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by Tombenefits

news and thoughts from the world of welfare rights
17 March 2015 at 18:35

UC in Practice: Top Pilot Tips

A look at how Universal Credit is working out in practise and top tactical tips to get through the process


My plan was to leave Universal Credit alone for a bit as it may be a while before it becomes a major issue for people affected by cancer. As an introductory I have blogged about the arrival of Universal Credit here and some of the issues for Universal Credit and Cancer here.


But my heart sank when attending a recent workshop sharing issues and the lived experience of Universal Credit so far in the Pathfinder areas. My jaw dropped further and the “Good Grief-ometer” hit maximum wide eye watching a Dispatches report from inside one of the Universal Credit centres.


While getting the IT challenge right is still a work in progress, my hope was that there would be well established work arounds in place by now.  


Those IT constraints have enforced a switch from an over ambitious and decreasingly credible timetables to a more pragmatic “test and learn” approach. The DWP’s aim was said to be to get it really right in the Pathfinder areas, before gently rolling UC out to ensure a “safe landings” across the UK.


With nearly two years’ experience of running UC, £700 million spent on the project to date, 2,700 dedicated UC staff, no health re-assessments to be factored in and only 26,000 claimants to look after, one would expect rolls royce customer service with a "Look good feel better" makeover thrown in J.


This should be the best of times for a UC experience: teething problems sorted, all systems purring and a wealth of experienced resources as UC gears up for the UK rollout


But, oh dear J




1. How to become a UC claimant


UC is rolling out across the UK from February through to April 2016, but initially for “simple” jobseeker claims only; a partial replacement then for Income-based Job Seeker’s Allowance.


So if you turn up at UC’s door as too unwell to work, a carer, someone easing back to work, or just needing help with the rent, then the doorkeep should wave you away as quickly as if you had the wrong sort of trainers on a Saturday night J.  


Except in selected pathfinder areas, UC’s “gateway conditions” rule out UC claims from anyone with any complications that might upset the currently delicate digestion of the Universal Credit computers.


The latest DWP guesstimate is that doors will open up “during 2017”, but the Office for Budget Responsibility are now pencilling in a safety first date of 2019. So is it time for your faithful blogger to move on and get over his strange fascination with the far future?


Not entirely J.


You could become a UC early adopter as a person affected by cancer in two main ways:


·         firstly you could have got on to UC as a “simple” jobseeker and then get a cancer diagnosis or become a carer for someone who has. “Simple” jobseeker claims can move to being poorly, being carers, having children or into work, sending complexity shivers through the computer’s valves J

·         The other way is if you start a joint claim with someone who is on UC; your single claim for Income-related ESA or Income Support (for carers or tax credits will end and you will embark on the very togetherness of a joint Universal Credit claim.


The golden rule with the switch to UC is that “once on UC, you stay on UC” – whether you started off as a simple jobseeker and got complicated or whether true love lures you to the UC side.


It may be then, that a small number of Maggie’s Visitors will come early into UC’s tough love bear hug. So are there any useful tips to share to help you as an early adopter of this brave new benefits world?



2. Dispatches from the North Western Front


Dispatches is Channel 4’s serious investigative documentary series. So not Benefits Street J. You can see some of their half hour programmes on various topics on their page on C4 On Demand here.


On Monday 9th March, they took a second look at Universal Credit. Their first look last October uncovered some teething problems as a few areas started taking on couples and families.. However the hope and promise was that all will be sorted, given the DWP’s decision to proceed with a national rollout that will take the numbers from 26,000 to 500,000.



2.1 Computer delays

The main part of the programme was undercover filming in one of the 4 Universal Credit benefit centres, as reporter went through the 7 weeks training to become a UC Telephone Agent


It seemed that by his 7th week in Bolton, he had witnessed 10 computer shut downs, some for 50 minutes and one for a whole day. Four different systems played up on cam, affecting different parts of the work. They may not have been the central UC system as DWP later pointed out, but they certainly seemed pretty disruptive.


Even with the current low caseload, work seemed to be backing up. At times the computer gets a bit slowed up and blocked as demand peaks, needing a good cough and reboot.


