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Universal Credit Helpline

Volume 659: debated on Tuesday 7 May 2019

It is good to see so many hon. Members here today for the debate, which is due to begin now, on the topic of the universal credit helpline. I call Danielle Rowley to move the motion.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the universal credit helpline.

Thank you very much, Mr Evans. I am very pleased that this debate has been granted and to serve under your chairship.

We so often hear in this place about the devastating impact that universal credit has on people’s lives, and there is mounting evidence that those struggling to use this system are not getting the help that they need, so I think it is very important that today we discuss some of the issues and look at how we can work to resolve them.

It is the duty of the Government to support people who are struggling with universal credit, including those who, for many good and valid reasons, are not able to access the digital element of universal credit. I get in my office all the time constituents who are struggling to access the online system, for many different reasons. There might be financial barriers: they might not have a smartphone, or a computer at home, and they might not have the money to get the bus to their local jobcentre or library—indeed, those facilities may have been closed down. Those who struggle with digital access also include people with poor mental health, anxiety or disabilities; older people; people who are computer illiterate; and people with English as a second language.

I met with the Minister who is here today and I asked why the universal credit system was available only in English, because there are Syrian refugees in Midlothian who have struggled with the system, as English is not their first language. The Minister reassured me that it was available not only in English but in Welsh—I do not believe that that is helping people who really need this crucial support.

According to Citizens Advice, people who do not have online access are disproportionately likely to be disabled or to have a long-term health condition, and to be unemployed or on a low income. It is clear that the most vulnerable people will be the same people who will struggle to use a fully digital service and who will need extra support.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I welcome the fact that the helpline is at least now free, which it was not in the first place, but does my hon. Friend agree with me that there are far deeper problems and that actually the whole system needs to be looked at? Certainly in my constituency, universal credit is driving up debt, driving up rent arrears and driving up poverty for those in work and those out of work.

I thank my hon. Friend for that very important point. I campaigned for the helpline to be made free and also welcome the fact that it is now, but my hon. Friend is right: the system is driving vulnerable people into hardship. They must be given the right support and not be rushed off the phone and directed to the online system, yet in February we saw, from the leak of a deflection script being used in call centres, that that was what was happening; people were being rushed online.

The hon. Lady is pointing out challenges with universal credit. Does she agree that digital exclusion is already becoming a significant problem under universal credit? 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. Does the hon. Lady not think that the Minister should ensure that implied consent is part of the universal credit system, to rectify some of the problems?

The hon. Lady is right: there are many issues with this system, and digital exclusion is a huge one.

Since obtaining the deflection script documents, I have had discussions with a former case manager on the helpline, Mr Tarpley. I talked with him about how the leaked script comes across, and he explained to me that really it only hinted at how much it was expected of call handlers to deflect people online. He explained to me that if someone called and asked to make a change over the phone, they would be told no by default. No matter what reason the caller gave, whether disability, bereavement or lack of digital skills, they would always be asked the same questions: “Do you have a mobile device?”, “Do you have any friends or family who can help?” and “Can you get to the library?” Call handlers would be told to explain that there are computers at the jobcentre that can be used for free, but I have heard from constituents that often, when the jobcentre is very busy, that is not the case; they are not able to access that help.

The Minister knows about these issues, because I have written to him about them. Does the hon. Lady agree that, given the murky way in which universal credit is worked out, with staff members often not even having access to the payment plan, people being expected to hold on for hours on the phone for the information and then being told that there is no information is not acceptable? Does she agree that perhaps the Minister should be looking at ensuring that staff members are trained to the standard necessary to enable people to get the answers that they need, at the time that they need them?

That is a very important point. I will come on to staff and training.

The burden on the staff is a significant point as well. Bayard Tarpley told me:

“We were trained to never help callers on the phone unless it was going to lead to a manager call or complaint. If you did make the change, there was a risk of failing a ‘CEF’ check, in which a manager would listen to the call and rate it based on several elements of the call, with ‘following the deflection script’ being part of that criteria”.

