More than two million calls to the Government’s Universal Credit helpline have gone unanswered.
The service is meant to help those who have run into problems with the controversial benefit, but one in seven people abandon their call before getting through to somebody.
And, with the next phase of Universal Credit’s roll-out just weeks away, the number of abandoned calls is growing, JPIMedia Investigations has learned.
More than 500,000 callers gave up before getting through in the first three months of this year - more than the whole of 2017.
'ANOTHER REMINDER THAT UNIVERSAL CREDIT IS CLEARLY FAILING'
Margaret Greenwood, Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary, said: “This important investigation is a shocking reminder that Universal Credit is clearly failing.
“It was meant to simplify social security, but instead people face a series of hurdles when making a claim, from the requirement to claim online, to the five-week wait for payment.”
Universal Credit, which replaces six legacy benefits, has now been introduced for all new claimants in every part of the UK, as well as those with a change in circumstances.
Its introduction to a further three million people claiming the old style benefits will start in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, from July, so the legacy benefits can be phased out by the end of 2023.
The process has to be done online, and four-fifths of all Universal Credit complaints to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), the Government division responsible for the system, mention difficulties with the online process, such as system crashes or lack of internet access.
The helpline, which took 7.8 million calls last year, has already had to be changed to a freephone number after pressure from campaigners.
The DWP has also faced repeated criticism for under-staffing the support system behind Universal Credit.
'HERE WAS SOMEONE FROM AN OFFICIAL GOVERNMENT DEPARTMENT SAYING TO ME 'YOU NEED TO LIE''
One claimant said he rang to query a request for information he had already provided and was told to falsely claim his income was zero to get around a glitch in the system.
Garry Byrne refused and complained, sparking an internal investigation and an apology, with the DWP telling him the worker “should not have asked you to input incorrect information”.
Mr Byrne, 54, said he fears compliance could have left him open to accusations of benefit fraud and said: “It was a work-around for their broken records system.
“I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Here was someone from an official Government department saying to me, ‘You need to lie’.”
The DWP said: “We are constantly refining our processes to ensure Universal Credit remains accessible and secure, with those who need support getting it.”
LANDLORDS ARE REFUSING TO TAKE TENANTS CLAIMING UNIVERSAL CREDIT IN CASE THEY DON'T GET PAID
Under the old housing benefit system, rent was paid directly to landlords, but under Universal Credit, tenants are given the cash and are responsible for paying their landlord themselves unless arrangements are made to the contrary.
Conservative councillor Roger Berry said some landlords in Wyre were refusing to take tenants on Universal Credit, leading to a housing shortage.
Mark Broadhurst, health and wellbeing boss at Wyre Council, said there was a “fear there may be a delay” in landlords getting their rent, which he said “may be predominantly due to scaremongering reported in the press nationally when UC was first introduced”.
As revealed yesterday, more than 120,000 Universal Credit claimants in council housing are behind on their rent, while more than 510 have been evicted in the past year.
Mr Broadhurst said: “Unfortunately, despite the advance payment available to the tenant from the DWP (which has to be paid back) our experience has shown landlords are still concerned there will be a delay in receiving their regular rental payments.”
Mr Broadhurst also said it is “sometimes difficult to satisfy the DWP’s requirements to justify direct debit payment to landlords”, and added: “On a positive side, many landlords are accepting of the new system, and in time the remainder may have no option as more and more claimants migrate over to UC from housing benefit.”
'YOU CAN GET A PAYMENT OF UP TO £1,200 IN 24 HOURS - I'M AFRAID THAT WILL NOT BE SPENT PAYING THE LANDLORD'
Fears have also been voiced about the advance payment - a loan given while claimants are waiting for their first Universal Credit sum - being given to vulnerable people who may be struggling with an addiction or unable to budget properly.
Mark Butcher, a homeless campaigner in Blackpool, said: “You can get a payment of up to £1,200 within 24 hours and the problem with Universal Credit - if there is one - is that drug addicts are getting £250 a week paid into their account. That’s their rent and their money.
“I’m afraid it will not be spent paying the landlord, and we will see a lot more homeless people.”
When asked under freedom of information laws how many people applied for more than one advance payment, and how many received one, the DWP refused the request on the grounds of cost.
Mr Butcher, who founded the resort’s Amazing Graze soup kitchen, said he also has concerns about the five-week wait for the first payment, and said he has also heard of landlords in the resort refusing to take tenants on Universal Credit.
But he said he agrees with the system in general and that, in his experience, it has led to more people finding work.
He said people who are not computer literate can allow a ‘digital chaperone’ to log in to help them submit their claim, and said: “We can help people get on to benefits better because it’s all online and it’s much more effective in the sense of organisation.
“For those people with no computer skills, it’s very difficult, and that is where I’m seeing the negative part.”
'I'M NOT SAYING THERE'S NOT A PLACE FOR IT BUT THEY HAVE RUSHED IT THROUGH AND IT'S NOT WORKING'
Lorraine Beavers, county councillor for Fleetwood, said she regularly deals with people having their payments cut or stopped for not spending 35 hours a week on a computer searching for work, including one man in his 60s who spent years in the building trade before being made redundant.
Like many others, he lacks the IT skills and access to a computer to meet the strict job hunting requirements, Coun Beavers said.
“These people are looking on their phones or going to sit in front of a screen in a library,” she said.