But the main issue seems to be that the system can’t deal with anything complicated in a claimants circumstances. These have to be done clerically with the results fed into the recalcitrant computer further down the line. While new claimants are filtered out to simplest, circumstances change and peoples hidden depths – at least as far as the computer is concerned – are revealed.  One trainer explained: “Unfortunately we have a backlog on almost everything. Apart from putting sanctions on..."


With 2,700 staff dealing with what is now 35,000 claimants, how will the eventual 10,000 staff cope with 500,000 claimants and their emerging complications?



2.2 Hiding discretionary help

The key role for UC Telephony Agent is described as giving clear and accurate information, sound advice and signposting for further help, in keeping with “social justice” values.


But in three key areas of essential flexibility that are often praised as justifying a simplified and less flexible core benefit, trainees were told to keep schtumm about additional help on offer. Unless a caller asked or made it very clear they were in urgent need additional help was not to be volunteered.


This “what happens in Fight Club, stays in Fight Club” approach affected:


·         Advance Payments: Given the scale of problems getting people’s first payments out on time and that you have to ask for one within the first 21 days, volunteering their availability might seem essential mitigation of failures on core delivery. But apparently such payments cost £6 each rather than a penny, so steady on… For more details see here


·         Flexible Support Fund – is there to help people do the right thing – that special clothing, tools or equipment that can help them take up that firm job offer. But apparently the fund is small. Official details are here


·         Hardship Payments – a final safety net of reduced benefit when your main benefit is withdrawn as part of the current vogue for summary sanctions. Again not to be volunteered as it’s meant to be a punishment. Only if the claimant has the nous or telephone credit left to ask or expose real hardship is the possibility to be offered. Yet under UC this is only a loan. See Citizens Advice here


Of course such a “canteen culture” would be deeply reprehensible, unethical and probably illegal. The official response was of course there is no such policy and training would be clarified, but not during that pilot of the nrevised national training.  


·         So Tip 1: You now know there are discretionary payments. If your payment is delayed politely insist on an Advance Payment. If you are sanctioned get advice to challenge or resolve matter, but in the meantime ask for a Hardship Payment. And if a small grant would make that job work for you then the Flexible Support Fund is there.



2.3 Case studies

A couple of case studies illustrated impacts on claimants:


·         Case study 1 Karl was  a single simple jobseeker whose ability to work and renew his security license was compromised by late payments. They then failed to include money for the rent. So he was left with no money for food as he sought to keep a roof over his head.


·         Case Study 2 Aaron is a single “simple” jobseeker on UC again taking any temporary jobs going.  He then started a joint claim with Rebecca who had health problems, exactly the scenario that might affect a Maggie’s Visitor. The ESA claim stopped straight away, but it took some time to add an amount for his new partner. During which the computer randomly closed the UC claim down, which apparently is not infrequent, requiring the claim to be rebuilt. For a time they had to get by with just one person’s subsistence and rent arrears anxiety.



3. The UC Pathfinder adviser experience: 


The programme then was an insight into the situation at the other end of stretched Adviser’s telephone lines in the UC Pathfinder areas. I had though already gone through an enlightening but jaw dropping at a workshop


Of course, many claims will segue seamlessly and advisers don’t have the stats on what % age of cases run into problems. The DWP probably do but they ain’t telling, as there is still some evidence of what the National Audit Office have criticised as a  “good news” culture in higher reaches of the DWP. Officially all is going frightfully well and all is ready for the “accelerated rollout” of UC to begin.


However, Advisers do know the impact on their workload. Even in the pilot areas, UC claimants are a small proportion of benefit clients coming into advice services. Yet they are often desperately urgent cases where destitution and homelessness can be a real potential threat, and where resolving issues can take a good deal of time.


So here are another fifteen top tips for navigating UC:



3.1. Making a UC claim

·         Tip 2: Allow plenty of time, quiet space and good connection to claim UC: Assemble all the information you might need and it could take up to an hour. If you time out, the connection/UC connection goes down you cannot save your work as a go. Be politely assertive if you need to claim by telephone and prepared to deal with a “can’t claim online v. won’t claim online" conversation.


·         Tip 3: Time your claim if you can: Old claims for Housing Benefit, Child Tax Credit or Income-related ESA will stop straightaway, so where possible time your claim just after a recent payment of any previous benefit.


