complexities, including Alternative Payment Arrangements, the ‘tiers’ identifying vulnerable people and budgeting advances, aren’t mentioned in the initial process.  That  means that claimants and advisers will need to raise them before they get taken into account at all.
  4. The initial process doesn’t give any information about key issues – when the money will come or how much it will be.  I’ve previously argued that basing claims on the anniversary of the claim makes no sense to anyone and adds to the unpredictability of the system.  What we need is a uniform pay day.

Universal Credit is still largely confined to relatively uncomplicated cases – single people who are workless.  This is subject, however, the principle of the ‘lobster pot’, which means that people who have started on UC will stay with it; as people’s lives change, there are other sorts of case that have to be dealt with.  Lord Freud explained to the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee  how the  scheme has to deal with a ‘rather complicated’ case.

“Just to take an example of one of the more complicated cases we’ve had: we had a claimant who met a partner who had a son who wanted to move in together and they had therefore need to move house and had his own son moving in with them over the weekends.  So the new partner was in receipt of Income Support.  So what we get out of that rather complicated example was a partner claim, a child, termination of Tax Credit, termination of Income Support and a change of address, and we were able to work that through on policy terms on a manual basis to find out how these systems actually work …”

There are several troubling aspects of this little story.  One is that the system has clearly not been designed to take into account the most basic and common changes in people’s lives.  The assumption has been made that people fall into a defined category which then has to be modified, rather than the more obvious approach of developing a series of stand-alone modules to deal with the constituent elements.  Second, half the ‘problems’ Freud is identifying seem to relate to the transition to Universal Credit itself.  If that’s right, this is a fundamental design issue likely to be revisited with every transfer.  Third,  the development of Universal Credit has been going on for several years now, and ministers are still being surprised by the idea that people might form new households.  What will happen, one wonders, when UC does start to deal routinely with genuinely difficult cases?


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