UNIVERSAL CREDIT ( UC ) : Rollout Schedule * Mines * Sanctions * Changes * Delays * Reports From Affected Manors

Discuss news stories and political issues that affect carers.
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Universal Credit in chaos as workers ballot for strike.

UNIVERSAL CREDIT has been thrown into fresh chaos after hundreds of workers on the scheme announced a ballot for strike action today against “unmanageable” workloads.

More than 700 people working on implementing the controversial welfare service will be balloting to walk out over issues including poor staff recruitment and widespread frustrations with the workload expected of them by management.

If members vote to walk out, two strikes would take place on March 11 and 12.

The strike would be the first industrial action against the way the benefit “reform” — which has been criticised across the political spectrum and slammed by disability rights groups — is being delivered.

The staff, members of the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union, work at government sites in Wolverhampton and Walsall.

They are demanding that the government immediately recruits 5,000 new workers to the scheme and introduces a maximum limit on the number of phone calls for benefit cases each day.

PCS says members want serious improvements to the internal culture that currently exists between workers and management and insist that there must be no serious changes in the UC offices without proper consultation with the workers and the union.

The workers are also demanding an end to what the union describes as a “management by statistics” culture, which they say discourages a quality-focused approach to solving problems.

They are also seeking permanent contracts for fixed-term staff concerned about the casual nature of their work.

The news comes after Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd conceded that the scheme has increased the use of food banks among casually employed people.

She has since admitted that there have “undoubtedly” been problems with the scheme, which has been opposed by disability rights campaigners since its creation in 2010.

PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said: “The possibility of a strike by universal credit staff should serve as a wake-up call to ministers who have repeatedly insisted universal credit is working well for workers and claimants when the opposite is in fact the case.

“Our members have not taken the decision to ballot lightly but the responsibility for the breakdown in industrial relations lies squarely with the government who want to run this service into the ground while treating staff with contempt.”

Bob Ellard of Disabled People Against Cuts told the Star: “Universal Credit is a disaster for claimants, it is a regime which was designed from inception to be a hostile environment for disabled people and non-disabled people alike.

“It is also a disaster for the people who have to work on it.

“Universal Credit is a failed system. It needs to be stopped and scrapped immediately, and the staff returned to working on the ‘legacy’ benefit systems, which, while far from acceptable, are at least functioning.”

The ballot will close on February 25.

A Department for Work and Pensions spokesman said: “We are disappointed that PCS has chosen to take this course of action and planned meetings with the union are ongoing.

“Our top priority remains assessing and making payments to customers.

“We are comfortable with current staffing levels and will monitor and reallocate resource where necessary.”
Hundreds of computers removed from Jobcentres as online-only Universal Credit rolled out.

Terminals lost despite warnings that claimants without internet access at home could be losing out.

The number of computers available for use in Jobcentres in England has been cut by more than 350 – just as a new benefits system that requires claimants to use the internet is being rolled out.

This year, 6,409 terminals are in place for job-hunters – down from 6,761 last year, government figures show.

Claimants need to log on to a computer to apply for Universal Credit, the new state benefit that replaces a raft of benefits including income support and jobseeker’s allowance.

Concerns have been raised that many of those who need financial support do not have a laptop or internet access at home, but defenders of the new system say those claiming can use computer terminals in Jobcentres.

Critics said there should be more terminals, not fewer.

A reply to a written question in Parliament this month revealed that 6,761 devices were in place in Jobcentres between 2015 and 2018.

But this year the number has dropped to 6,409 – 352 fewer.

Alok Sharma, a minister at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), said the fall was “due to the rationalisation of the DWP estate”.

His reply stated: “These figures include 44 new up-to-date customer devices which have been installed and are currently being trialled in three offices in England from 2019.

“This should result in all devices in England being replaced during 2019 with new bespoke machines designed to support the Universal Credit customer journey.”

Labour MP Kevin Brennan, who asked the parliamentary question on computer numbers, said: “Those claiming Universal Credit need more access to computer terminals not less.

“This shows the Tories are out of touch with the reality of life for individuals and families struggling to make ends meet in austerity Britain.”

Manny Hothi, head of policy at Trust for London, an anti-poverty charity, said: “From our research we know that some people are struggling to get online in order to manage their Universal Credit claims.

