15 June 2018

Even by the standards of previous National Audit Office (NAO) reports on major projects that have gone awry, today’s report on Universal Credit makes grim reading, says Nicholas Timmins.

Gone too far to stop, but too far gone to work as intended. Even by the standards of previous National Audit Office (NAO) reports on major projects that have gone awry, today’s report on Universal Credit makes grim reading.

Universal Credit (UC) combines six benefits that could send claimants from pillar to post when making their claim into, in theory, one streamlined one, intended to make the transition into and out of work and back again seamless and easy, while making it clearer than ever before that there were real financial gains to be had from being in even low-paid work. At the time it was conceived – and even now – there was widespread support for the principle.

Its initial problems are well documented. The original timetable for implementation was wholly incredible. The first IT system proved so insecure that that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) had, in effect, to pause and start again; using the old IT with much manual workaround to learn something about how UC would operate in practice, while building a new, hopefully secure, version. The generosity of the benefit has been repeatedly cut.

All 8.5 million claimants – many of whom it must be remembered are in work – were meant to have been transferred to the new system by October last year. As of March this year, just 10% of the planned caseload are on UC, and they are new claims. The migration of those already on tax credits and other parts of the merged system has yet to begin. The end date for completion has headed off repeatedly into the middle distance. The current target was moved back, just this month, by another year to March 2023.

And for a significant minority of claimants, UC is clearly causing misery. Behind that lies a design decision that ministers always recognised was a challenge, but has proved to be a much bigger one than envisaged: the monthly assessment and payment periods. Rather than having separate claims for payments paid for different periods in the legacy benefits, it all comes as one. But that means claimants have to assemble the evidence for all parts of their claim in one go – identification, rent, childcare costs, earnings, etc. When the claimant has assembled the proofs, the department can then struggle to verify it all.

So, a fifth of claimants are still not being paid on time, and some wait literally months. A good chunk of those who do get paid on time – the target wait is currently five weeks from claim – are struggling.

To assemble its report, the NAO went out into five local authority areas where UC is up and running, to hear and assess for itself the evidence that the Commons Work and Pensions Committee has been hearing about hardships being experienced. These include rent arrears, greater use of food banks and cash-strapped local authorities having to do more to support claimants, with no guarantee that DWP will meet their costs. Over some issues, the department has adapted: making it clearer that advance payments are available while people wait, for example, with some 60% now receiving one. But that, of course, is a repayable loan. So in a benefit system intended to support the less well-off, both in and out of work, the first effect is to put a majority of its new claimants into debt.

The NAO judges, and probably rightly, that UC is now so far down the road that there is no going back. But further changes are plainly needed. Among the few silver linings in the report is an acknowledgement that the ‘agile’ approach to building the newer version of UC is working (up to a point), with the department listening to suggestions from its frontline staff about how to make the system work better as it is developed and implemented. But it stands accused of not listening enough to the experience of the people who matter most in all of this: its customers, the claimants. Right from the beginning, there has been an issue about the department, and/or its ministers, not wanting to hear the bad news.

Depressingly, the tin ear lives on. The department’s response to the NAO’s report rejects outright some of its key findings and seeks to assert that all is well. That does not bode well for the future.

Comments

Thank you for the article.
One claimant (who wishes to remain anonymous) has only received £45 of so-called 'emergency money' since the end of December 2017. A couple of miles down the road, he would have regularly received JSA of £73/week. The UC amount has also been reduced drastically to £223/ calendar month (over time almost 30% less). Any old loans discovered (but the claimant was unaware of) will be deducted from the benefit without notification. Also, the communication is flawed: the claim was closed due to failing to attend a meeting he had not been informed about - whilst at a family funeral the Job Centre WAS aware of (and it is not the Job Centre that sorts out the mess - the grieving claimant had to travel to Stratford twice with evidence of the funeral to 'prove his innocence').

However, upfront costs for attending interviews (often 2-6 interviews per company) can be very high: train travel to other cities and 'compulsory' drugs tests during the interview process (£58/ interview) can add up to £200 per company. No expenses have yet been reimbursed.