Staff are being marked against deflecting people online. Some of that may now have changed, likely because of media coverage and pressure, but given the Government’s absolute lack of transparency on this issue, it is unclear what has changed, how much has changed and when changes have happened or are likely to happen, so I hope that the Minister will be clear today about those changes.

It is astounding that the Government thought that this was an appropriate strategy in the first place, and it raises very serious questions about how little consideration is given to the people’s experiences. I imagine that, in his response, the Minister might point to some of the different training that call handlers receive to assess and deal with vulnerable callers, but I have been told first hand that although call handlers are trained to do certain things, that does not necessarily happen in practice. How much of the training is actually being implemented by managers, or are managers being told to do things differently? Are they being monitored?

When hearing about these strategies, it is no surprise that in many cases people have not received the support that they need from the helpline. That jeopardises and delays people’s payments and financial stability, at times with significant implications for their mental and physical health. That is something that I see and that other hon. Members here today will often see with constituents in their offices.

Earlier this year, I spoke to Sky News about the deflection scripts that were shown to me by whistleblowers, and it covered the issue. Sky News also highlighted the case of Brian. He was put on universal credit at the beginning of 2018. In July, he died by suicide. He was 59. His daughter Leann spoke to Sky News and said:

“He couldn’t understand the system from the very start. He was told to go online and access his journal but he didn’t have a clue about the internet. He was constantly ringing up and asking for advice but was told to go online. It really got him down.”

When she saw the deflection script, she could not believe that that was happening, but it rang true given the experience that her father had had.

A constituent of mine used the helpline after questions in his journal went unanswered; the online system had seemed to fail him. He was asking, for example, why the money that he was entitled to was not coming through. On the multiple times that he called, he was told that his inquiry would be passed on and he would be phoned back. That did not happen. When contacting the UC helpline, the shortest hold time that he experienced was 20 minutes and the longest 42 minutes. That has been backed up by Citizens Advice, which has found that at points the helpline has had an average waiting time of 39 minutes. My office has had to intervene for that constituent on three occasions, as well as for many others. My constituent believes that the problems would not have been resolved through his own efforts without such intervention. It cannot be right that people are only treated with the respect that they deserve and given what they are entitled to when an MP’s office or another agency intervenes. What happens to people who cannot get to an MP’s office or access that extra help? Bear in mind that these are some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

The ability to challenge decisions made on UC claims is particularly important. Recent research by the Child Poverty Action Group showed that one in five cases in a UC monitoring project involved administrative errors by the Department for Work and Pensions, resulting, for example, in a claimant being paid the wrong amount. The significant stress people face in not being able to manage the UC process has huge implications for family life.

Exactly three months ago today, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions essentially admitted to Sky News that deflection had been a strategy used by the universal credit helpline. She said:

“We’re going to make sure it’s absolutely clear in the future, there shouldn’t be a deflection script strategy and I have taken control to make sure that’s the case.”

Although I welcome that change, I have not heard anything since about changes that will be made. It seems that the issue has been swept under the carpet, so it is important that we get the answers today.

I have pursued the issue of deflection for months, primarily because of the significant implications for people’s lives of not being able to get help over the phone. Macmillan Cancer Support welfare rights advisers have reported that people with cancer are often being redirected online. They have also said that there is inadequate training for helpline staff to cope with the specific concerns of cancer patients. One cancer patient claimant said:

“When I phone the numbers that they give me, they say they can’t deal with it. I’ve phoned them three times. This is causing me more stress than the cancer.”

We cannot have a situation where trying to get the help that the Government should be providing is causing people more stress.

The Government have been evasive with me throughout the discussion on the use of deflection. They have fobbed off my freedom of information request and denied that deflection exists, even in the face of clear evidence. They have ensured that they have not admitted in the House that deflection is taking place. I am still waiting for a reply to my letter on this subject to the Secretary of State dated 5 February. We have had to rely on leaks and whistleblowers to find out that these tactics have been used and their effect on people’s lives. That lack of transparency seems to run throughout the system. The Child Poverty Action Group’s report concluded:

“The combination of poor decision making and a system that is not transparent about how decisions have been made is causing significant hardship in people’s lives.”

