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Friday, 24 March 2017

Is the DWP's under-resourcing of Universal Credit helpline a means of torturing poor people?

At Kilburn Unemployed Workers Group's weekly business meeting on Thursday 23 March, though we warmed to the page 2 prominence given to Camden New Journal's news story published the same day 'Universal Credit: Claimants "stealing food" to eat due to benefit delays: Finance chief warns people are being forced into new debt',(1) we were very concerned at what to us seems a fundamental error in one sentence of that report.

That error concerns the length of wait for Universal Credit payments to be processed. The CNJ's Richard Osley reports:
'In some cases, people are waiting up to six weeks before claims are processed....
'A Department for Work and Pensions spokesman said: “Under Universal Credit, people are moving into work faster and staying in work longer than under the old system. Our research shows the majority of UC claim­ants are comfortable managing their budgets. We’re working with local authorities and landlords to get extra support to people who may find themselves in arrears. “We’ve been rolling Universal Credit out gradually so we have time to ensure it works in the right way.”''(2)

Déjà Vu?

"Waits as long as six weeks for benefit claims to be processed" and "unacceptable" telephone helpline service standards are nothing new and pre-date Universal Credit and even the 2010 General Election. In November 2006 Community Care magazine reported:(3)
'Earlier this month, MPs slammed Jobcentre Plus for leaving 21 million calls unanswered. Despite government claims of improvements, stories of poor service continue to mount, Neil Bateman argues.
'Jobcentre Plus (JCP) is the arm of the Department for Work and Pensions that administers benefits and job search activities  or people under 60. It was set up in 2001 as a key part of the government’s welfare-to-work reforms, the aim being that people could obtain advice and help on benefits and job-seeking under one roof.
'Since the announcement in 2005 that DWP had to lose 30,000 staff over three years, on top of other spending cuts in the department, concern has been growing in the social care and welfare rights fields about the deteriorating standards of service provided by JCP. There has been concern about the effect on vulnerable customers, particularly care leavers, those with sensory impairments and people with mental health needs who have greatest difficulty with the JCP one-size-fits-all approach to customer service.

'Welfare rights advisers and social care specialists identify problems with JCP, including:

● Delays in processing claims and changes of circumstances – six weeks is common – leaving people destitute.
● Communications between different parts of JCP “not being received”.
● Huge difficulty accessing JCP by phone.
● JCP staff insisting that all benefit claims are made by phone, when the law does not state this.'

Is Universal Credit helpline's under-resourcing aimed at destroying the economically vulnerable? 

Where our 'experts by experience' would disagree with the CNJ's report is that we believe the report should state, 
'People wait a minimum of six weeks for claims to be processed.' 
Those delays are exacerbated by the income fluctuations caused by means-tested processing of Universal Credit claims in zero hours economies; and the DWP's deepening reliance on 'pay-as-you-go' call-centre service delivery that  penalises economically vulnerable people for their vulnerability and is arguably designed to discourage people claiming their entitlement.

Now, as the CNJ reports:(4) 
'Telephone calls [to the Universal Credit helpline] can cost up to 55p a minute from pay-as-you-go mobile phones, which are commonly used by people with lower incomes. Wait times to speak with an adviser can be very long – one claimant in Camden has reported that their phone bill for a month was over £140, used almost entirely on calls to the DWP.”
That is an all-too-common experience, leading in many cases to rent arrears and subsequent evictions. The reality is that such waits are now far more common and cannot be ignored, and also that 'austerity' cost-cutting in public services has eliminated council welfare rights units. As Neil Bateman has said in response to my sending him an earlier edition of this response to the CNJ article:
'If we thought things were bad back in 2006…'
This sickening system leads more and more people to sickness and suicide, while the DWP refuses to take lessons from coroners courts,(5) and insists instead that disability benefit claimants be reassessed every six months as standard. If this system is 'fit for purpose', what is its purpose?

For those who have fallen

Against that backdrop, Kilburn Unemployed Workers Group will be highlighting local benefits-related suicides on Monday 3 April as follows:
  • 12 Noon: Assemble outside Kilburn Jobcentre, Cambridge Avenue, NW6 5AH for rally with 
    • local Labour MP Tulip Siddiq, 
    • PCS (jobcentre workers union) National Executive Officer Zita Holbourne and 
    • Brent Trades Council Executive Committee.
  • 12:45: Black Flag march to Paddington Cemetry via Kilburn High Road.
  • 13:30: Address at Leon Brumant graveside by 
    • Dawn Butler MP and 
    • RMT Political Officer Cat Cray.
  • 14:00: Prince of Wales PH, Willesden Lane NW6 for Tea & Sandwiches.


  1. In August 2016, Jim Binderman launched a petition on 38 Degrees petition website, To: Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Damian Green MP
    Make all calls to the Department for Work and Pensions free

    At this time of commenting to the above blog post that mentions a claimant spending £140 pay-as-you-go calls in one month, mostly to the Universal Credit helpline, that petition has attracted 187,178
    of 200,000 signatures
    So, why not Sign the petition now?

  2. The Camden New Journal has now published the original shorter 'letter to the editor' upon which this blog post is based. The heading they have given to its publication is Benefit-related suicides will be highlighted on April 3.

    That heading makes more urgent the following comment that Kwug Blog editor has submitted as a comment at that Camden New Journal page, but that has not yet been uploaded while there are currently 0 comments posted there:

    "The march will also involve the use of a quilt work banner recalling the names of people known to have committed suicide due to the impact of benefit cuts. That banner has been created with the co-operation of friends and families of the deceased.
    "I apologise for the 'Leon Burmont' spelling of the name that should read 'Leon Brumant', and for the organiser's misunderstanding regarding Dawn Butler MP's involvement; Dawn Butler will not be attending, but Rail, Maritime & Transport (RMT) Union Political Officer Cat Cray will.
    "It has also been pointed out that Leon Brumant's suicide was not benefits-related. The march organiser's point is more that the current Government's policies are driving more and more people to suicide. More detail on the life of Leon Brumant can be found at https://www.facebook.com/search/top/?q=leon%20brumant%20memorial%20page"

    Alan Wheatley for Kilburn Unemployed Workers Group