October 2013 sees the start of the Universal Credit roll out as a household benefit paid monthly. 19 million people will be affected by 2017. It also marks the start of the abandonment of ‘localism’ by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) when it comes to the ‘local’ benefits service. For 20,000 local government employees, currently delivering housing benefit, they will literally see half their workloads ‘starting to dry up’. (UNISON has produced a briefing setting out why Universal Credit is an issue for Local Government.)
Starting with new out of work claimants, applications will be made over the ‘internet’ but with a new style of call centre back up.
The starting point, I said to our telephony collaboration teams based in Newcastle, was just think of a contact centre, but it has got no people in it and think of an operating model that has got no back office, and start from there
Steve Dover (Director of Major Programmes at DWP).
But what about the 8.2 million people who have never used the internet of whom 3.89 million are disabled people? (ONS 2011 Q4). At the moment, there are no answers to the following basic questions about the Universal Credit service:
- Will someone be able to apply locally?
- How will someone apply locally?
- Where will they apply locally, where will the local ‘Universal Credit’ office be and what office accommodation will be used?
- What documents will they need and where will they take them locally?
- How many staff will be needed?
- How does someone get face to face advice and help if they have a problem?
Claimants face other obstacles that may prevent or frustrate access to Universal Credit. First there is the introduction of ‘Identity Assurance’ for the individual claimant to secure access to the system; then there is the issue of bank accounts – the number of working age adults without access to a transactional (current or basic) bank account was estimated to be 1.54 million in 2010. Calls from a landline to 0845 numbers are expensive (and from mobiles even more so) as you start paying from the moment you join the queue.
Delivering Universal Credit will also depend on HMRC delivering the new Real Time Information system for PAYE to provide the raw data for the Universal Credit calculations. Questions such as – What do we do about the PAYE taxpayer John E Smith who claims Universal Credit as John Edward Smith? – seem to remain unresolved and BBC Radio 4 Moneybox (14 April 2012) found it simply could not get through to HMRC last week.
Whether Universal Credit is delivered successfully will depend on the quality of the service. UNISON argues that DWP is making a major error in failing to include a local delivery element within the delivery arrangements, taking the opportunity to utilise the skills and experience of the 20,000 housing and council tax benefits staff that currently delivery a quality service. Talk of ‘pilots’ when every part of the country is affected misses the point – what is needed is a ‘local element’ to an integrated benefits service.
For millions of people, in and out of work, Universal Credit will be critical to their household incomes. But the Universal Credit service is being designed without a local service delivery element. UNISON warns that this approach is badly mistaken.