“Absolute hell”: what it's like working on the front line of the Universal Credit roll-out

Charities and politicians are urging the government to halt the roll-out of the controversial new benefit. 

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

“It is bloody hard work for people in Jobcentres doing Universal Credit.

“In the service centres it must be absolute hell.”

With charities and politicians of all parties urging the government to stop the roll-out of a controversial new benefit, Universal Credit, attention has rightly focused on the claimants. People who before would have received jobseekers’ allowance, tax credits, housing benefit or some forms of sickness benefits, must now apply for this new, all-encompassing benefit. And, as Martin Whitfield, the MP for one of the trial areas, has written, the result has often been “horrific”.

In particular, claimants have found themselves at a loss as to how to pay their rent, feed themselves and cover the bills during the six week waiting period before the first Universal Credit payment arrives.

But it is not just the claimants that are suffering. The quote which opened this article comes from a conversation with a long-standing worker for the Department for Work and Pensions (he has asked to remain anonymous).

“If it had come in with the original intentions and proper staffing I don’t think it would be anything as near as bad,” he told me. “The problem comes when you have a government that is out to save money from the benefits budget.”

The DWP worker recalled how, before the mid-2000s, there was a dedicated team for helping people with their benefit claims. Then New Labour cut the number of civil servants, and created a new system where all issues were handled in the Jobcentre.

Then the Tory-led Coalition government arrived, and introduced Universal Credit (the roll-out accelerated under the Tory majority government after 2015). The DWP worker said Jobcentre staff were unprepared. “There is absolute crisis management,” he said. “Individuals get flooded.” He recalled how the introduction of a new benefit used to come with extensive training: “These days people are thrown in at the deep end.”

The problem is most acute at the Universal Credit service centres, he said, where claimants ring up to try to sort out problems with their benefits. “Often they are getting new staff [on the phone], or long-term staff shifted onto a new benefit.”

For workers in these service centres, a particular frustration is the six week waiting period, and the rule that Universal Credit is paid monthly rather than fortnightly (claimants can ask for an advance payment, but this is taken out of future instalments). “They are still hamstrung,” the DWP worker said. He added: “Trying to dress it up like it’s getting people ready for work is ludicrous because not everyone gets paid monthly.”

If being on the frontline of administering a new benefit wasn’t enough, some Jobcentre staff also face the peculiar irony that they are also likely one day to claim Universal Credit, since it covers working tax credits.

In particular, they may find themselves in conflict with one of the rules of Universal Credit, namely the expectation that claimants will seek more hours or better paid work.

“You can have these ridiculous situations,” the DWP worker says. “Someone is working in the Jobcentre employed part-time.

“Then, because they are in receipt of Universal Credit there will be a push for them to get more hours.”

Recruiting new Jobcentre staff has been hard, he says: “The government pays its staff so little that they have to claim the benefits that they as staff are administering.”

Universal Credit was dreamed up by former work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith, who presided over a regime of punitive sanctions, but resigned himself in 2016 over the government's insistence on making more cuts to benefits. 

The DWP worker does not believe the benefit can be scrapped entirely, but nevertheless, he is calling for a temporary halt.

“I would say - pause the roll-out immediately," he says. “Going back isn’t an option. You pause it, and start recruiting sufficient staff to make it work."

The DWP has been contacted for comment.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.