·         Tip 4: Keep a diary of what happens when – when you claimed, sent in further evidence or had it scanned at the local Jobcentre Plus. A “timeline” will help you - or an adviser-talk the Service Centre through the case and help them spot and clear the blockage. Evidence that is apparently missing or not visible on first look, can then be spotted tucked away in the recesses. 


·         Tip 5: Take evidence of ID and tenancy agreements to your claim interview:  You will be asked to produce evidence which UC don’t tell you to bring beforehand. Taking it along on the day will mean it will be recorded as seen with that interview and will save a repeat trip to the Job Centre and speed up the claim:


o   Tenancy agreements: if you have them but alternatively a letter from your landlord or copies of bank statements showing rent being paid. UC regulations do not require a tenancy agreement in the last 12 months nor that you be the formal tenant, but that tends to be UC’s default request.


o   Proof of ID: either a Passport/ID card/asylum letter/ UK border agency residence permit. Or if you don’t have one of those then any two from: bank /credit card, cheque book, bank/building society passbook, utility bill, driving license, birth/marriage/civil partnership certificate, travel card photo id, membership card of a known association


o   Other evidence: The first two apply to all claims. As things develop you may need more evidence: children, a new partner’s savings, sick notes etc. A new partner will have to attend their own Claimant Commitment interview so worth them taking anything relevant along with them


·         Tip 6: Don’t be misled on your Claimant Commitment. These can seem a bit intimidating – lots of warning of sanctions and a big pressure to agree and sign, as your claim cannot proceed until you do.  Work out which of the four “work requirement” levels apply in your case. If it the full work requirement, there is scope for adjustments within that category. The problem that Advisers report is a strong default setting to treat all claimants as full on, full time fully fit jobseekers. You could get stuck with an unlawful or unreasonable commitment. For what is intended to be a living flexible document it is proving rather hard to get changed. Get advice about what should happen in your case.


3.2 Money and waiting

·         Tip 7: How will you manage until first payment?  It could be 6 to 8 weeks before you get a first payment, rather than the 5 weeks promised. And from April that first payment will not include anything for the first week. Could you manage until then? If not apply for an Advance Paymentwithin 21 days of your claim.


·         Tip 8: Protect your “passporting”: Get a letter confirming your entitlement to UC. Polite persistence may be needed as this normally only comes with your first payment. The money can be vital while awaiting that payment to access free school meals, free prescriptions and fares to hospital. Or to re-assure an anxious landlord.


·         Tip 9: Check what you might expect to get under UC. Anything bar the basic amount for a single payment seems to be at risk of not being included as the computer can’t do these automatically. It will depend on clerical intervention and possible error. There is then a risk of missing amounts for partners, children, rent, carers and  childcare



3.3 UC when you are too unwell to work

·         Tip 10: if you become unwell as a UC jobseeker you will need to help UC to do things properly. Tell everyone: your job coach so you don’t get sanctioned, the contact centre so they can start a “sickness gather” and send in your GP note and keep a copy.


·         Tip 11: Don’t switch to ESA; you can’t. Respond firmly and politely to any advice from UC that if you become unwell you need to switch to ESA. The confusion seems to be that while you can’t start a UC claim when unwell, you can join one or remain on one if you become unwell. Once on UC you stay on UC no matter what. ESA will send you back to UC for income-related help. In the meantime UC may have closed your claim meaning back to square one in delays and first payment anxiety.  


·         Tip 12: Know what should happen if unwell:  What should happen is you stay on UC, your work conditionality group gets adjusted and the same process that others go through under ESA kicks into action. You will get a UC50 questionnaire through the post but as with an ESA50 you don’t need to fill it all in if you are awaiting, receiving or recovering from major cancer treatments. Three monthly assessment periods after you become unwell an additional “limited capability” element should be added to your UC.


A key advantage then of UC is people won’t have to go switching benefits when changing from unemployed to in work to carer to unwell to lone parent etc. A problem at the moment is that in the current focus on UC for jobseekers, there seems a bit of confusion.


