It’s time to start listening: what the Department for Work and Pensions needs to learn about universal credit

In the Commons last week, Work and Pensions ministers responded to concerns about universal credit by offering to look at individual constituency cases MPs were raising, where things might not be going quite right. They gave the impression that anything not working was an anomaly – and that they’d listen and fix these cases. What we’re seeing through our Early Warning System, however, is that cases where things go wrong don’t tend to be anomalies – they're the tip of the iceberg. Advisers around the country report lots of similar problems, so we have good reason to believe that there are systemic issues affecting considerable numbers of people that need to be resolved.

Our latest Early Warning System report pulls together the most common problems we’re seeing.

More than one in three of the cases we’ve received through our Early Warning System has featured administrative errors. The types of errors we’ve seen are where a DWP officer hasn’t applied the law correctly when making a decision, has lost evidence provided or has given the wrong information to a claimant. An example of this is when people with disabilities move from employment and support allowance to universal credit. In this scenario, a person should have all the information that was used to determine their ESA award transferred to determine their universal credit award, and should not need to have another work capability assessment. But this has not happened in several cases we have seen – leading to people missing out on additional money they are owed due to their health condition or disability, and being expected to look for work when an assessment has already concluded they aren’t able to work.

Another area where lots of problems are arising is in relation to housing costs, including, most drastically, some people getting no money to pay for their housing at all. This has happened when a tenant has lost their tenancy agreement or does not have a standard tenancy agreement. We’ve also seen cases where people have received less housing support than they should have, including groups for whom there should be specific arrangements, such as care leavers. We have heard about a single father who had the housing element of his universal credit halved because his wife had moved abroad, despite him still having to pay the rent in full. He is in rent arrears as a result.

Universal credit is designed to be managed digitally. This poses problems when people are digitally excluded – because they either don’t have the skills to manage their claim online, or don’t have access to a computer or smart phone. There isn’t enough support for people to make their claim online (or through other means if they can’t apply online), library access is sometimes restricted, and access to support from voluntary services is patchy. According to the DWP’s own survey of claimants, 21% were unable to submit their claim online mainly due to difficulties using computers or the internet. Universal credit claims have to be managed online on an ongoing basis, and it is clear that some people are falling through a gap in available support and struggling to cope. This will mean people being denied vital financial support.

Perhaps the most publicised problem with universal credit has been the long wait some people have faced for their first payment, but we have seen other delays as well. There are too many cases where the time it’s taken the DWP to process documents, respond to evidence and make decisions has caused hardship. In some cases this has meant claimants resorting to foodbanks. In one case, a woman had her universal credit suspended because the DWP suspected she was working without telling them. When she was able to prove that she wasn’t, she was told she’d still have to wait eight weeks for the suspension to be lifted. She only had an advance of £100 for eight weeks. Delays like this cause hardship to often very vulnerable people, and are often entirely avoidable.

As universal credit beds in, people are likely to have questions about their claim. But we are seeing examples of people not getting responses to the messages they put on their online ‘journal’, or left via the helpline. This includes when they ask for a decision to be reviewed (this is called a ‘mandatory reconsideration’ in universal credit). And welfare rights advisers are having difficulties intervening on behalf of their clients to resolve their universal credit issues because ‘implicit consent’ for an adviser to speak to DWP on behalf of a client is no longer recognised.

A fundamental part of our social security system is that people can challenge decisions made about their claim. In universal credit, we are seeing a worrying number of cases where the right of people to challenge a decision is effectively refused. We have seen many cases of people being incorrectly restricted in applying for a mandatory reconsideration – for example asking for a reconsideration over their online ‘journal’ and being told they have to ring up instead. Without the ability to challenge a decision, claimants are denied their legal rights, as well as potentially losing financial support if they cannot get a mistake relating to payment corrected.

Universal credit has only reached a small fraction of those who will eventually claim it, and the full scale ‘managed migration’ is due to start next year. We are already seeing lots of the same problems arising again and again. The secretary of state, Esther McVey, spoke of the need to “listen, respond and get it right”. We hope these are not empty words, or she will be rolling out misery to thousands of families.