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As a Universal Credit case manager, my job is turning away those in abject poverty

Many benefits workers feel out of their depth. 

I work with many compassionate and thoughtful employees administrating the welfare system. We try our hardest every day to help many vulnerable claimants. However, we can only act within the remit of strict guidelines, which do not offer us the flexibility we sometimes need to prevent unnecessary suffering.

The problem is compounded by a lack of knowledge about  the Universal Credit regulations, which can have a 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 of the law. 

Full time case managers on average handle 300 claims at any one time, with new claims distributed and others closed on a daily basis. Recently, we started a new way of working, where tasks fall under different "trigger" categories. While under the old system, we had complete discretion as to how we prioritised our work, the new system is rigid. It means we can no longer work on a case – even if we feel it's highly urgent – if it isn't next in the arbitrary priority order.

This means that while payments and "payment blockers" are the first priority, other issues, like verifying a claimant's children, fall under late triggers. Many claims fall through the cracks. It's up to the claimant to inform us – sometimes through their online journal, which is regularly unanswered, or by calling and paying 45p a minute to speak to us. 

Because of the huge quantity of claims they are managing, many of my colleagues feel out of their depth. A vast amount of crucial work is never completed – until claimants contact us when their payments are inevitably paid incorrectly or not at all. Yet my colleagues are not slacking – many of them eat lunch at 3pm and stay behind after work to try to ensure the most vulnerable claimants receive payments. 

When case managers take their holiday leave, it can also have a significant impact on claimants. The claims they are working on are left untouched unless the claimant calls to state that something has gone wrong, and it is "escalated". When I come back from leave, it can take weeks to catch up on work. Unfortunately, all you can do is ask a colleague to watch over a few particular claims when you go on leave, as the work comes in on a daily basis and cannot be done ahead of time.

Earlier this year, the Department for Work and Pensions said it would cut 750 jobs, partly by closing 27 back-office buildings. I've heard of dozens of newly trained employees on temporary contracts being told that they will not be renewed. To most of us, this makes no sense, considering the amount of claims we already have to manage. 

The lack of staffing can be seen elsewhere across the DWP. We have to refer many decisions to "decision makers". These are people based in other centralised offices. None of us know them, and we cannot ask them to do anything urgently. They are the only employees with a complete knowledge of Universal Credit, as case managers merely have an elementary knowledge

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. As take-home pay from employment can be deducted, this can cause significant financial hardship when incorrect. The claimants are always quick to provide payslip and bank statement evidence but decisions on these disputes are usually lengthy. 

One of the case managing principles 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, such as when a person does not accept their Claimant Commitment within seven days.

This has detrimental effects on tens of thousands of very vulnerable people. Although we are told to provide vulnerable claimants with more support, perhaps by reminding them that they should be doing something, normally we have little to go by as we sit behind a computer screen and have never met them. 

I see masses of suffering on a daily basis. Case managers are well trained to deal with any claimants threatening suicide either by phone or by journal message, due to the recurrence. Often, we have to tell claimants that the state cannot support them further at all – even if they have weeks until their next payment and have young children to feed. Proactive case managers signpost these claimants to charities and food banks who have to fill the gap.

As a case manager, 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 any more", even if we know that children will suffer and go hungry for weeks. 

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. 

As six benefits are combined, any deductions for take-home pay will have an effect on the entire award. Many claimants in work will find that they are hundreds of pounds worse off per month, to their shock, after a six-week wait. At this point they will contact us, stating that their award must be wrong. Unfortunately we have to explain to them that this is all we can give them. 

A part of the job is 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 they 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; the last caller is quickly forgotten.

A DWP spokesperson said: “Our frontline staff offer invaluable support to people facing difficult circumstances. Their job is not always easy which is why we provide comprehensive training and care for their wellbeing – and our Universal Credit employees are positive about the support they receive.

“Universal Credit is a big change to the way we deliver benefits which is why we are rolling it out in a safe and secure way.

“The majority of people are satisfied with their Universal Credit claim and are comfortable managing their money, but there is extra support for people who need it. Advance payments, more frequent payments, and budgeting support is available.”

DAVID CERNY/REUTERS
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Blood, blades and bitter: how ice hockey bloomed in 1980s Britain

In ailing northern towns, amateur ice hockey brought violence and validation to a generation of young men.

