Following the latest Leading Lights Network event we held at the House of Lords in October, Deven Ghelani and Lord Kirkwood visited Dover Job Centre Plus office on 7 February. Lord Kirkwood was invited, along with Policy in Practice, to visit Jobcentre Plus offices administering Universal Credit to see how the new benefit system was faring on the frontline.
The purpose of the visit wasn’t to assess the policy background to Universal Credit, or to look at other welfare reforms that affect the amount of money people take home, but to look at how Universal Credit ‘full service’ works in practice. How have people found the claim process, do they think it is a simpler system, and how have they coped with some of the concerns that have been raised by others about how the new benefit works on the frontline? Policy in Practice have raised constructive options to improve Universal Credit, and raised our concerns over the cumulative impact of cuts to working age benefits, and the knock on consequences, in detailed analysis for the Local Government Association.
We went with an open mind and were made very welcome. Whilst the agenda had been agreed in advance, we were pleased to have the time and freedom to speak to customers and Jobcentre Plus staff at all levels, asking any questions we felt were relevant.
We arrived a little before 10:00 and joined the small group of people waiting outside the office. We chatted with Gary* who had been claiming Universal Credit for a while. He told us the name of his work coach and a little about himself, which made us appreciate that the support he needed was broader than just employment support. Gary was in a good place for the conversation that day, he explained, which wasn’t always the case.
When the doors opened we were greeted by a front of house JCP staff member who was directing jobseekers to the appropriate place, and not the security guard we were expecting. The office in Dover is bright and airy with a bank of eight computers against one wall. It has free wifi for those customers waiting in the comfortable seating area. Posters promoting social media sites to help with jobsearch were prominently displayed and a children’s centre organisation was busy in one of the rooms doing outreach work.
We met the Service Leader (District Manager) and the Customer Services Manager who gave us a tour of the office. We learnt about the area and the overall impact they felt Universal Credit was having on staff and customers.
- The managers found that housing costs were becoming unaffordable, particularly in neighbouring Deal.
- On the positive side, a new employment park nearby was creating jobs; the team at the JCP had good relationships with the employers and directed jobseekers there
The managers were positive about Universal Credit and told us they felt that the added flexibility Universal Credit offers was having a positive impact on staff morale, and customer outcomes. They particularly welcomed the flexibility to sort out circumstances that stop people from looking for work and also liked the fact that they were working with customers on a single customer journey (UC), rather than across three separate benefits (ESA / IS / JSA).
The managers understood the importance of working together and told us that having one team member who previously worked in Housing Benefit had been really helpful, particularly as the Housing Element was a new responsibility for Jobcentre Plus staff. They reported a strong relationship with the Housing Benefits and Housing Needs services at Dover District council, but didn’t feel that making referrals for personal budgeting support to the local authority was working particularly well, because claimants who needed help were lost in the handover.
After the visit, I spoke with Sara Spark, the local authority UC lead working in benefits for Thanet, Dover and Canterbury. She broadly agreed with our impression of the visit. Sara told us that after some initial teething troubles, both the service and the relationship with JCP staff had improved considerably and that she enjoyed working with the team at JCP.
“We helped one person who was homeless and living in his car. It had been clamped and we helped him to get the clamp removed, and helped him to clean, wash and get access to housing support.”
Archie and I sat in on two separate ID verification interviews. This is the initial interview to check the customer is who they say they are and to check their documents. This is followed up by a subsequent claimant commitment conversation in a later appointment. This is in addition to the GOV.UK/Verify process for those who wish to verify online, suggesting that there are routes for those who need support to setup a claim without using the new service.
Jean and Tom*
Archie met with a couple in their mid-forties with two teenage children. Jean was a carer for her husband, Tom, who had health issues.
The work coach spent most of their time on the verification of both partners. Jean and Tom had brought some, but not all, of the evidence required, so a ‘remote verification’ check was carried out based on three security questions. The process was smooth and all went to plan, resulting in the issuing of a 16 digit verification code.
As Jean and Tom were transitioning from the legacy benefit system onto to Universal Credit, because of a change in circumstances, the work coach was able to bring forward the payment date by seven days, which was obviously welcome news.
Jean and Tom were concerned about whether they would be better off on Universal Credit, because the system was replacing their child tax credits, and Jean thought this may mean she would need to find work. The work coach used a back of the envelope calculation and found that Universal Credit would mean they were £30 better off compared to the current benefits system. It’s difficult to know if this would be the case without full details of the claim, and a formal tool to help work coaches with this could be helpful.
The money was going into Jean’s bank account, which Tom agreed to. Without prompting, Jean asked whether her rent could be paid directly as well as whether her benefit could be paid fortnightly. The work coach logged these request and said they would follow up in their next appointment. The work coach offered an advance payment to Jean and Tom but Jean felt she didn’t need it. The work coach assured Jean she could request this later if necessary.