I want to make it clear before I finish that none of the criticisms of universal credit, the way it is handled or the helpline are aimed at staff. Frontline DWP staff have some of the toughest jobs. They are under intense pressure. I believe they have a genuine desire to help people. However, they are working in a broken system, which must be criticised, condemned and changed. Families are turning to food banks. Working people are struggling to pay the bills. People with severe disabilities are being left without vital support.

The general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union, which represents call centre workers, said:

“Our members would prefer to be given the resources and time to give a first class service to help claimants. However they are instructed to use this deflection script as a means to get people off the phones.

It is another example of a government who has failed to invest in staff and support claimants.”

My hon. Friend is making an excellent case. The universal credit helpline is even more important because it is being used as back-up for journal entries, which are supposed to be the way that claimants are able to get questions answered during their claim. However, because it is the third trigger of the amount of work that staff have to do—after priorities zero, one and two—the helpline is picking up all these cases that should be answered by the journal, but there are just not enough staff to do that.

My hon. Friend and other hon. Members—I am sad to see no Back-Bench Conservatives here—will be familiar with the experience of the journal letting people down, just like the helpline.

I have some questions for the Minister, which I hope he will answer. Will he take the opportunity to be clear about what happened in the Department leading to the development and implementation of a deflection script on the helpline? Will he apologise to claimants who have not received the support they deserve, often in times of great need, and to the whistleblowers on whom we have had to rely to expose these damaging practices?

Have any changes been made to the helpline since the Secretary of State said that there should not be a deflection-script strategy and that she had taken control to ensure that that was the case? If so, what changes have been made and what evaluation was carried out to inform those changes? When were those changes made, or when will they be made? What checks have been put in place to ensure that people receive the support that they need on the helpline and they are not deflected online? Does the Minister really believe that the helpline is sufficiently resourced and run, with the best interests of claimants in mind and staff being fully supported?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. As we saw at the start, you are characteristically generous when dealing with colleagues. I thank the hon. Member for Midlothian (Danielle Rowley) for raising this issue—I know she cares deeply about it. She has written to me, and I apologise that my response has not arrived yet. I signed that letter yesterday, so I hope she will receive it in the next 24 hours. She has also raised this issue in parliamentary questions and, in February, at DWP oral questions, when I responded to her. I will come on to that.

I will begin by setting out where we are in terms of universal credit. Universal credit rolled out to all jobcentres across the country last year. We now have 1.8 million people claiming this benefit. When we talk about support, it is worth pointing out that, over the last two Budgets, we have announced changes to universal credit worth an additional £6 billion—in particular to ensure that vulnerable claimants are supported in the transition to universal credit. That includes changes to work allowances worth an extra £1.7 billion a year. Those changes, which increase work allowances by £1,000, were brought in from April this year, providing a boost to the incomes of the lowest paid. That will result in 2.4 million families keeping an extra £630 per year of what they earn. I hope that underlines our learning and adapting approach.

We have always been clear that universal credit is primarily a digital service, which allows claimants to manage their own data and account online at a time that is convenient to them. Via their accounts, claimants can check their universal credit benefit payments, notify us of changes, and record notes via an online journal facility. Some activities still require a call from a claimant, as they are not yet automated, such as booking an appointment. The telephony channel remains an important part of our service offer.

The universal credit telephone helplines have been freephone numbers since the end of 2017. Claimants who call the universal credit helpline are connected directly to the person or team dealing with their case. We also have dedicated national service hubs, which provide telephony for third parties, such as landlords, welfare rights organisations and those citizens without a claim.

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.

From April this year, we introduced a help to claim service delivered by Citizens Advice. This provides additional support for any claimant from point of entry to the first award of universal credit, and is available by phone, webchat and in person at local Citizens Advice outlets and jobcentres.

The hon. Lady asked about training. The DWP staff who service the universal credit helplines have a three-week facilitated learning period. That structured learning provides the skills and knowledge required to support them to answer claimants’ queries. For new universal credit helpline call handlers, the learning journey is broadly made up of soft skills such as customer service learning, which covers how to gather information through active listening; equality and diversity training; and bespoke IT system-based technical learning, all of which is supported by consolidation activity.

