Lancashire benefits advisers having to "constantly correct" Universal Credit errors

Does Universal Credit stack up for those claiming it in Lancashire?
Does Universal Credit stack up for those claiming it in Lancashire?

A Lancashire benefits entitlement boss has launched a blistering attack on Universal Credit, describing it as a “ticking timebomb” which has led to a “different level of destitution” for some of its claimants.

Joanne Barker, Lancashire County Council’s welfare rights manager, laid out a litany of complaints about the system when she appeared before the authority’s external scrutiny committee.

Her evidence included claims that errors are commonplace and that some people simply hit a “Universal Credit brick wall” and disengage with the process.

It prompted the cross-party committee to conclude that the system is “broken” and likely to get worse as the rollout of the benefit continues.

Currently, an average of 37 percent of working-age benefit claimants across Lancashire are receiving Universal Credit (UC) – but all those with an entitlement will be moved onto it within the next four years. It is also absorbing working tax credits for people who are in employment.

County councillors heard that Lancashire’s welfare rights team is regularly dealing with claims which are closed in error – and faces a struggle to overturn incorrect decisions, even though they are experts in the procedures to do so.

“Unlike other benefits where there is quite strong legislation that protects people and there are responsibilities on the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) before they close a claim, it’s not the same with UC – they just close it,” explained Joanne Barker.

“When [claimants] challenge decisions…they can be ignored – the system just frustrates them.”

The meeting heard that a “real-time” dispute resolution system introduced to try to rectify issues with individual claims was interfering with the process of making more formal challenges, such as the right to demand that an application is reassessed.

“Very often, UC staff don’t seem to realise what a mandatory reconsideration request is or that an appeal means they have to put together a submission and explain themselves to the court service.

“They send things off down [the dispute resolution] process and they just disappear – nothing happens. I’m not saying they shouldn’t [use that route], but they should still deal with the challenge. People’s appeal rights are basically being ignored,” Ms. Barker added.

A DWP assessment of the real-time information system on which the dispute process is based concluded in 2016 that it had “enabled the tax and benefits system to become more responsive than ever before”.

But Ms. Barker told the committee that in the two decades she had worked in welfare, it was now more difficult than ever to “unpick” incorrect decisions.

That mattered, the committee heard, because the 16-strong welfare rights team at County Hall was having to “constantly correct” errors made in the UC process.

Ms. Barker also revealed that the situation was taking its toll on staff, with several having left and some managers at “breaking point”. The team has received suicide training because of the difficult and sensitive cases they encounter.

“It’s very difficult – we’re not trained mental health specialists,” she said, describing the case of one lone parent whom she had been dealing with for two years.

“I knew straight away that the decision not to pay UC was wrong. I tried for months to get hold of this young lady and couldn’t – but I didn’t want to give up, because I knew that if we didn’t get involved, it would not be sorted out.

“One day, her mother answered [when I called] and she broke down – because the day before, her daughter had tried to commit suicide. It’s hard to think that if we had just spoken to her earlier, could we have stopped that?”

Ms. Barker said that she alerted the department to the situation and requested that future correspondence with the claimant via her online journal was handled sensitively - but the following day, a notice was put on that system warning the woman about a £2,000 UC overpayment.

Members heard that the problems with the claims process did not discriminate between those in work and the unemployed, the healthy or the sick. As one single payment, the implications of a UC miscalculation can be massive.

“With [the previous system], if they lost one benefit, they were usually getting their rent paid and had…something to tide them over. When UC stops, everything stops – immediately, they might be getting phonecalls from the landlord, facing eviction,” said Ms. Barker, who also called for improved safeguarding for claimants.

“It’s upsetting to see people who are not scroungers, but genuine people who tried very hard to get themselves out of their situation…and then [end up in] a system that just breaks them.

"A lot of people we see with serious mental health problems are professionals - they're intelligent people who have worked hard and thought they were going to be looked after. They have come in to the UC system and ask simple questions when things don’t seem to make sense to them.

"They don’t get an answer, so they ask again...and then they hit what we call the Universal Credit brick wall. It’s not that they’re not capable - they just reach a point where they can’t cope with it anymore and there appears no way out."

The committee has requested that Lancashire County Council’s chief executive launches a review of the welfare rights service in light of the evidence it heard - and considers whether the department needs “refinancing”.

It saw its budget reduced by £100,000 last year as part of savings measures which mean it now focuses largely on referrals rather than direct approaches from members of the public. However, the cut was far less than the £380,000 reduction which had previously been planned.

Committee member and Labour opposition group leader Azhar Ali called for the work of the service to be better integrated into all County Hall departments.

“In the long run, I think we’d save money [if] we invest in that team – they support vulnerable people across Lancashire and we actually benefit from it,” County Cllr Ali said.

In a statement after the meeting, Conservative cabinet member for health and wellbeing, Shaun Turner, said he would examine the committee’s recommendations.

“The welfare rights service does a superb job supporting many of the most vulnerable people in our county. We will always look at options to support them with their vital and complex work including strengthening partnership working wherever possible.”

“We inherited a huge financial deficit from the previous administration and as a result, considered options of further partnership working in an attempt to ensure we could keep delivering a quality service whilst relieving some of the financial pressure.

“Following a full consultation at that time, it was decided to retain cover for complex case work in house as it was felt this couldn’t be achieved through partners,” County Cllr Turner added.

WHAT THE GOVERNMENT SAYS

Responding to the comments made at the committee, a DWP spokesperson said: “We haven’t been given the opportunity to investigate these cases in detail.

“However, we spend more than £95 billion a year on welfare, and have simplified and improved the benefits system through Universal Credit.

“The benefit supports more than 2.8 million people, providing a vital safety net for those who are out of work or on low wages, and we know the vast majority of claimants are satisfied with their experience on Universal Credit.”

DIGITAL DISADVANTAGE?

Last year, the government began to fund a support programme for Universal Credit applicants run by Citizens Advice groups across Lancashire.

Known as “Help to Claim”, the service offers assistance to more vulnerable people who might struggle with the UC process, which is largely done through an online system – although phone claims are possible.

Amena Patel from the Rossendale Citizens Advice branch said UC was working well for many. But she warned that around 20 percent of those applying for it have complex needs which means they will always need to be guided through the process – no matter how much digital training is on offer.

“Some of our clients would not be able to cope in a classroom setting. They could have the training, but would they be able to cope through the journey of the claim? In a lot of cases, no,” she said.

Members heard that lack of access to bank accounts and even emails addresses was also a problem for some claimants.

The committee heard that Citizens Advice hope that funding for the scheme will be secured for a further year.

For details of Help to Claim, you can contact any Citizens Advice branch.

WHAT IS UNIVERSAL CREDIT?

Universal Credit is a single monthly benefit payment which will eventually replace six previous individual entitlements: housing benefit, income support, jobseeker’s allowance, employment and support allowance, child tax credit and working tax credit.

It was introduced back in 2013 and was due to be paid to all claimants by 2017 – but is now seven years behind schedule. As of 2018, all new benefit claims are assessed for UC.

Existing claimants will move onto the benefit when there is a change in their circumstances, while the remainder will be shifted across in phases over four years from November 2020.

IN NUMBERS

£5.2m – value of benefits secured for Lancashire residents via tribunal cases supported by the welfare rights service (2018)

6,954 – number of Universal Credit claimants helped by Citizens Advice in Lancashire (since April 2019)

37 percent – average proportion of claimants receiving Universal Credit across Lancashire's 12 districts (2019)