The Tories must be very proud of the fall out from their welfare “reforms”
Tell us something we don’t know!
Universal credit IT system ‘broken’, whistleblowers say, service centre staff say glitches are having harmful effect on huge number of claimants.
Universal credit is so riddled with design flaws and process faults that it is practically guaranteed to generate mistakes and delays that would push vulnerable benefit claimants into hardship, according to whistleblowers.
One said: “The IT system on which universal credit is built is so fundamentally broken and poorly designed that it guarantees severe problems with claims.”
He said the system was overcomplex and prone to errors that affected payments and often proved slow to correct. “In practical terms, it is not working the way it was intended and it is having an actively harmful effect on a huge number of claimants.”
Mistakes and delays can add on average an extra three weeks to the formal 35-day wait for an initial benefit payment, pushing claimants into debt, rent arrears, and reliance on food banks. Campaigners warn that the problems could get worse next year when more than 3 million claimants start to be “migrated” to the new system.
Growing concern over universal credit, which is six years behind schedule but will eventually handle £63bn of benefits going to 8 million people, is matched by disquiet over what critics say has been a defensive and insular approach to managing welfare reform by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
The department came under withering fire last week from a cross-party group of MPs who accused it of a “culture of indifference” after it had repeatedly ignored warnings of basic process errors that led to 70,000 disabled benefit claimants being underpaid an estimated £500m over six years.
The work and pensions secretary, Esther McVey, sought to limit the damage in a speech on Thursday in which she admitted there were problems with universal credit, and promised to listen to campaigners, claimants and frontline staff to find ways to change and improve the system.
One whistleblower said many of the design problems with universal credit stemmed from the failure to understand claimants’ needs, especially where they lacked digital skills and internet access. “We are punishing claimants for not understanding a system that is not built with them in mind,” he said.
The DWP said it would not comment on the whistleblowers’ specific claims but insisted the system was being constantly improved. “Universal credit is a flexible and responsive benefit and we continue to listen to feedback and make any necessary improvements during the rollout with our test-and-learn approach.
“We are committed to ensuring people get the help they need and the majority of staff say universal credit gives them greater flexibility to give people the right support. The latest figures show 83% of claimants are satisfied with the system and complaint rates are low.”
Bayard Tarpley, 27, who left the Grimsby service centre last week after two years as a telephony agent, told the Guardian that he had been dealing with distressed claimants every day. “My hope is that by speaking out I can help explain why these processes have such a significant, harmful impact on claimants.”
He gave several examples of where poor system design and practice caused delays and payment errors, including:
- Staff are not notified when claimants leave messages on their online journal; for example, if they wish to challenge payment errors. As a result, messages sent to officials can go unanswered for days or weeks unless claimants pursue the inquiry by phone.
- Claimants are discouraged by staff from phoning in to resolve problems or to book a home visit and instead are actively persuaded to go online, using a technique called “deflection”, even when callers insist they are unable to access or use the internet.
- Callers have often been given wrong or contradictory advice about their entitlements by DWP officials. These include telling severely disabled claimants who are moving on to universal credit from existing benefits that they must undergo a new “fit for work” test to receive full payment.
- Although the system is equipped to receive scanned documents, claimants instead are told to present paper evidence used to verify their claim, such as medical reports, either at the local job centre or through the post, further slowing down the payment process.
- Small delays or fluctuations in the timing of employers’ reporting of working claimants’ monthly wages via the real time information system can lead to them being left hundreds of pounds out of pocket through no fault of their own.
Food banks were regarded as a formal backstop for when the system failed, he said. Officials are told to advise claimants who are in hardship and who do not qualify for cash advances to contact charities or their council for help. Many councils have closed local welfare provision as a result of cuts.
A second whistleblower, Joanne Huggins, who was until recently a case manager at the Grimsby centre, said that high staff caseloads and a high volume of calls to the service made it difficult to keep track of and prioritise claimants’ problems. “The system is set up in such a way that people don’t get support,” she said.
At least £1.3bn has been spent since 2010 developing universal credit. Although it is heralded as a streamlined digital replacement for the existing benefit system, a recent National Audit Office report concluded it was still in many aspects unwieldy, inefficient and reliant on basic manual processes.
The DWP says it operates a “test-and-learn” approach to constantly improve the system, although the whistleblower said in his experience staff suggestions were ignored and “top down” adjustments tended to follow media or political controversies, such as the scrapping of call charges on universal credit helplines.