Colleagues receive ongoing learning in their roles alongside experienced case managers and have access to universal credit guidance, which is refreshed at regular intervals. We are committed to continuous improvement, and as part of that we regularly review call plans, service levels and intelligence to improve our offer and understand why claimants are calling.

The Minister may know that a jobcentre employee described universal credit as like being in a leaky boat: a leak springs up, and someone sticks their finger in the hole, but then a new hole appears, and they end up sprawled across the boat trying to block all the leaks. The holes are not the problem though; it is the boat. The Minister will know that many people and many groups in civil society believe that universal credit should be paused. Will he think about pausing it so that all the holes in the boat can be fixed?

I gently say to the hon. Lady that I visit jobcentres, as do my ministerial colleagues, and that is not the feedback that we receive from people on the frontline. In terms of pausing universal credit, we have been rolling it out across the country since December, and we have been clear that it will be the main welfare provision for the country in future.

To return to the universal credit helpline, when someone calls it they are presented with a series of options to select from. They are then put through to the agent best placed to answer their inquiry. All further triage is done through conversations to establish the claimant’s needs. There are 26 service centres across the country that aim to support people with their universal credit claim.

We have between 5,000 and 7,500 staff answering calls in our service centres to support our customers. An important point in terms of the statistics—I would not want any hon. Member to be in any doubt that we are making a big effort when it comes to supporting people over the phone—is that, in March, we answered about 1.3 million calls to the universal credit full service helpline.

The hon. Member for Midlothian talked about waiting times. In March, the average waiting time for a call to be answered was two minutes and 43 seconds. In February, the average duration of a call to the UC helpline was just over six minutes. I hope she will appreciate that it is not about rushing people off the lines but about providing support to them.

As I said earlier, the hon. Lady raised this issue in parliamentary questions on 11 February. I reiterate what I said to her then, which is that she has already been sent a copy of the universal credit digital channel document. She talked about FOI requests, but she already has that document, which is what DWP staff use as a guide when taking calls from claimants. She will be aware that the document says clearly that staff must use a common-sense and sensitive approach in resolving queries ahead of any digital discussion. Again, I want to be absolutely clear that there is no intention to deflect and there are no targets for getting claimants to use a digital channel.

The hon. Lady made several other points, including about supporting people who struggle with English or Welsh. We have an interpreting service available for those with language barriers. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) raised the issue of people being held on the phone and not being given an answer. We regularly review service levels on the UC helpline to improve our offer. If we cannot answer a question, we will call the claimant back.

The Minister says that the universal credit helpline is there and that staff are not necessarily trying to direct people on to digital platforms, but the complaints procedure for universal credit cannot be undertaken by phone—people are simply directed to make a complaint online. Those who struggle with online access are unable to do the very basic thing of making a complaint when they have a problem with the online service or the helpline. How does that square with his commitment that people are not being directed online? Will he make sure that people can make a complaint over the phone?

When a conversation takes place between a DWP staff member and a complainant, of course there is the opportunity for the staff member to answer the question. There are standard procedures when people want to make complaints. The hon. Lady takes a deep interest in such matters, and she knows that if any of her constituents ever have such an issue, she can write to me. I understand that, and it is incumbent on us, as Ministers, to make sure that we provide a response. In terms of the statistics that I have put out there, however, I hope she will appreciate that DWP staff make a huge effort to answer phone calls and deal with them sensitively. She also made a point about journal entries. The journal is available 24/7 for claimants to communicate with their work coach. That was not available under the legacy system.

DWP colleagues are fully committed to supporting claimants through a range of channels, and we are clearly making progress in the support we provide. In our latest claimant survey, which was published in January, four out of five people were satisfied with the support they had received when claiming universal credit, which is broadly consistent with satisfaction levels in legacy benefits. Satisfaction levels are high, and the vast majority of claimants who use the telephony system found staff to be helpful and polite. Of course, I acknowledge that we want and need to continue to make progress and improve further so that everyone claiming universal credit gets the support they rightly deserve.

In conclusion, if hon. Members raise individual cases with me, I hope, again, that they will find that the Department and I are open and that we acknowledge when we have made mistakes.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.