“We would expect there to be more computers, not less, alongside assistance from Jobcentre staff, to help those who struggle to get online.”

Christians Against Poverty has previously said more than a fifth of people it helped did not have internet access at home.

A regional breakdown showed the number of computers for use in Jobcentres had fallen in all areas. There were 75 fewer in the northeast; 71 fewer in London and the home counties; 58 fewer in the northwest, and 57 fewer in the south.

The department has been asked to respond.
Universal credit " Ruining lives " and making mental health patients more ill, report warns.

Obstacles " At every stage of the system " cause unnecessary distress and mean vulnerable people miss out on crucial support.

The government’s universal credit benefits system is “ruining lives” with burdensome red tape for people with mental health issues, a report has warned.

Campaigners are calling for more support for people with mental health problems on out-of-work benefits, including an end to sanctions for those in crisis who can’t attend job interviews.

A report by the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute (MMHPI), set up by consumer champion Martin Lewis, found that nearly half of working age people receiving benefits have a mental health problem.

The vast majority said the current system made their condition worse.

Lisa Emery, 43, from Southampton, was medically retired in 2005 due to depression and anxiety, and repeated battles with the Department for Work and Pensions over her benefits have led to periods where she has been suicidal.

While the applications process and communications have been intimidating, she told the campaign that assessments are particularly difficult.

“I feel like I’m always having to prove myself to interviewers,” she said.

“I have to try and get across to them that mental health fluctuates, and some days you can be doing quite well and others you might struggle to get out of bed. In one interview, the assessor suggested I wasn’t bad as I’d made out because I had makeup on and I basically wasn’t rocking in my chair.

“They didn’t seem to have any understanding of the nature of mental illness.”

In its benefits assault course report, the MMHPI surveyed nearly 500 people with mental health conditions about their experiences of the system.

It found than nine out of 10 said the process caused them anxiety, with 45 per cent classing it as severe anxiety.

Many struggled to gather appropriate medical evidence and 93 per cent said their condition deteriorated in anticipation of having to attend the medical assessment.

Crucially they found that more than four out of five felt there was a lack of understanding from assessors about mental health conditions.

“Accessing the benefits system can be a difficult task for anyone, but if you’re struggling with your mental health it can feel almost impossible,” said Helen Undy, chief executive of MMHPI.

“The obstacles that people with mental health problems face at every stage of the system not only cause unnecessary distress, they’re also resulting in people missing out on crucial support they are entitled to, or falling out of the system entirely.

“This urgently needs to change, as it’s ruining lives.”

The report calls on the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to improve benefits assessors’ understanding of mental health and make the system more accessible, particularly for those with severe mental health conditions.

This could include increasing communication channels, which was one of the areas singled out by Amanda who said messages to her assessor frequently go unanswered and that calls to find out information are fruitless.

Patients in acute mental health crisis may be unable to leave the house but face losing out-of-work benefits if they do not attend assessments and look for work.

The report calls for exemptions, in line with those receiving treatment for drug and alcohol dependency, to protect them from sanctions.

A DWP spokesperson said: “Universal credit is a force for good, and where challenges remain we will continue to make improvements.

“We are committed to supporting the most vulnerable claimants, and our new partnership with Citizens Advice will provide further tailored help.”
Hundreds of Calderdale people have Universal Credit payments stopped or cut.

Experts have warned it means more people are having to use food banks, are being pushed into debt, and are forced to “struggle against the tide of poverty”.

The controversial six-in-one benefit payment system, a flagship policy for the Conservative government, replaced Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA), Income Support, Housing Benefit, Child Tax Credit, Working Tax Credit and Employment and Support Allowance.

It was designed to simplify the benefits system, cut administrative costs and encourage more people into full-time work.

In Calderdale 975 people have seen their payments stopped or reduced at least once since the scheme rolled out, according to official figures as of October 2018.

These are known as “sanctions”, and happen when a person is judged to have failed to meet the terms of their Universal Credit commitment.

It means their payment is reduced or stopped, depending on the severity of the sanction.

The lowest level sanctions are those where a person has failed to attend a work-focused interview and the highest level sanctions – for example refusing a job offer – last for up to three months.

People who are sanctioned for the second or third time can see their payments halted or reduced for additional weeks as a penalty.