Deven met with Kate, a single mother of two primary school age children, who was renting privately. Kate was advised to claim Universal Credit by her support worker after having been on Tax Credits and losing her job five weeks ago. She was starting a new job closer to her children’s school in the next few days, and was able to call the JCP office to bring her appointment forward by one week to accommodate this.
Kate told me she completed her claim online the day before and I asked how claiming Universal Credit compared to Tax Credits. A big improvement, she thought, citing the claim process, the fact that it was assessed monthly avoiding big overpayments through tax credits, and the fact that the Tax Credit helpline had not been particularly responsive in the past.
Kate had brought ID verification with her, having been prompted to do so by a text message the day before. However, it wasn’t photo ID, so she had to go through the same ‘remote verification’ process that Jean and Tom did. While waiting for the verification questions, Kate’s work coach explained details about her work allowance, her withdrawal and broadly how Universal Credit would make her better off in work, compared to not working at all.
The ID verification went smoothly, so we thought, and Kirsty was issued with her verification code, and offered an advance of £826 which she wanted to take up.
At this point, Kate’s work coach offered her personal budgeting support and asked if she had made a claim for housing costs as part of her claim, which was confirmed. Kate’s advance was setup to be paid in full the next day, and to be repaid over the following twelve months.
As this point I told Kirsty that her children may qualify for free school meals under Universal Credit, which they wouldn’t have been eligible for under Working Tax Credit which she was on previously.
I took Kate through our Better Off Calculator which showed that she may be able to increase her household income. Kate hadn’t claimed housing costs, her children were eligible for free school meals and she qualified for council tax support while out of work. Pleased, Kate was able to review our conversation herself by retrieving her claim on her mobile phone and finding the housing costs section. This told her she needed her landlord details and she agreed to update it when she went home. A follow-up appointment to bring in proof of rent payment was arranged for the following day.
Our overall opinions after both interviews were that the Universal Credit service has come a long way and, while neither of the two cases we looked at were straightforward, the service offered was positive and clearly moving in the right direction.
Staff question and answer session
We then had a Question and Answer session with staff at all levels, which Archie led. He asked “What would you change, if you could wave a wand to improve things?”
The main priority staff felt was to get rid of the bad publicity around Universal Credit. They didn’t think it reflected the service, particularly since the changes in the budget last year, which meant that customers who came in were unnecessarily anxious.
Archy and I raised points we were in favour of, to put money back into work incentives in Universal Credit, flexibility in their ability to backdate claims and other recommendations that Policy in Practice made in our pre-budget briefing note to DWP and understood. They were confident they could tell people they would be better off in work versus not working under Universal Credit, but stronger incentives would always be a bigger motivator. They helped walk-in customers who wanted help to make a claim, and said they sometimes stayed late into the evening to get a claim finished on the same day to help the customer avoid missing out. A faster process to get the claim started, and get a verification code, would be helpful.
Staff had the ability to feed into the development service. Current hot topics were helping vulnerable customers where another organisation, such as a local authority, held power of attorney, and helping work coaches access information across their caseload.
Sara Spark had some advice for local authorities moving onto Universal Credit full service. She agreed with the concerns raised by JCP staff around backdating, and the need to improve the GOV.UK/Verify service, which was taking customers too long, and was too often unsuccessful. Sara told us that having an operational contact with technical knowledge, alongside the partnership manager, had been very helpful to the relationship overall. This had helped to speed through cases with alternative payment arrangements, and minimised Housing Benefit overpayments.
We did raise concerns that frontline advisors using our Benefits Calculator had raised with the service, including the impact of sanctions under Universal Credit, access to face to face support in light of planned Jobcentre Plus office closures, and how in-work conditionality was beginning to manifest. We weren’t able to investigate issues raised by by claimants or advocates in blog comments as these reflected specific cases and needed more time than we had that day to investigate thoroughly. Policy in Practice recognises that operational improvements need to continue, and we have argued that DWP generally and Universal Credit specifically can make better use of the network of advocates and advisors to support claimants, and that software tools available for customers through GOV.UK can be adapted to help work coaches to explain the impact of changes in the benefit system, or changes in work circumstances to help customers to plan ahead.
While there are real adequacy concerns in light of cuts to support, particularly where rents are rising, and there are aspects of the service the we believe can be improved, overall, the Universal Credit full service has come a long way since PiPs last formal visit to the live service in 2014. Some of the benefits of bringing many benefits together into a single department are beginning to be realised, staff appreciate the added flexibility and the customers we spoke with at Dover JCP saw real improvements in the new system.
We hope to have two further visits to a service centre, and to see the service in another JCP, focused on claimant commitment conversations. If you have areas that you think we can usefully investigate, please leave a comment with details below.
*Names have been changed for privacy