The jury is out on whether Iain Duncan Smith’s resignation as Work and Pensions Secretary was a moral awakening, or rather a cover for damaging his party over the EU referendum.
Regardless of your stance on his motivations, it is safe to say that the legacy he has left for the welfare system is shameful.
A prime example of his true character was his refusal to set up a freephone helpline for those claiming benefits. Instead, his 0345 number – which costs claimants 45p a minute from a mobile and 12p a minute from a landline – was stubbornly maintained, and has been met with justified criticism.
But the reality of this immoral scheme is even worse than many realise. Universal credit has been barraging claimants with ambiguous letters, provoking unnecessary helpline calls at their expense.
I am one such claimant, although I later found out that I have got off comparatively lightly (so far).
I received the following letter, ordering me to phone up:
The ambiguity about what specific evidence I had supposedly failed to provide, coupled with emboldened threats to delay or close my claim, concerned me. I was sure I had already provided all the evidence required at my initial “work interview”, but the letter cast doubts.
I phoned the helpline and summarised the content of the letter. Before even checking my account, the adviser said: “You probably have provided the evidence, don’t worry. I will just check to put your mind at rest.”
Despite gaining comfort from her reassuring tone, it seemed strange that she thought my call was probably unnecessary, before any details were checked.
It turned out to be the housing element of my claim that had flagged up a problem, but I remembered my work coach photocopying my tenancy agreement. Within seconds, she reached the same conclusion, having found the document.
The call was sheepishly ended: “Yeah, this often happens with the housing element,” she said, muttering something about poor communication between departments.
As she put the phone down and I reflected on the call, it felt like a scam. This was the government luring me into unnecessarily phoning up through fear of later being unable to pay for rent, food, bills, and tax.
I started to dig deeper into this issue, mostly on the “Universal Credit Survival” Facebook page. I speculatively posted the photograph of my letter, to see if anyone else had received it. This was met with a flurry of replies. I soon began to realise the full extent of this was worse than first imagined.
Paul Roberts, 39, received over ten copies of the letter over the course of three months. “Not one of them was necessary,” he said. “All it does is confuse and worry you. At first I was phoning them up, needlessly as it turned out. In the end I just ignored the letters.”
As part of the moral support provided on this all-in-it-together Facebook group, some advised claimants to “just ring up to check” the status of their claim after receiving this letter: “Better safe than sorry.”
But as Roberts found out, “the ridiculous 20 to 30 minute phone calls to sort it out end up costing a chunk of what you receive. I have argued that Job Centres should have somebody at a desk that you can speak to for free.”
Claire Hodgkinson, 36, experienced similar problems. She had provided the required evidence in advance of her first payment, so was shocked to receive the letter. When she phoned up, as in my case, they said she had indeed already provided everything.
“I checked my itemised phone bill and in the space of a month I wasted £7.12 on the phone to them about this. Before my first payment came through, I had to live on £34 a week for six weeks, and I have two kids. It’s a joke. I hate the whole thing.”
Within a day of my admission to the Facebook group, another member uploaded a picture of the same letter. “Anyone had this nonsense before? Even though they already had all the things I needed.”
The comments kept rolling in. Everyone had their own story, just with slight variations on the same process: Surprise and concern at receipt of letter. A costly phone call. Frustration at the waste of money and time.
5 wks ago my son claimed universal credit – no money yet, today a letter saying he has failed to submit evidence, doesn’t say what evidence
— Trish Oliver (@torydropout) March 26, 2015
Ffs. Supplied Evidence to Universal Credit 2 weeks ago, it was copied, I was put through the system, now I’ve had a letter saying I need…
— Racey Acey (@RubberAce) July 10, 2015
Some people have been told that the letters are automatically generated. That would be fair enough if people had genuinely failed to provide their evidence, albeit with the call to rectify it coming at their expense. But it seems an overwhelming number have received these letters for no good reason at all.
One Facebook group member who did justifiably receive a letter was a 19-year-old mother, who wished not to be named. When her baby was born, the letter was sent because she needed to provide her daughter’s birth certificate as evidence for a change in benefits.
But she was subsequently sent five more copies of the same letter. Only the first was needed. When she phoned to complain about receiving so many, the “automatically generated” excuse was given.
“I’ve been messed about so much with this, them not sending payments, or sending the wrong one,” she said. “It’s impossible to budget on this benefit when you don’t know what you’re going to get, if anything.”
Not only are many on that Facebook group and beyond desperately struggling to get by, people are needlessly haemorrhaging precious money or phone minutes.
The shambolic universal credit system continues to compound people’s struggles, and this mockery can’t carry on any longer. Goodbye, Iain, and good riddance.