“For people who can use the internet, that’s great, but Universal Credit needs to be stopped and it should be stopped and made better and brought back out again.
“I’m not saying there’s not a place for it, but they have rushed it through and it’s not working.
“There needs to be a paper-based way forward for people who don’t have access to the internet and can’t get on it seven hours a day.”
MP: 'WE'VE HAD TO RELY ON LEAKS AND WHISTLEBLOWERS'
In a recent Parliamentary debate, Patricia Gibson, a Scottish National Party MP, asked if “digital exclusion is already a significant problem under Universal Credit, and said: “Many disadvantaged people do not have access to a computer or the internet and, even if they do, the application process is very difficult for them.”
Ms Rowley accused the Government of being “evasive with me throughout the discussion of the use of deflection”, following allegations helpline staff are given scripts to push people towards the online system, and added: “They have fobbed off my freedom of information request and denied that deflection exists, even in the face of clear evidence.
“We have had to rely on leaks and whistleblowers to find out these tactics have been used and their effect on people’s lives.”
Alok Sharma, the minister of state for the DWP, said: “For those unable to access or use digital services—this is an important point—assistance to make and maintain their claim is available via the freephone universal credit helpline.
“The universal credit service centre will establish the best means of support for the claimant. We also provide comprehensive support for claimants who do not have digital skills or who do not have access to a computer. Support is provided in person in jobcentres and through the computers that are available for claimants to use, as well as through home visits for those unable to attend a jobcentre.”
MUM 'FORCED TO BORROW CASH TO PAY FOR CHILDCARE AFTER RETURNING TO WORK'
Chloe Elizabeth said she is a working mum with three children and able to get help with childcare, but she added: “However, I don’t actually get the help towards my childcare until six weeks after I’ve already had to pay it.
“I’ve had to loan money from elsewhere to pay for my childcare so I can return to work after I ended my maternity leave.”
She said she spoke to Jobcentre staff and the helpline without success.
Under Universal Credit, parents can be left waiting for weeks to claim up to 85 per cent of their childcare costs back, up from 70 per cent on the old system - but it’s routinely paid in arrears.
A BIRTHDAY LOTTERY FOR FREE 30 HOURS OF CHILDCARE
Even the 30 hours of free childcare offer, which is open to parents of three-year-olds who both work an average of 16 hours a week, has issues.
Details must be reconfirmed every three months through a ‘government gateway’ account, which requires a valid passport or P60 or payslip and national insurance number to set up.
A letter sent out to parents said: “Alternatively, you can call our helpline”, but when the call centre was rung an advisor insisted the process can only be completed online.
Parents who fail to reconfirm have to wait until the next term to become eligible again, though there is a “grace period”, while new claimants face lengthy waits to get their free nursery care.
Children born from September 1 to December 31 can start nursery from January 1, a delay that varies from just one day to four months.
Youngsters born from January 1 to March 31 can start from April 1, and those born from April 1 to August 31 can start from September 1.
'I FEEL DEHUMANISED IN ALL HONESTY'
Universal Credit also includes a ‘minimum income floor’ (MIF) - an earnings target for the self-employed.
The MIF assumes people work 35 hours a week and earn the minimum wage, though it is adjusted in circumstances involving the likes of children and disabilities.
To calculate how much Universal Credit somebody can be awarded, the DWP compares their real earnings with the target. If they earn below their target, the DWP treats them as if they earned the MIF. If they earn above it, the DWP takes their actual earnings into account instead.
This system can leave claimants who earn below the target “out of pocket”, Andrew Chamberlain from the Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed (IPSE) said.
It was the case for Mark Sorensen, 28, a self-employed furniture designer, whose assumed earnings are £1,092 a month.
In January, his profit was £400 and his Universal Credit payment was around £36.
The money went on rent, leaving Mark eating just one meal a day.
He said: “The assumed income per month is £1,092 no matter what you earn. If you earn anything under that, it’s ignored because it’s assumed you’re earning £1,092. The reality is very different.
“I feel dehumanised, in all honesty.”
Mr Chamberlain added: “What’s happening to Mark is happening to self-employed people up and down the country who are being moved onto Universal Credit.
“The problem is the MIF. There is this assumption Mark has a level of income from his self-employed business. The assumption is wrong. Self-employed people have volatile income.
Some weeks they do better than others.”
The DWP said Universal Credit “strikes a balance between supporting entrepreneurship and being fair to the taxpayer by helping self-employed people during the first year of their business.
“Universal Credit provides a vital safety net for people out of work or on low wages, and should not be used to prop up a failing business.”
PEOPLE ARE 'STRIPPED OF THEIR DIGNITY AFTER BEING SANCTIONED'
Universal Credit payments can be reduced for up to three years if claimants “fail to meet each of [their] responsibilities”.
Last year, DWP figures revealed that those on Universal Credit were more likely to be sanctioned than those on legacy benefits.
Ayaz Manji from the mental health charity Mind blamed that on “far more stringent requirements under Universal Credit” and said: “In addition to the harm they cause, sanctions are counter-productive, causing many people with mental health problems to become even more unwell and move further from hopes of getting back into paid employment as a result.”
Lisa Nandy, the Labour MP for Wigan, said she had dealt with cases where people have been “stripped of their dignity after being sanctioned for being a few minutes late or attending family funerals”.
The DWP said: “Fewer than three per cent of those subject to requirements for their benefits are under sanction, and only when they have not met them without good reason.”