Critics have blasted the findings, and say that sanctions are casting the most vulnerable people into “destitution”.

The news follows the admission last month by Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd that the Universal Credit rollout has been linked to rising food bank usage.

Answering a ministerial question in the House of Commons, Ms Rudd said: “It is absolutely clear that there were challenges with the initial rollout of Universal Credit, and the main issue that led to an increase in food bank use could have been the fact that people had difficulty accessing their money early enough.”

The scheme – introduced in 2013 – was supposed to be fully-rolled out by 2017, but management failures, IT blunders and design faults mean it has already fallen at least six years behind schedule.

The system is now not expected to be fully operational until December 2023.

Emma Revie, chief executive at the Trussell Trust, said: “There is a strong link between people having their benefit payments stopped and an increase in referrals to food banks.

“Our evidence shows that sanctions can be counter-productive, pushing people further from work – for example by pushing households into debt, using their resources instead to struggle against the tide of poverty.

“We want to see a true ‘yellow card’ system, which sees someone receiving a warning first, instead of getting money stopped, to try and engage someone in a constructive dialogue without the threat of financial penalty.

“Poverty acts like a current sweeping people away and leaving them without enough money for the basics.

“But this isn’t inevitable. We know what things will anchor people against those tides and reduce the need for food banks; a benefits system that provides sufficient money and support to anyone who needs its help, work that is secure and pays fairly and emergency support from local authorities that fills the gaps when someone is hit by something unexpected.”

Matt Geer, campaigns manager at poverty charity Turn2Us, said: “Sanctions are routinely linked to causing poverty, homelessness and destitution as well as increase demand on foodbanks.

“We routinely hear from people who are on Universal Credit and have been affected by sanctions.

“These people are desperately looking for clarity on what their rights are and searching for help to make ends meet rather than trying to ‘cheat the system’.

“They need support, rather than being penalised, from the very system that should be there to help them.

“The DWP have the ability to encourage more people into work but to do so, we would recommend they focus on making work pay a real living wage, rather than exercising punitive measures.”

A spokesperson for the Department for Work and Pensions said: “The latest statistics show that fewer than 3% of Universal Credit claimants have a sanction.

“Sanctions are only used when people don’t fulfil their agreed commitments to look for work.”
Pay compensation for universal credit errors, says thinktank.

Amends for officials mistakes should match benefit sanctions, report suggests.

Universal credit claimants should be compensated if their benefits are paid late or promised training and skills courses are not delivered, a conservative thinktank has recommended.

Bright Blue said it was unfair that claimants were sanctioned – had their benefits docked – if they failed to look for work or missed appointments, but jobcentre officials faced no penalty if their errors left claimants in hardship.

It also called for financial rewards for claimants who put “maximum effort” into their job search but were unable to find work. This could be a cash supplement built into benefits and a biannual £1,000 cash prize.

All new universal credit claimants should receive a one-off upfront “helping hand” payment amounting to a quarter of the estimated first month’s benefit to help with the five-week minimum waiting time for the first payment.

The thinktank said the long waiting time for initial payments was “difficult and distressing” for most claimants, and making non-repayable financial support available would soften the impact and generate goodwill.

The recommendations came in a report on how claimants’ experience of universal credit could be improved. Bright Blue said it was broadly supportive of the online benefit system and said its research showed most people were adapting.

But it said older claimants and those with mental and physical health problems often struggled with universal credit – particularly with the initial 35-day wait for payment – and its complexity and harshness was dissipating public confidence.

The most eye-catching recommendation was a call for victims of error or maladministration by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to be given the right to appeal to an independent case examiner, who could award compensation equal to the sanctions levied on claimants judged to have breached rules.

Compensation payments could reach hundreds or even thousands of pounds, which the report suggested was essential if the system was to be seen as fair. “Ensuring there is equal treatment of all actors in the universal credit system is important for sustaining public and specifically claimants’ support for it,” the report said.

Claimants interviewed for the report revealed widespread cynicism about the intentions of universal credit, with many believing it had been made deliberately complicated to discourage people from claiming. “They are making it hard on purpose just to save money,” said one interviewee.

The report called for a universal credit smartphone app to help claimants who do not have access to computers or tablets, and for a full-time disability and mental health adviser in every jobcentre.