Mark Serwotka, the general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services union that represents DWP staff, said: “The findings from the whistleblowers are in line with the ongoing feedback we get from our reps and members who struggle to deliver a service to universal credit claimants in the face of mounting cuts and increasing workloads.”
Citizens Advice said its research showed that a “significant minority” of claimants faced additional waits for payment because of the complicated application process. The 10-stage process took some claimants over a week to complete, even with expert help.
“Top of the government’s list should be simplifying the process and making sure adequate support is in place so that a claim can be completed as quickly as possible,” said the chief executive, Gillian Guy
Has the DWP covered up its role in claimants’ deaths? Labour, the SNP and Greens demand answers.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is facing allegations of a “cover-up” over the deaths of welfare claimants, possibly linked to its controversial Work Capability Assessment (WCA).
The DWP: covering up its role in people’s deaths?
As the website Disability News Service (DNS) has been investigating and documenting, the DWP is facing a possible scandal. Labour, the Lib Dems, the SNP and the Green Party are all demanding answers from the department. Green co-leader Jonathan Bartley said the situation had “all the hallmarks of a deliberate cover-up”.
It involves the DWP’s alleged failure to hand crucial evidence to the head of two independent reviews into the WCA. The missing evidence includes, according to DNS, two coroners’ reports that:
followed the deaths of two men with mental health conditions in 2010 and 2013… Each warned of further such deaths if changes were not made to the WCA.
The WCA is the process the DWP uses to decide whether claimants are ‘fit-for-work’ and therefore entitled to certain benefits. It has been dogged by controversy; not least when a study by Oxford and Liverpool universities found that an “additional” 590 people taking their own lives was linked to the WCA process.
must be carried out by civil servants into every death ‘where suicide is associated with DWP activity’.
One of the aims of these reviews is to ‘determine whether local and national standards have been followed or need to be revised/improved’, so DWP would find it hard to explain why they would not have been shown to Litchfield, whose job it was to review how the WCA was working.
DWP has admitted that at least seven peer reviews written in 2012 mentioned the WCA, and there are almost certainly more that were written by the time Litchfield wrote his final report in late 2014.
The DWP says…
The department told DNS:
As we’ve previously said, this was an independent review, and DWP provided information alongside other stakeholders – on request.
Any evidence used was referenced in the review.
A “deliberate cover-up”
But the situation has left Bartley incensed. He told DNS:
If the [department] failed to show Dr Litchfield vital documents linking the [WCA] with the deaths of benefit claimants, [the] DWP are clearly implicated in a cover-up.
If he was shown them but didn’t mention them in his reports, then so was he.
This has all the hallmarks of a deliberate cover-up over the fatal impact of the assessment on sick and disabled people.
Theresa May awarded Litchfield a CBE in June.
So, has the DWP intentionally covered up its involvement in claimants’ deaths? Currently, there are certainly more questions than answers.
Universal Credit rollout bungle blamed as over 1million people are fined for mistakenly claiming free prescriptions. Labour has slammed the Government and claim they have been “penalising ill people” by failing to inform them of entitlement. The bungled Universal Credit rollout has been blamed for more than a million people being fined for mistakenly claiming free prescriptions.
Labour accused Government of “penalising ill people” by failing to inform them of entitlement after moving to the all-in-one benefit. Helen Goodman blasted the Department for Work and Pensions and called on Employment Minister Alok Sharma for refunds.
Fines can be as high as £100 per prescription. The MP said: “This is the minister’s fault.“They should not penalise ill people because of their shambolic rollout of Universal Credit.”
Not all claimants qualify for free prescriptions and eligibility can change based on how much they earned in a given assessment period. But there is no automatic system to tell them whether they qualify. Even ticking the wrong box on the form can lead to a fine.
Just 35,000 people were penalised in 2014, the early stages of the delayed credit rollout.
Ms Goodman said in a letter to Mr Sharma that it was often also unclear if those who do not qualify can get NHS Low Income Scheme aid. She said: “The system should automatically alert a claimant and clearly inform them.
“These fines are… huge sums for people on low incomes.”
A Government spokesman said: “We have not yet received the letter. When we do, we’ll respond in due course.
“Universal Credit claimants are informed of potential entitlement to support with NHS charges via monthly payment statements.”
The Professional Standards Authority (PSA) agreed in January to look at concerns about the way regulators deal with complaints about nurses, physiotherapists and paramedics who carry out personal independence payment (PIP) assessments for the outsourcing giants Capita and Atos.
It agreed to act after being contacted last year by disabled activist Mark Lucas, who has twice appealed successfully against the results of what he believes were dishonest PIP assessments.
Hundreds of disabled people have come forward over the last 18 months to tell Disability News Service (DNS) how assessors working for Atos and Capita wrote dishonest PIP assessment reports on behalf of the Department for Work and Pensions.
Many also raised concerns about the apparent refusal of the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) and the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) to take their complaints about these assessments seriously.
Only this week, Lucas received an email from HCPC, explaining that it would not take any further action over his complaint about an occupational therapist who had assessed him for PIP.
He believes the assessor deliberately downplayed the seriousness and frequency of his seizures, but HCPC told him it did not believe this had happened and even if it had, “it would be considered a minor error, which would not be capable of amounting to an allegation of impaired fitness to practice”.
Lucas has twice been found ineligible for PIP following assessments, but on both occasions was later awarded eligibility for the PIP standard daily living rate after appealing to a tribunal.
Frustrated at HCPC’s failure to take another complaint about a PIP assessor seriously, he contacted PSA – which reviews the work of the regulators of health and care professionals – last year.
PSA incorporated Lucas’s concerns into its annual review of HCPC, which found this month that the regulator was meeting only four of the 10 required standards for the way it deals with complaints against healthcare professionals, including those who carry out PIP assessments.
Last year, before Lucas contacted the regulator, PSA had reviewed 100 complaints made to HCPC, including a small number relating to PIP assessments.
David Martin, PSA’s concerns and appointments officer, said the 2017-18 review “concluded that there were issues of concern about the HCPC’s process across all of its activity”, in relation to fitness to practise.
These concerns include the way it deals with the initial stages of the fitness to practise process, and how it determines if there is a “case to answer” against a health and care professional.
Among PSA’s concerns are that HCPC makes it too difficult for complaints about a healthcare professional to be accepted into the fitness to practise process, while other cases are closed at the initial stage instead of being referred to an investigating committee panel.
Martin said HCPC had confirmed that PIP assessment work “should be considered in the same way as any other professional activity of its registrants” and that its procedures “require it to fully consider the concerns it receives about PIP assessors”.
He said: “The HCPC was clear that it considers registrants, acting as PIP assessors, are exercising their professional judgement.
“It therefore considers that allegations of misconduct or lack of competence when carrying out PIP assessments could constitute a fitness to practise concern to be investigated in accordance with its usual process.”
He said HCPC was now “undertaking an action plan” to address the concerns PSA has raised about its fitness to practise processes, and that PSA would probably review further HCPC cases in detail over the next couple of years.
A similar annual review by PSA of NMC is due to be published later this year.
An HCPC spokesman said: “The PSA audited a sample of 100 of our cases as part of their review of our yearly performance review in 2016-17.
“While a small number of these cases related to PIP, the audit was not specifically looking at HCPC’s handling of PIP cases.
“HCPC registrants who are employed in assessor roles are recruited because of their skills and experience as registered health professionals. Therefore, their work and conduct needs to comply with our standards.
“If in the course of conducting a PIP assessment a concern is raised regarding a registrant’s fitness to practise, ie lack of competence or misconduct, then this will be investigated following the same robust and thorough processes and applying the same tests as concerns raised in relation to any other area of a registrant’s practice.
“We have also provided input into the PSA’s review into how regulators approach fitness to practise concerns in relation to PIP assessments and have confirmed our view that the PIP assessment process requires the registrant to employ their professional competencies.
“This year we continued to meet the majority of the PSA’s Standards for Good Regulation.
“Although we did not meet all the standards relating to fitness to practise, the PSA has acknowledged our on-going work to improve our performance in this area and stated that we have made ‘significant progress during this review period’.
“We continue our programme of improvement work to address the issues that were previously identified.”
But Lucas was heavily critical of PSA’s efforts to address his concerns.
He said PSA was “a joke” and a “toothless quango”.
He said: “I am not happy with the way PSA have treated me and it is behaviour that I have been subjected to on many occasions over the last few years.”
Lucas said that complaints processes are “designed to abuse” disabled people because they first “promise the earth”, then “forget” the complaint, and finally “communicate the result from the complaint in a letter with preapproved techniques of neutralisation and consolatory phrases like ‘we realise you will be disappointed’”.
He said: “This experience of the last few years has given me anxiety over making complaints.
“I have spent much time and written many letters, but it is all for nothing because organisations like the PSA are just for show.”
A note from the [DNS] editor:
For nine years, Disability News Service has survived largely through the support of a small number of disability organisations – most of them user-led – that have subscribed to its weekly supply of news stories. That support has been incredibly valuable but is no longer enough to keep DNS financially viable.
For this reason, please consider making a voluntary financial contribution to support its work and allow it to continue producing independent, carefully-researched news stories that focus on the lives and rights of disabled people and their organisations.
Please do not contribute if you cannot afford to do so, and please remember that DNS is not a charity. It is run and owned by disabled journalist John Pring, and has been from its launch in April 2009.
Thank you for anything you can do to support the work of DNS…
Tory Esther McVey DENIES Universal Credit has been too brutal – despite revealing yet more climbdowns to come. The Work and Pensions Secretary admitted she is “working on” changes that are “still needed” to the six-in-one welfare system – five years after it launched
Tory welfare chief Esther McVey today flatly denied Universal Credit has been too brutal – despite unveiling yet more climbdowns over the flagship benefit. The Work and Pensions Secretary admitted she is “working on” changes that are “still needed” to the six-in-one welfare system – five years and a million claimants after it launched.
They include more support for the self-employed and possible changes to the “taper rate” to let people keep more of the money they earn. But she refused to say the system had been flawed – or if she backs ex-welfare chief Iain Duncan Smith’s call to pump in £2billion a year more.
Mr Duncan Smith made his call after money was sucked out of the system before it launched in a move that will leave hundreds of thousands of families worse off. Asked by the Mirror if her climbdowns showed the system as rolled out was too “harsh” or “brutal”, she said: “It was very very slow as we rolled it out so we were monitoring as we were rolled it out.
“So no, it wasn’t, and we’ve stopped and changed it as we went along.” MORE LIKE SHE MAKES IT UP AS SHE GOES ALONG!!!!
The Supreme Court will be asked to rule on whether the revised cap breaches their right to be free from discrimination.
What is the Benefit Cap?
Changes to the benefits system were brought into place in 2013, under the Coalition Government. There have been a couple of amendments to the legislation since, but in practice, the scheme limits the amount people can receive in benefits unless they are working at least 16 hours a week.
Currently the maximum amount of benefits that those working less than 16 hours per week can receive totals £23,000 in London, and £20,000 in the rest of the country.
The cap was first introduced alongside the bedroom tax, which penalised benefits claimants living in a Housing Association home with a ‘spare’ bedroom.
The bedroom tax was declared discriminatory and unlawful in January 2016.
Who is Bringing the Case to Court?
The claimants are two women who are single parents outside London and have been unable to find work. They have children of various ages, including children under 2.
One, with four children, lost entitlement to £80 a week, while a mother of five, who has three children with significant health needs, lost £110.
Why Does the Benefit Cap Discriminate Against Lone Parents in Particular?
The lone parents in this case argued that, with such young children, it was harder for them to find work than for others, especially as free childcare is only available in some circumstances for those with children aged between 2 and 4.
This has resulted in a lot of young mothers tasked with juggling a minimum of 16 hours work a week while caring for their children.
An estimated 26,000 lone parents with children under the age of two have been affected by the benefit cap since it was introduced in 2013, reported the Guardian, while Full Fact notes that 40,000 single parents have been affected in total.
These parents are losing on average £50 a week, according to Channel 4 News.
The cut has been described as a “brutal ” by Shelter’s CEO, Polly Neate. “This appeal offers a glimmer of hope for the thousands of single-parent families suffering because of the brutal benefit cap,” she said.
The History of the Case So Far
The case has not been a straightforward one.
The High Court ruled in favour of the lone parents in June 2017.
Presiding judge Mr Justice Collins said that the restrictions imposed by the Work and Pensions Secretary cap were discriminatory, declaring that “real misery was being caused to no good purpose”.
But the decision was overturned by a two-to-one majority at the Court of Appeal in March 2018, which found that there was no discrimination against the claimants, since lone parents with children under two did not, said the Court, in practice face substantially greater difficulties that lone parents with older children in obtaining work.
The Court of Appeal said it was therefore not unreasonable of the government to fail to give them an exemption from the benefits cap.
It is this decision that is being challenged this week in the Supreme Court.
As today’s hearing shows, the parents haven’t given up the fight yet.
Lawyers for the parents intend to prove that the cuts have “drastically reduced housing benefits, leaving lone parent families across the country unable to afford basic life necessities to care for their children”.
After two days of testimonies, the proceedings conclude today.