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Universal credit is so riddled with design flaws and process faults that it is practically guaranteed to generate mistakes and delays that would push vulnerable benefit claimants into hardship, according to whistleblowers.

Service centre workers have told the Guardian that glitches and errors in the “cobbled-together” system have commonly led to claimants’ benefit payments being delayed for weeks or wrongly reduced by hundreds of pounds.

One said: “The IT system on which universal credit is built is so fundamentally broken and poorly designed that it guarantees severe problems with claims.”

He said the system was overcomplex and prone to errors that affected payments and often proved slow to correct. “In practical terms, it is not working the way it was intended and it is having an actively harmful effect on a huge number of claimants.”

What is universal credit?

Universal credit (UC) is the supposed flagship reform of the benefits system, rolling together six benefits (including unemployment and benefits, and tax credits) into one, online-only system. The theoretical aim, for which there was general support across the political spectrum, was to simplify the system and increase the incentives for people to move off benefits into work.

What is the biggest problem?

The original design set out  a minimum 42-day wait for a first payment to claimants when they moved to UC (in practice this is often up to 60 days). After sustained pressure, the government announced in the autumn 2017 budget that the wait would be reduced to 35 days from February 2018. This will partially mitigate the impact on many claimants of having no income for six weeks. The wait has led to rent arrears and evictions, hunger (food banks in UC areas report notable increases in referrals), use of expensive credit and mental distress. 

Ministers have expanded the availability of hardship loans (now repayable over a year) to help new claimants while they wait for payment. Housing benefit will now continue for an extra two weeks after the start of a UC claim. However, critics say the five-week wait is still too long and want it reduced to two or three weeks.

Are there other problems?

Plenty.  Multibillion-pound cuts to work allowances imposed by the former chancellor George Osborne mean UC is far less generous than originally envisaged. According to the Resolution Foundation thinktank, about 2.5m low-income working households will be more than £1,000 a year worse off when they move to UC, reducing work incentives.

Landlords are worried that the level of rent arrears accrued by tenants on UC could lead to a rise in evictions. It's also not very user-friendly: claimants complain the system is complex, unreliable and difficult to manage, particularly if you have no internet access.

And there is concern that UC cannot deliver key promises: a critical study found it does not deliver savings, cannot prove it gets more people into work, and has plunged vulnerable claimants into hardship.

Mistakes and delays can add on average an extra three weeks to the formal 35-day wait for an initial benefit payment, pushing claimants into debt, rent arrears, and reliance on food banks. Campaigners warn that the problems could get worse next year when more than 3 million claimants start to be “migrated” to the new system.

Growing concern over universal credit, which is six years behind schedule but will eventually handle £63bn of benefits going to 8 million people, is matched by disquiet over what critics say has been a defensive and insular approach to managing welfare reform by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

The department came under withering fire last week from a cross-party group of MPs who accused it of a “culture of indifference” after it had repeatedly ignored warnings of basic process errors that led to 70,000 disabled benefit claimants being underpaid an estimated £500m over six years.

The work and pensions secretary, Esther McVey, sought to limit the damage in a speech on Thursday in which she admitted there were problems with universal credit, and promised to listen to campaigners, claimants and frontline staff to find ways to change and improve the system.

One whistleblower said many of the design problems with universal credit stemmed from the failure to understand claimants’ needs, especially where they lacked digital skills and internet access. “We are punishing claimants for not understanding a system that is not built with them in mind,” he said.

Esther McVey, the work and pensions secretary
Esther McVey, the work and pensions secretary, has admitted there are problems with universal credit. Photograph: Mark Thomas/Rex/Shutterstock

The DWP said it would not comment on the whistleblowers’ specific claims but insisted the system was being constantly improved. “Universal credit is a flexible and responsive benefit and we continue to listen to feedback and make any necessary improvements during the rollout with our test-and-learn approach.

“We are committed to ensuring people get the help they need and the majority of staff say universal credit gives them greater flexibility to give people the right support. The latest figures show 83% of claimants are satisfied with the system and complaint rates are low.”

Bayard Tarpley, 27, who left the Grimsby service centre last week after two years as a telephony agent, told the Guardian that he had been dealing with distressed claimants every day. “My hope is that by speaking out I can help explain why these processes have such a significant, harmful impact on claimants.”

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He gave several examples of where poor system design and practice caused delays and payment errors, including:

  • Staff are not notified when claimants leave messages on their online journal; for example, if they wish to challenge payment errors. As a result, messages sent to officials can go unanswered for days or weeks unless claimants pursue the inquiry by phone.
  • Claimants are discouraged by staff from phoning in to resolve problems or to book a home visit and instead are actively persuaded to go online, using a technique called “deflection”, even when callers insist they are unable to access or use the internet.
  • Callers have often been given wrong or contradictory advice about their entitlements by DWP officials. These include telling severely disabled claimants who are moving on to universal credit from existing benefits that they must undergo a new “fit for work” test to receive full payment.
  • Although the system is equipped to receive scanned documents, claimants instead are told to present paper evidence used to verify their claim, such as medical reports, either at the local job centre or through the post, further slowing down the payment process.
  • Small delays or fluctuations in the timing of employers’ reporting of working claimants’ monthly wages via the real time information system can lead to them being left hundreds of pounds out of pocket through no fault of their own.
Joanne Huggins, former case manager in Grimsby
Former Grimsby case manager Joanne Huggins: ‘The system is set up in such a way that people don’t get support.’ Photograph: Handout

Food banks were regarded as a formal backstop for when the system failed, he said. Officials are told to advise claimants who are in hardship and who do not qualify for cash advances to contact charities or their council for help. Many councils have closed local welfare provision as a result of cuts.

A second whistleblower, Joanne Huggins, who was until recently a case manager at the Grimsby centre, said that high staff caseloads and a high volume of calls to the service made it difficult to keep track of and prioritise claimants’ problems. “The system is set up in such a way that people don’t get support,” she said.

At least £1.3bn has been spent since 2010 developing universal credit. Although it is heralded as a streamlined digital replacement for the existing benefit system, a recent National Audit Office report concluded it was still in many aspects unwieldy, inefficient and reliant on basic manual processes.

The DWP says it operates a “test-and-learn” approach to constantly improve the system, although the whistleblower said in his experience staff suggestions were ignored and “top down” adjustments tended to follow media or political controversies, such as the scrapping of call charges on universal credit helplines.

Mark Serwotka, the general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services union that represents DWP staff, said: “The findings from the whistleblowers are in line with the ongoing feedback we get from our reps and members who struggle to deliver a service to universal credit claimants in the face of mounting cuts and increasing workloads.”

Citizens Advice said its research showed that a “significant minority” of claimants faced additional waits for payment because of the complicated application process. The 10-stage process took some claimants over a week to complete, even with expert help.

“Top of the government’s list should be simplifying the process and making sure adequate support is in place so that a claim can be completed as quickly as possible,” said the chief executive, Gillian Guy

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