Someone has to support the claimant - and that person may well experience financial difficulty in doing so. I know from first hand... it is not only the claimant who is affected by this utter incompetence... and fighting to get your money from DWP has become a job in itself (countless visits to Job Centre, hours spent on the phone - and now also attending the Citizens' Advice Bureau, as the situation is hopeless). There have been a lot of promises of 'you will get the money/ advance giro on such and such day', but it never happens. I'm not holding my breath for the claimant to get his 'JSA' this side of Christmas...
... so it doesn't just take 6 weeks - it can take any number of months to get paid. And nobody is listening...

I have worked as a subcontractor for the past few years, in particular to carry out work for a British nuclear power plant, that is until this June, when my contract ended.
I applied then for a couple of jobs which I was interested in, and waited. How long should one wait for a reply from a job application? One, two weeks? After 4 weeks it was obvious that I hadn’t even made it past to the interview phase. I had been naïve in thinking that I would get a job within a short period of time. I then applied to be a waitress at a local restaurant. I didn’t get a reply either.
It downed on me, that nowadays, my age was going to start being an issue when looking for a job.
I enquired about Job Seekers to help me keep me afloat while looking for a job. They told me to apply to Universal Credit. My Child tax credits was stopped straight away.
The lose of the economic help overnight without warning sent me into despair. What did they want me to do? To die? They knew I had no income.
A few weeks after applying for Universal Credit I ran out of food at home, to quote my daughter: “Pasta pesto again mammy?” Little she knew that she had pasta on her plate because I had sold some of her old clothes and toys.
Even if I found a job today, I wouldn’t be paid for a month. What should I do until then?
I have received a letter from the bank, they are going to fine me for not having deposited enough money in my account this month. The credit card company has sent me a warning that I am too close to the credit limit.
I have no food left and I’ll be homeless within a week. I have had thoughts of taking my own life because I can’t see a way of stopping being evicted.
“Mum, there is naught in the fridge” I see my son in the kitchen, he has just opened the fridge and is staring at the emptiness inside it. I correct my son: “Nothing, darling, there is “nothing” in the fridge”.
I make my children a cup of tea, there is a bit of milk left, only one teaspoon of sugar left in the sugar bowl, my son and his sister will have to share that little sugar between them.
What to do next? Should I find myself a little dinghy boat to cross the English Channel towards Europe, as African immigrants do?

Yours sincerely,
One of the applicants whom Universal Credit is letting go hungry, getting into bad debt and at the risk of being homeless.

PS: 7 weeks since the Child Tax Credits was stopped I have at last received news that I will get paid by the Universal Credit. 7 weeks that changed a mum who was looking for a job, into being suicidal.

To Seven weeks...
Hang in there (and I know UC has caused many people to feel suicidal, but this will pass... it is temporary, so hold on!).
My partner has made numerous trips to Citizens' Advice Bureau, and they are now working on it - try them as well. Don't rely on UC paying when they say they will pay (we have been hearing that for the whole year, and have not received anything). Apparently, some people who are meant to receive housing benefit are now taking legal action against DWP (find out if you can). Explore all your options from charities and food banks. It may be the only way to survive. Go and see your MP - the ministers who are totally in a cloud cuckoo land about UC need to understand what is happening. Your MP may be the best voice in this case.

I have no idea how certain ministers/MPs can think UC is even helping people get back to work (or do they think if you starve people first and throw them on the street, they are more likely to work?). Firstly, the quality of work on offer is often zero hour contracts, and very low-paid jobs and often only a few hours work per week. Secondly, they are not covering any job seeking expenses (even though they are meant to), making it impossible for someone without an income to even get to interviews. The worst thing is that those in the Government backing UC are in complete and utter denial about what is actually happening. It is almost impossible to have a conversation with them. I wanted to shout at the radio whilst listening to one of the ministers talking about UC in Pienaar's Politics, as if it was the best thing that is happening to the country. Let's see if Brexit will result in more job losses... that could get quite interesting!

Keep going! Don't give up! See if friends and family (?) can all give a little bit of food. I really feel for you...

P.S. Universal Credit are looking for people to work for them... (the irony of it!).