The Universal credit IT system is ‘broken’

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.

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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.

Esther McVey, the work and pensions secretary
McVey has admitted there are problems with universal credit [you think!]

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.
Joanne Huggins, former case manager in Grimsby
Former Grimsby case manager Joanne Huggins: ‘The system is set up in such a way that people don’t get support.’

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

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Universal Credit blamed as over 1million people are fined for mistakenly claiming free prescriptions

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.”

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Esther McVey DENIES Universal Credit has been too brutal

MCVEY1Tory 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!!!!

Esther McVey FINALLY admits ongoing problems with universal credit

Changes in pipeline as DWP is accused of failing to respond promptly or take expert advice. The welfare secretary Esther McVey has admitted there are continuing problems with the much-criticised universal credit system and signalled that further changes are in the pipeline.

She also said Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) ministers and officials needed to listen more carefully to claimants, campaigners and frontline workers when they reported problems and complaints.

In a speech to the Reform thinktank on Thursday, McVey said universal credit was adapting the welfare system to changing patterns of work and using the latest technology to create an agile service offering “tailor-made support”.

But in an almost unprecedented official admission that not all is going well with the benefit, which is six years behind schedule, she said changes were needed.

McVey added: “And where we need to put our hands up, admit things might not be be going right, we will do.”

McVey said she was working on changes to universal credit including debt repayment, support for the self-employed and benefit payment cycles for working claimants, but gave no further details.

McVey said she had already made changes to the DWP’s position on a number of issues, including reinstating housing benefit for 18-21-year-olds, and exempting kinship carers – where a child lives with a relative or friend who is not their parent – from the two-child limit, although the latter followed a court decision that termed the policy “perverse and unlawful”.

 If Esther McVey’s getting away with it, things must be really bad

This came within hours of the publications of a critical report by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) that savaged the DWP for its six-year failure to fix system errors in the transfer of claimants from incapacity benefit to ESA.

Tens of thousands of ESA claimants will receive back-payments of £5,000 -£20,000 as a result of what MPs have called a series of “avoidable” mistakes. The DWP was warned of the error as early as 2014, but failed to take action until 2017.

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Grieving family were forced to pay their loved one’s rent for three weeks after his death

A GRIEVING Inverclyde family were forced to pay their loved one’s rent for three weeks after his death as a result of Universal Credit rules.

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Inverclyde MP Ronnie Cowan felt moved to speak out in parliament about the case and shocking treatment of his constituents.

The Department for Work and Pensions dictate that a Universal Credit claimant is classed as having died from the start of their four week assessment, which can result in families being liable for their rent payment.

Mr Cowan said: “Once again, we witness the callous nature of the Department for Work and Pensions, which classes as person as dead from the beginning of their assessment period, even if they die towards the end of that period.

“This means that family members had to meet the cost of the housing rent for a period of three weeks as the payment was stopped from the beginning of the assessment period.

“This is fundamentally wrong and highlights the cruel nature of the current system which is not fit for purpose.”

Mr Cowan now wants to know how many more families have been affected in this way.

These latest concerns come following a recent report from the National Audit Office slating Universal Credit and questioning its value for money.

Employment minister Alok Sharma wrote a letter to Mr Cowan offering his sympathies to the family involved and explained the system they use.

Mr Cowan says all social security powers should be passed to the Scottish Government so that a more compassionate system can be put in place.

He added: “This is something which is clearly lacking from this UK Government.

“I will be writing to the minister to ask that they sort out this issue.”

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Anti-poverty coalition calls for overhaul of universal credit

End Hunger UK says payment delays and errors are pushing vulnerable people into destitution, hunger and debt

People stock up on supplies at one of 15 Trussell Trust emergency food banks in and around Birkenhead
 People stock up on supplies at one of 15 Trussell Trust emergency food banks 

Church leaders and food banks have called for an overhaul of universal credit to halt a surge in vulnerable claimants being pushed into destitution, hunger and debt when they move on to the benefit.

End Hunger UK, a coalition of 73 poverty charities and faith groups, said excessive payment delays, common administrative errors and lack of support for claimants struggling to navigate the online-only system was driving up use of food banks.

It called for a dramatic reduction in the time claimants must wait for a first payment from a minimum of five weeks to just two weeks, saying the long wait was financially crippling for claimants who had no savings to fall back on.

“It is simply wrong that so many families are forced to use food banks and are getting into serious debt because of the ongoing failings in the benefits system,” said the the Right Rev Paul Butler, bishop of Durham.

The call comes as the work and pensions secretary, Esther McVey, faces a censure debate in the House of Commons on Wednesday after admitting she misled MPs over the contents of a highly critical National Audit Office (NAO) report on universal credit.

