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.”