3.4 Keeping your UC claim going

·         Tip 13: Note your payment date: This will be the same date each month. It seems though that the computer can’t cope with weekends and will not initiate your payment when your UC payday falls on a Saturday or Sunday!! . You couldn’t make this up J . The DWP rely on you to notice that 2 payments in 7 don’t arrive and to phone them!  Ringing ahead to forestall the problem seems not to work.  The official policy is that the payment should be initiated on the Friday before the weekend. If you get hit and incur losses you will have a good case for compensation. 


·         Tip 14: Report changes on time: If something changes such as a child or partner arriving/leaving, starting to be a carer or unwell, moving into work, changes in rent etc. you are duty bound to report as soon as you can. If you would get more UC as a result this would usually only apply from the assessment period in which you report that change.


·         Tip 15: time your changes well: UC is assessed for Monthly Assessment Periods at a time. So having a new child means you get an amount for the little bundle of joy for the whole month, if you report before the end of the period. Similarly for teenagers flying the nest; hold back the move until the start of your next assessment period or you will lose the past month’s money for them. Or time house moves to higher/lower rents so as not to lose out.


·         Tip 16: don’t count chickens: In practise any increases will only appear in your next assessment period if you report within the 1st two weeks of this one.  Arrears will cover the period in question but you might not get the extra until the period after next.


Advisers then are feeling that it’s more “test” – of their patience and client’s endurance – than “learn” at the moment. The DWP doesn’t seem interested in "recruiting" the advice sector as critical friends to seek continuous improvement.


Advisers  do grimly concede a couple of significant DWP successes: sanctions are processed faster than a happy trigger and DWP have achieved the not inconsiderable feat of making HMRC seem almost warm and cuddlyJ.


To be fair individual UC staff are friendly and try to be helpful, but seem to be hindered by unreliable and fiddly screens, mixed messages on their role and a system based on script rather than knowledge of the benefit.  


That’s why getting a handle on what should have happened to your claim can be so important: helping you to help them to help you J. It can though feel as though you are stuck in the seven circles of “Did you say…” UC voice recognition hell, so as a final tip:   


·         Tip 17 Getting through “voice recognition”: Top tip there seems to be say “checking the status of my claim”. This may avoid going round in circles or buying two tickets to Back to the Future 2 by mistake J




4. If in doubt, get advice


But seriously, you simply do not need this level of uncertainty and hassle, whether you have cancer or are looking after someone who does. If you get perplexed by UC you will be in good company, so do get advice and don’t give up.


But if you are one of the few Maggie’s Visitors who do come into contact with UC in it’s still somewhat beta version, you may find it a touch frustrating.  Of course my first hope is that will be one of many who sail through the current UC process without a hitch, meeting friendly helpful and connected responses all the way.


But if you do have any doubts, queries or run into any UC problems, I hope the above tips give some sense that there is hope and something to be done, but you don’t necessarily have to be the one to do it.


There’s also some really good concise practical guides on the DWP’s Universal Credit Toolkit here.  Some bits are a bit too “on message” for their own good. But others are useful practical descriptions of how UC is meant to work. Handy to have to hand as you make that call /attend that appointment.


There is also an official about UC website here Or for a more independent view try Citizens Advice here


But whether or not you find that sort of background reading helpful and empowering, don’t forget that you can always just message me. So if you have any queries, concerns or difficulties you know where I am , whether it’s the new ones presented by Universal Credit or the old challenges  of other benefits.


You can also book a one to one Benefits Session by going to the page here and scrolling down and following the clicks.


We can also look at matching you up with a local adviser in your area if you need the security of a face to face session or need their links to local welfare schemes and food bank.


If you have a more general query or comment that you don’t mind sharing with other community members then please join the conversation here.


And if you would like to join a general discussion and support group, please sign up to the Find out More about Benefits and Cancer Support Group. Just go to the page here and clicking on the orange button. The idea is to have a general chat and blether, around benefits:  to swap stories, experiences, vent frustrations, explore a particular topic or whatever member want it to be.


But of course as above we can chat individually and privately as well.


But for now never feel alone if you do come across any “not really that early days” UC difficulties. You know where I am and together we can help the DWP find a way.  


So please sleep well and don’t have UC nightmares J


Best wishes


Tom :-)



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