If you scarfed your evening tea – cold Sunday lunch meats, a scoop of pease pudding, perhaps – and got down early, you could claim seats so close to the action that you might feel on your face the cooling spray of tiny ice chips cleaved by gleaming blades suddenly braking. Here, in the front row of a semi-dilapidated, sub-zero warehouse nicknamed The Shed – where there were no Perspex protective barriers, and where a six-ounce black puck of vulcanised rubber once shot over our heads and into the jaw of a woman behind us – you could see blood from broken noses and split lips, dripping a brilliant trail of red across the cold blue mirror of Durham Ice Rink. In the recession-hit north-east of England in the 1980s, life didn’t get more thrilling.

The Pyeongchang Olympics, with its ramps, sleighs, rifles and Lycra-coated bodies being hurled down mountains with almost suicidal abandon – and where heroes retain an air of mystery behind mirrored masks and goggles – has reminded us that the winter Games offer a much more surreal and glamorous spectacle than their sweaty summer cousin. North and South Korea can unite on one issue at least: ice hockey, with the two countries fielding a women’s team simply called Korea.

Watching the Games has prompted a Proustian deluge of memories in me, to a time when a grubbier, more knockabout domestic incarnation of the sport enjoyed a rapid rise in popularity following the formation of the British Hockey League (BHL) in 1980, an era now regarded as the glory years.

This chapter of recent sporting history has barely been told, and I know why: the popularity of UK ice hockey existed predominantly away from the gaze of London’s media, and took seed in those ailing post-industrial provincial heartlands suffering the most under Margaret Thatcher’s government. Its top outfits came from places such as Billingham, Whitley Bay, Dundee, Kirkcaldy and my home town of Durham, where the club Durham Wasps enjoyed a golden run. Second-tier teams came from Telford, Gillingham and Sunderland while London Raiders (formerly Romford Raiders) rarely troubled the BHL’s Premier Division. Crucially, its stars were working men who held down jobs – if they had them – during the week. They were mechanics and electricians. They drove forklift trucks or sold wet fish on the markets. Some were just out of school, teenagers intent on glory among peers. They got paid little, took cold showers.

With hindsight, the success of Durham Wasps and their arch regional rivals, Whitley Warriors, was clearly tied in with the collapse of the key industries of coal mining and shipbuilding. Durham may be known for its university, but beyond the city were miles of mining heartland, where entire communities had been devoted to divining the dusky diamonds. Coal was the currency that fuelled an empire, while the shipyards at the mouth of the River Wear in Sunderland had built vessels that sailed the world.

During the Wasps’ 1980s boom-time, that all changed. The year-long miners’ strike of 1984-85 had failed to halt Thatcher’s hostile closures of the pits, while employee numbers in the British Shipbuilders Corporation dropped from 87,000 in 1977 to 5,000 in 1987. Fit and functioning men now found themselves without purpose, victims of an ideological vendetta.

“Geographically, the north-east became a ghost town, haunted by absences – of jobs, factories and pits, and people, as folk moved away to find work elsewhere,” says Katy Shaw who, as professor of contemporary writings at Northumbria University, has written extensively on the miners’ strike and its legacies. “Once the industrial heartlands had been ripped out of the region, the anomie that followed forced the working class to reassess their identity and purpose in the face of an uncertain future.”

***

The sport of ice hockey reflected the toughness of these collapsing worlds, and the anger of their disenfranchised. Games were violent and nasty, perhaps the closest the country ever came to a legitimate blood sport before cage-fighting offered an alternative outlet for working-class rage. The ice rink was the arena in which heroes and villains were made, each week a new drama. A player for Ayr Bruins in Scotland once reportedly faked a heart attack in the dressing room rather than return to a particularly bloody battle.

Built in 1940 from mottled corrugate, concrete and wood from unused coffins, the home of Durham Wasps was a notoriously rough building pitched by a river the colour of over-stewed tea. It was just half a mile from the Norman cathedral, a World Heritage site and architectural masterpiece, but when the autumn river mist drifted in through its many broken windows there was an ethereal quality to the on-ice conflicts, watched by more than three thousand tightly-packed people and several cooing pigeons. Its owners were the Smith family – headed by the near-mythical entrepreneur JJ “Icy” Smith, who made his money selling blocks of ice during the 1930s – with the team established in 1946 by Canadian airmen stationed nearby during the war.