Esther McVey

There is growing concern among campaigners, landlords and opposition MPs about the cost and effectiveness of universal credit, as well as its impact on claimants, as the government prepares to “migrate” 3 million existing benefit claimants on to the benefit from next July.

The Trussell Trust food bank network reported a 52% average rise in demand for food aid in universal credit areas last year, compared with 13% in areas where it had not been rolled out.

The NAO’s universal credit report substantiated the Trussell Trust findings, seeing increased charity food parcel demand in three of the four areas it analysed, including an 80% increase in Hastings.

End Hunger UK also called for a rethink of advance payments, the system of repayable loans that is the government’s preferred method of supporting low-income claimants through the wait for a first universal credit payment.

“Often claimants have been pushed into arrears by the minimum five-week wait, and repaying the advance payments at such an unrealistic rate can push people further into debt and increase the risk of eviction and homelessness.”

About 60% of claimants take up advance loans, indicating that many find the move to universal credit a struggle. Peter Schofield, permanent secretary at the Department for Work and Pensions, defended their use to MPs on Tuesday, calling them “a fantastic way of supporting people in need”.

End Hunger UK called on ministers to conduct a systematic review of the impact of universal credit on claimants’ financial security.

A DWP spokesperson said: “Universal credit is a flexible and responsive benefit, and we continue to make improvements during the rollout with our ‘test and learn’ approach. Already we have removed the seven waiting days, made 100% advance payments available from day one and introduced two weeks’ extra housing support for claimants moving on to universal credit.”

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Top officials defend DWP policy to refer benefits claimants to foodbanks

Permanent secretary Peter Schofield says department has “confidence in NAO” following row over Universal Credit

Centre manager at the Trussell Trust Brent Foodbank in Neasden, London

Foodbank use has increased 52% in areas where Universal Credit has been rolled out, according to the Trussell Trust. 

Top civil servants at the Department for Work and Pensions have defended the Jobcentre Plus policy of referring benefits claimants to foodbanks, amid evidence of increased demand for emergency food supplies in the wake of Universal Credit rollout.

Areas where Universal Credit has been introduced have shown a bigger upsurge in foodbank use, according to a recent National Audit Office report. Many referrals come from frontline staff of the DWP itself, according to Meg Hillier, the chair of the Public Accounts Committee.

MPs on the committee were told yesterday that the department could not yet explain the correlation, but that the availability of cash advances to claimants while they were waiting for their first payment should protect them from hardship. They were told that foodbanks themselves had lobbied government for referrals from DWP.

Peter Schofield, DWP permanent secretary was asked why there had been a 52% increase in foodbank use in some areas in the 12 months after Universal Credit was introduced – a figure published by the Trussell Trust, an NGO which coordinates foodbanks nationwide.

Schofield said he didn’t know, and that he was having conversations with the Trussell Trust and with jobcentres to try to understand the “complexity” of the situation. He later added that he believed that in some areas, such as Hastings, foodbank use has increased because the local foodbank is very good and has a good relationship with the local jobcentre, not because of Universal Credit.

But he was pressed by Hillier to explain why so many referrals to foodbanks come from frontline DWP staff themselves. She asked if he thought it was “acceptable for government employees in a department that’s supposed to be providing social security” to be acknowledging the necessity of foodbanks – or whether it was “a sign of a system that’s not really delivering”.

Neil Couling, director general, Universal Credit, DWP, stepped in to point out that the idea to make these referrals had not come from DWP. He said: “The foodbanks themselves lobbied government for a long time for the Department for Work and Pensions to signpost people to foodbanks”.

He added that the policy had been agreed in around 2011/12.


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Universal Credit, which is merging six existing benefits into one payment and has so far been eight years in the making.

In a National Audit Office report, published 15 June, auditors found that the programme may never be value for money, but changes made across DWP mean it is too late to reverse the reforms.

Following the publication of that report, former work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith described it as “a shoddy piece of work”, while his successor Esther McVey claimed it was based on outdated information.

McVey was forced to apologise last week for “inadvertently misleading” the House over the contents of the report, which she had claimed said Universal Credit reforms were working. NAO chief Amyas Morse had written to McVey to clarify that his report actually said there was no evidence of this.

Morse, in his letter to McVey, pointed out the report was fully agreed with senior DWP officials and based on the most accurate and up-to-date information provided by the department.

Schofield, asked by Hillier whether he had “full confidence in the National Audit Office report on Universal Credit”, said it was a “strange question to ask me” but eventually said that he did. He said: “Of course I have confidence in the National Audit Office … We have a very good relationship with the National Audit Office.”

He added that “thanks to the work of the NAO”, DWP was the first substantial department to get its annual report and accounts published this year.

About the author

Tamsin Rutter is senior reporter for Civil Service World and tweets as @TamsinRutter

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