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Universal chaos with claimants calling out for help; REAL BRITAIN; Ros Wynne-Jones standing up for you and your family.

Byline: Ros Wynne-Jones

On Wednesday this week, Alex spent a normal day at the office. Phone call after phone call dealing with a stream of tearful and distressed people moving across to Universal Credit.

While MPs were debating the flawed policy in the chamber of the House of Commons, Alex was telling claimants their benefits had been slashed in the changeover - and wouldn't be arriving at all for a minimum of 42 days.

"Most people react in confusion and disbelief," says Alex. He works in a regional office with a caseload of around 300, and says his department in is "dangerously" understaffed.

"Some people break down in tears. They tell us how they

won't be able to feed their children or will be evicted, while they sob. But sadly there is nothing we can do."

One of the claimants Alex dealt with had not been paid for 12 weeks.

"The first six-week target had been missed and I could see from her account that she had called over a dozen times," he says. "She was pleading for a payment but I couldn't do anything. I couldn't even tell her when we could make a payment."

Universal Credit is the Tory flagship welfare policy that sees all existing benefits combined into one payment.

OVERWORKED

Resolution Foundation figures show 2.5 million working households will be PS1,000 a year worse off when they move across. Meanwhile, Universal Credit's now notorious minimum sixweek delay before financial support is given has been blamed for a massive increase in foodbank referrals in every area in which it has been rolled out.

Now Alex reveals many people are receiving their payments far later than six weeks after making a claim - and are often paid incorrectly - because advisers like him are dangerously overworked.

"My colleagues and I are given unmanageable caseloads," he says. "Many of my colleagues feel out of their depth with the quantity of claims they manage. "

This results in a vast amount of crucial work never being completed until claimants contact us, when their payments are inevitably paid incorrectly or not at all."

And when case managers go on holiday he says their claimants are neglected "sometimes for weeks".

Alex was "elated" when he joined the DWP several months ago after being out of work himself.

"We were told that Universal Credit would make work pay and it would create a simpler and more streamlined welfare state," he says.

By the end of training, he thought "quite highly of the idea". "My optimism quickly faded when I joined my team," he says. "It agonises me to say that I cannot give people all the help they should receive in a decent society. The most common question we get asked is, 'How am I supposed to live off that?'."

This week, the campaign to "pause and fix" Universal Credit, backed by charities including the Trussell Trust and Citizens Advice, reached Parliament as MPs spoke out against the vicious cuts inside the new benefit, as well as the 42-day wait.

Many opposition MPs shared heartrending stories from their surgeries.

"Universal Credit certainly pays less than the benefits it replaces in most cases, so it appears to be a stealthy way to slash the welfare state," Alex says.

"I have witnessed systemic cuts to benefits over time. Many people are hundreds of pounds worse off per month which can cause a sudden budget crisis."

Alex says the true scale of the problem is being "whitewashed".

"Last week Theresa May said 80% of people are getting their first payment on time," he said. "These statistics are taken from the group of people claiming the newest 'full service' rollout of Universal Credit - which has been assigned the best performing case management teams.

"From my experience, a third of claimants are put under unnecessary hardship because of serious understaffing."

Alex stresses that he works with compassionate and friendly colleagues who all "feel in the same boat". But earlier this year, the DWP announced it is cutting 750 jobs, partly by closing 27 back-office buildings.

"My office is merging, leading to dozens of newly trained employees on temporary contracts being told that their contracts will not be renewed," Alex says. "To most of us this makes no sense. It's not only chaotic, but extremely dangerous to understaff the welfare state."

This week, Alex's boss, Neil Couling, the DWP's director general of Universal Credit, tweeted a picture of a cake emblazoned with the words Universal Credit to celebrate its rollout in Hove.

The DWP's Janice Hartley, 53, was made a Companion of the Order of the Bath for "Services to the Development of Universal Credit".

A DWP spokesman said: "Our frontline staff offer invaluable support to people facing difficult circumstances. Their job is not always easy, which is why we provide comprehensive training and care for their wellbeing - and our Universal Credit employees are positive about support they receive.

"Universal Credit is a big change to the way we deliver benefits which is why we are rolling it out in a safe and secure way. The majority of people are satisfied with their Universal Credit claim and are comfortable managing their money, but there is extra support for people who need it. Advance payments, more frequent payments, and budgeting support are available."

UNDERSTAFFED

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, David Gauke, calls Universal Credit "compassionate, practical and aspirational". But Alex has three other words for it: "Bleak, chaotic and understaffed".

"A claimant I was trying to help last week had been severely affected by the benefit cap, nearly bringing me to tears while she wept down the phone," Alex says.

"She was a really lovely widow with five dependent children. She could not work due to severe disabilities so the family was reliant on state support.

"The benefit cap deducted PS2,000 from the payment, leaving the family of six with around PS10 a day. I couldn't imagine having any decent quality of life in London on PS10 a day myself, let alone have to provide for five children. Again, there was nothing I could do."

'It's not only chaotic, but dangerous to understaff the welfare state'

CAPTION(S):

SOUR TASTE Neil Couling and his cake

PUSHING AHEAD Benefits chief Minister David Gauke

BEGGARS Echoes of Victorian Britain
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Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Oct 20, 2017
Words:1049
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