The family were frugal, pocketing large gate receipts from overcapacity crowds evenly split between men, women and children. In the early days, a dog behind the goal would frequently bite the opposition’s shirts, and even in the 1980s overhead heaters were lit with a burning rag attached to an old hockey stick.

I played a little hockey myself, training midweek with a junior team called the Midges, and then hitting the rink’s disco on Friday night (key song: “Opportunities” by Pet Shop Boys), where the cafe sold half-cooked chips and the ice-skates that newcomers hired were so useless they were dubbed “death wellies”.

Ben Myers in ice hockey gear aged 11 in 1987

Most fans would readily admit that the match highlights were the fights enjoyed at close quarters. There was none of the theatrics of Saturday wrestling, which had enjoyed a resurgence a decade earlier thanks to odd and often unathletic personalities such as Big Daddy or the Yorkshire pig-keeper, Les Kellett. Ice hockey was more accessible than boxing, too, and there was no room for prima donnas as in football. When two players decided to go at it, officials let them.

These battles were ritualistic, the combatants initially circling on the ice like two starved bantams thrown into a medieval cockpit, before the frantic wrangling of shirts pulled over heads, helmets tossed aside and fists thrown.

In these moments, ice hockey entered a strange, lawless hinterland, the referees gauging the grapple to allow just enough violence to provide catharsis for a crowd baying for their man to knock out his southern opponent, wipe the smirk off his handsome Canuck face, or rip his balls off and shove them down his Scottish throat. And all the while soundtracked by over-amplified jingles such as Gary Glitter’s “I’m the Leader of the Gang (I Am!)”. Referees would halt fights shortly after one or both plucky scrappers were hurt. It was ugly but honest, the players fearless superheroes providing colour in a monochrome world of dole queue drudgery.

***

Few such communal spaces in which the northern working man might verbalise his anxieties, doubts or depression existed 30 years ago. Hockey was one popular outlet. “Heavy industry offered a culturally specific form of masculinity, one that was decimated with the closure of the pits and shipyards,” says Katy Shaw. “The resulting social, political and economic crisis meant that sports – particularly team sports rooted in working-class communities – became a significant source of male identity.”

The language surrounding depression and what we might today broadly identify as a “crisis of masculinity” was entirely different in the 1980s.  My grandfather, a shopkeeper in nearby Houghton-le-Spring, a mining town where the pit closed in 1981, kept his depression a secret outside of the family and took his own life shortly after retirement in 1985. Antidepressant medication was in its infancy, too; anyone suffering from a loss of self-worth did so in silence.

The game fulfilled a need for heroes you could relate to, people who ached and creaked when they rose for work on Monday. Crucial to the team were a selection of Canadian imports. While millions of Britons were at home watching Songs of Praise, we were putting our faith in the likes of the stately, stoic defenceman Mike O’ Connor, or industrious goal-stealer Rick Brebant, decent-looking compared to the local players who had moustaches, missing teeth, and diets of stodge and Newcastle Brown.

During televised games, the Canadians brought speed, guile and a weight of sporting history with them, yet always with an unspoken awareness that their exotic otherness was perhaps tainted with failure back home. Why else would anyone move to the north-east of England in 1986? Had they not seen Auf Wiedersehen, Pet?

The Wasps won a string of trophies into the next decade, and some foreign players built lives in England, though my own short-lived hockey career ended when I lost a kidney in an unrelated injury.

A corporate buyout and attempted relocation to Newcastle in the 1990s killed Durham Wasps. The importance of localisation – so key to the identity of the team’s supporters during times of economic turmoil – was lost on its new owners. After turbulent years of perilous finances, the sport continues in the Elite Ice Hockey League, though it receives less media coverage. Durham Ice Rink became a bowling alley and was then razed in 2013 to make way for an office block. There is no trace of it today.

Ben Myers’s latest novel, “These Darkening Days”, is published by Moth/Mayfly.

Ben Myers’ novels include Pig Iron and Richard, a Sunday Times book of the year. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, NME, Mojo, Time Out, 3:AM Magazine, Caught By The River and many others. www.benmyersmanofletters.blogspot.com

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia