I work with many compassionate and thoughtful employees, who try their hardest every day to help vulnerable claimants. However, we can only act within the remit of strict guidelines which don’t offer us the flexibility we sometimes need to prevent unnecessary suffering.
The problem is compounded by employees’ lack of knowledge about the Universal Credit regulations which can have an especially devastating impact on care leavers, the disabled and those with mental health conditions. It is not uncommon for charities and support workers to inform case managers – the ones whose job it is to asses people for Universal Credit and other benefits – of the law, rather than the other way round.
Full-time case managers on average handle in the region of 300 claims each. We recently started a new way of working whereby tasks are prioritised in a “trigger” approach, meaning we often only have time to look at the highest risk cases. Payments and “payment blockers” are the first priority but many case managers struggle to make it past these on a daily basis. Claimants are told that they must fill out an online “Universal Credit journal” about their job searches and keep it up-to-date in order to release the benefit – their “work coach” is the person who’s supposed to keep in touch with them about those notes. But in reality, claimants are putting important journal messages about jobs and interviews online all the time, and the case managers and work coaches can’t reply. Each employee has dozens of other unseen journal messages they simply don’t have enough time to address.
Many of my colleagues feel out of their depth with the quantity of claims they manage, resulting in a vast amount of crucial work never being completed until claimants contact us when their payments are inevitably paid incorrectly or not at all.
We’re so understaffed that case managers going on holiday can have a significant impact on claimants. These claimants are completely neglected, sometimes for many weeks, as colleagues are told to only send out payments for the people they manage themselves. In other words, if the person who’s looking after your Universal Credit payment takes some annual leave, you could be left penniless by accident.
Earlier this year, the DWP said it would cut 750 jobs, partly by closing 27 back-office buildings. My office is merging with another local office, leading to dozens of newly trained employees on temporary contracts being told that their contracts will not be renewed. To most of us this makes no sense considering the amount of claims we already have to manage. How are we supposed to cope?
Across the DWP and in every department, understaffing is chronic. We have to refer many of our decisions about extra payments and claims to “decision makers” higher up the chain – which means the decision makers then get overloaded with work. It’s common to see payments being delayed for three weeks while they’re in a queue for a decision maker to sign off.
Similarly it may take three weeks for earnings disputes to be resolved. This is where the amount a claimant has received through employment differs to what HMRC has sent to us. Because your take-home pay from your job can be deducted off your benefits, this causes huge financial hardship if the numbers are incorrect. The claimants are always quick to provide payslip and bank statement evidence, but decisions on these disputes are usually lengthy so they end up with long delays anyway as their cases lie in a pile waiting to be looked at.
One of the principles we’re told is central to case management is that claimants are entirely responsible for their own claim. The system alerts us when deadlines have been missed, allowing us to cruelly close claims and stop that person receiving any money. Tens of thousands of very vulnerable people have their lifeline switched off with a click. Although we are told to provide vulnerable claimants with more support, perhaps by reminding them that they should be doing something, normally we have very little to go by as we sit behind a computer screen and have never met them.
I see so much suffering on a daily basis. Case managers like me are well trained to deal with any claimants threatening suicide, either by phone or by journal message, simply because it’s such a frequent occurrence (and recurrence). It is often that we have to tell claimants the state cannot support them further at all – even if they have weeks till their next payment and have young children to feed. Proactive case managers signpost these claimants to charities and food banks, who have had to fill the gap.
Being a case manager means that turning away those in abject poverty is a part of the job. Those who have worked in Universal Credit since the early days have become hardened, having dealt with thousands of vulnerable people. It’s very difficult to tell claimants, “I’m sorry but we can’t give you anymore”, even if we know that children will suffer in hunger for weeks. But we have no choice.
Claimants who state that they are facing eviction are a penny a dozen. We are told that legal proceedings can take months so a claimant is “never really facing eviction”. That’s how we’re told to justify it.
One part of my job involves spending time answering calls from across the country. Many of these people are at the lowest point of their lives.
Often the call involves telling them that we can’t pay them anything else, even if they are genuinely penniless and will be for weeks. Many claimants react in anger; others break down in tears. It’s only minutes until we’re dealing with the next caller – and the last caller is quickly forgotten.
James L Johnson is a pseudonym