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Universal Credit Whistleblower: It Was More About Getting Them Off The Phone

July 23, 2018

Joanne Huggins, 37, worked on the universal credit helpline in the Grimsby service centre for nearly two years before quitting in April. She had worked in social housing and understood the social security system but was still surprised by what she found.

“I did not expect it to be so fundamentally flawed,” she said.

She had hoped she would be able to help resolve the problems reported by claimants, some of whom would call in upset after payments were late, or were unexpectedly reduced, but soon found the system resistant to offering quick or easy assistance.

“It felt like these were not people that you serve, not customers, not important, but people who get in the way of what you are are trying to do, which was to hit call targets,” she said.

It was “heartbreaking” having to block or deflect vulnerable claimants, telling them that they would not be paid, or would have to submit a new claim, or have a claim closed for missing a jobcentre appointment, or be sanctioned – a penalty fine for breaching benefit conditions – or go to the food bank.

The system felt crude rather than intuitive, and her role often felt adversarial. “It was more about getting the person off the phone, not helping.”

It did not help that claimants regularly received different advice in different parts of the social security system. In some cases she would tell callers they had to make an appointment with the jobcentre work coach to solve a problem, only for the work coach to tell them to contact the call centre.

She was surprised by how people left waiting and penniless by the system often did not vigorously pursue the delay or error. “I was surprised by how little contact they had with us. It was as if they just sensed the system was unhelpful and they couldn’t rely on it.”

Bayard Tarpley, 27, also worked in the Grimsby centre. He said the system was not only avoidably complex but failed to anticipate that claimants may find it difficult. Claimant errors could be triggered by poor wording, could be hard to spot and difficult to swiftly correct.

“A common example of a seemingly trivial claimant error causing problems is where people have a tenancy agreement that shows a weekly rent figure, even though they pay their rent monthly. So they might enter, say, £75 a month in answer to the question of how much rent they pay,” he said.

“This can get verified because the case manager missed the issue, and as a result the claimant receives £75 for housing support at the end of the month. We get an angry phone call and spend a week or two resolving it.”

Tarpley gives countless examples of how his experience showed that the system is designed irrationally, or clumsily, or in a way that confuses staff as well as claimants and leads directly to people not receiving the money they need.

“Universal credit is like one of those old Disney cartoons with a leaky boat. The holes spring up, and Bugs Bunny or whoever sticks a finger in, but then a new hole appears, and they end up sprawled across the boat trying to block all the leaks. The holes aren’t the problem, though, it’s the boat,” he said.

Staff often get confused by the welter of system updates, guidance and memos. “This results in a massive variation in understanding between agents, teams and especially service centres, meaning that claimants can call three times in a row and get three different answers to a query.”

This piled excessive responsibilities on to call centre staff, he said. “When people call up with very specific questions about how their terminal illness affects their benefit, it’s me that answers that question. It’s me that has to judge whether it’s appropriate to ask a claimant if her third child is the result of sexual assault because it may affect her benefit entitlement.

“The decisions I make on a daily basis have an impact on how quickly someone is able to pay their landlord, turn the heating back on, get their children to school. I have made decisions that have resulted in people being evicted, and decisions I have made have led people to tell me that it is the reason they are self-harming.

“I would argue that I am scarcely qualified for any of those things, never mind all of them.”

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One Comment leave one →
  1. July 23, 2018 8:40 pm

    “. I have made decisions that have resulted in people being evicted, and decisions I have made have led people to tell me that it is the reason they are self-harming.”

    Abuse of Vulnerable Adults –
    https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/194272/No_secrets__guidance_on_developing_and_implementing_multi-agency_policies_and_procedures_to_protect_vulnerable_adults_from_abuse.pdf

    Care Act 2014 – Safeguarding adults at risk of abuse or neglect –
    http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2014/23/section/42/enacted

    Fraud Act 2006 –
    http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2006/35/contents

    Conspiracy to Defraud –
    http://www.cps.gov.uk/legal/s_to_u/sentencing_manual/conspiracy_to_defraud_(common_law)/

    Criminal Attempts Act 1981 –
    http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1981/47/contents

    ABH/GBH
    http://www.cps.gov.uk/legal/l_to_o/offences_against_the_person/

    Homicide: Murder and Manslaughter –
    http://www.cps.gov.uk/legal/h_to_k/homicide_murder_and_manslaughter/

    Misconduct in Public Office –
    http://www.cps.gov.uk/legal/l_to_o/misconduct_in_public_office/

    Criminal Justice Act 1988 – Torture
    http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1988/33/part/XI/crossheading/torture

    Disability Hate Crime – Criminal Justice Act 2003 (section 146) –
    Increase in sentences for aggravation related to disability –
    http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2003/44/section/146

    Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 –
    Ill-treatment or wilful neglect: care worker offence –
    http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2015/2/section/20/enacted
    Ill-treatment or wilful neglect: care provider offence –
    http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2015/2/section/21/enacted

    Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 –
    Corrupt or other improper exercise of police powers and privileges –
    http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2015/2/section/26/enacted

    Human Rights Act 1998
    http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1998/42/contents

    UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – Articles
    https://www.un.org/development/desa/disabilities/convention-on-the-rights-of-persons-with-disabilities/convention-on-the-rights-of-persons-with-disabilities-2.html

    UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
    http://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/CAT.aspx

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