Ryan Shorthouse, the director of Bright Blue and a co-author of the report, said: “Despite welcome improvements made by the government in recent years, there are too many examples and too much evidence of significant hardship experienced by a sizeable minority of those on universal credit.”

Heidi Allen, the MP for South Cambridgeshire, who recently quit the Conservative party to become an independent, was on the report’s expert steering group. She called on ministers to restore funding for universal credit and make the five-week wait more manageable.

She said: “Whether it is reducing that wait time or converting advance payments to non-repayable grants for those with no financial resilience, the government must find a way to restore the welfare state’s core aim. It should be a helping hand up, not a net that drags the most vulnerable in society down.”

A DWP spokesperson said universal credit was a force for good and it would continue to make improvements. “We welcome the report’s finding that the majority of people have had a smooth move on to universal credit, appreciating the simple monthly payment and work coach support.”

Last month Citizen’s Advice reported that the five-week wait for a first benefit payment left nearly half of the claimants it advised unable to pay household bills or forced them to go without basics such as food or heating, while 54% had to borrow cash from family and friends to stay afloat.
" I'm 57 and my parents have to feed me ": the universal credit digital obstacle course.

The digital-by-default benefit is causing problems for up to half of all claimants, according to the DWP’s own figures.

It’s fair to say Grant Borner knows a thing or two about computers. He was a mainframe operator, responsible for checking his firm’s processing systems, before he was made redundant in 2017. Yet even Borner struggled to complete his online application for universal credit when he was moved on to the government’s flagship benefit scheme last year.

“Not having the internet at home is a nightmare. I had to stop it to reduce my bills,” he says. “I went around to my parent’s house and used theirs but I got timed out after 45 minutes – I lost everything. I tried it several times but it wasn’t having it.”

Borner had to go to the job centre in Harlow on four different occasions that week to complete his application for the digital-by-default benefit, which combines six different payments into one. The delay meant the 57-year-old had to wait even longer than the then six-week delay for his first payment and was forced to use a food bank. “Without that food bank I wouldn’t have had a thing,” he says.

Borner’s struggle is far from unusual. The Department of Work and Pension’s (DWP) own survey data suggests 46% of people claiming universal credit need help applying online. The same data shows that a quarter of applicants who fail to submit their claims online put it down to difficulties accessing computers or the internet.

The government expects people to make and manage their claims online, but last year the UN’s rapporteur on extreme poverty, Philip Alston, noted that just over half of people on low incomes in the UK do not have home broadband and 21% of the entire population do not have basic digital skills. Alston said the digital-by-default design of the universal credit system may be contributing to the third of claims never reaching payment, and accused ministers of putting up digital barriers “that effectively obstruct many individuals’ access to their entitlements”.

Borner is still living with the consequences of that traumatic week, as he is paying off a loan from his job centre which he took out to cover his bills. This leaves him £292 a month. After bills he has about £2 a day for essentials like food. “I have to scrounge off my parents – they feed me,” he says. “I’m 57 years old and I should be looking after those pair of poor old sods. He’s 81. She’s 78.”

Borner also has to go to his parents to manage his claim, which requires claimants to record 30 hours of job hunting every week in an online journal. If he fails to update his journal he risks being sanctioned and having his benefit cut. “It’s a worry because I don’t have the internet at home,” he says.

Charities warn such digital requirements could have serious implications for 3 million existing claimants, including thousands unable to work because of disability or illness, due to be moved over to universal credit from 2020. Initially, 10,000 people will be transferred in a pilot starting this July. They will then be followed next year by millions of people claiming disability and unemployment benefits.

Mental health charity Mind is concerned that vulnerable claimants may be left penniless when they have to make claims online, as the government has refused to transfer people over to the new system automatically. “There is a risk that if you fail to make a claim in the time window there is nothing to stop you losing your money altogether,” says Paul Spencer, Mind’s policy and campaigns manager.

The DWP itself says chronically ill people are more likely than other claimants to struggle with applying and managing their universal credit claims online. The department’s 2018 report showed that nearly 40% of people with long-term health conditions find the application process difficult and 53% need ongoing support with their claims.

Spencer says the system has not been designed to take into account the barriers people face. “Too many people do not have access to computer or to the internet to make a claim.”

Problems don’t end once people have applied. Citizens Advice, which will be providing advice to universal credit claimants from April under a government scheme, says the benefit doesn’t take into account people’s actual circumstances.

“People are expected to monitor their online journals in almost real time. They get notifications for meetings and instructions in their online journals,” says Kayley Hignell, Citizens Advice head of welfare policy. “But many of our clients don’t have the internet at home or lack digital skills and may not get these messages. They then run the risk of getting sanctioned.”

Spencer says these threats can exacerbate illnesses and stop people applying for help. “The cumulative effect is that it sets people back. People are being made unwell or dropping out of the benefit system.”

Sixty-one-year-old Anne-Marie, who has been struggling with depression for 20 years, was told to apply for universal credit at the end of January when her husband, who has dementia, was taken into a care home in Oxfordshire. However, she had to seek help from her local Mind branch because she has few computer skills and cannot afford an internet connection.

“I’m absolutely hopeless on computers,” she says. “Applying was awful. We started at 11 in the morning and eventually we got through at 2 in the afternoon because the computer kept on crashing.” Out of desperation she phoned the universal credit helpline and was given an appointment at her job centre, where she was finally added to the system. She now has a five-week wait for any money.

“For the first time in my life I went to a food bank last week. It was humiliating for a woman of my age to go to a food bank,” she says. “I was never brought up to go begging or live off the state. I was told to make your own way in life.”

Despite lacking even a smartphone, Anne-Marie is expected to manage her claim online. “I’m getting anxious. If you don’t fill in your journal you get sanctioned and then how do I pay my rent? That makes you feel closer and closer to becoming homeless.”

Former railway trackman Josh, who hasn’t been able work since he had a serious heart attack and stroke three years ago, was told to apply for universal credit when his disability benefit was wrongly stopped.

“You are meant to go on online and do things which I find impossible. I cannot fathom it to be honest with you. I’m on such a low amount money I cannot afford the internet. I’ve got a really bad phone. I run out of 3G all the time,” says Josh, who lost 20% of his brain function in the stroke.

He says it is difficult for him to get online elsewhere. “I’m in a village. There isn’t any library in three miles of here,” he says. Josh has had to rely on his sister and girlfriend. “If they weren’t there to help me then I would probably be homeless by now. I needed them to do the online stuff because I couldn’t do it myself.”

The DWP insists people without internet access can use thousands of free computers in job centres and public libraries. It says applications can be made in person or on the phone. “Around 98% of people claim online, and the majority found the process easy,” says a spokesperson.

This doesn’t reassure Anne-Marie. She worries she won’t be able to survive on universal credit. “I don’t know whether I will be around in five years. I might end my life because the way things are going.”
Over half of Universal Credit claimants have money deducted from payments, new figures show.

Deductions made when claimants have outstanding debts with their utility companies or landlord.

More than half of uniiversal credit claimants have money “deducted” from their benefits by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), new figures have shown.

Figures released in response to a parliamentary written question on Wednesday showed that 53 per cent of universal credit claimants had some of their benefits payments deducted in October 2018.

A deduction is made from universal credit payments when claimants have outstanding debts with their utility companies or landlord. The money deducted from the allowance is used to pay debts the claimant owes.

A deduction is different from a sanction, which is a reduction made in universal credit payment made as a punishment when the claimant fails to fulfil the requirements of receiving benefits in the UK.

The figures show that 532,000 universal credit claimants had some of their payments deducted in October 2018.

Six thousand claimants had reductions of 40 per cent of their allowance or more, while 129,000 claimants had deductions of between 31 and 40 per cent.

October’s statistics show a sharp rise in deductions compared to figures obtained by FOI in August 2018 by The Guardian newspaper, which showed one-third of claimants at that time saw money deducted from their payments.

In May 2017, just one in 10 claimants had their payments deducted, according to the figures.

The latest release was requested by Frank Field MP, who is chairman of the Work and Pensions Select Committee.

He has previously been outspoken on the issue of benefit deductions, describing them as “a main supply route to food banks” and calling on energy companies to write off the debts of their customers who cannot afford to pay.

A DWP spokeswoman said: “When claimants have housing or utility arrears, we make deductions from their benefits to help pay off debts and keep them in their homes. Safeguards are in place to ensure that deductions are affordable.”
187 posts