Bayard Tarpley worked at a Universal Credit call centre for two years
Former Universal Credit case manager Bayard Tarpley writes about his experience working in its Grimsby call centre for two years.
Have you ever wondered if the service person on the end of the phone is being deliberately being obstructive?
Well the answer is yes. And I should know – I worked as a Universal Credit case manager where agents were trained to get people off the phone without answering their query.
And they were not what you want to hear if you’re a single mother desperate to pay your rent or face being kicked out your home.
I’ll explain, but first let me take you back to the start – how I started working in Universal Credit, a system that I believe is not necessarily doomed, but is severely broken from its foundations.
I had been unemployed for about four months and ironically claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance when I got the job at Universal Credit.
I had six weeks’ training, in which we used a mock system filling out applications as a claimant would.
The dummy claims were all pretty straightforward – a single mother, one might be a man with a health condition, one might rent their home, one might own their home, and so on.
But seldom during training did we create claims in which a single mother in temporary accommodation is working a zero-hours contract, has a child on Disability Living Allowance, and who has just found out that her payment is being reduced by £147 for a tax credits overpayment from 2013.
That is a trickier one to navigate.
The training became out of date quickly – by the time we finished many of the rules had already changed, either because the unnecessarily complex IT system had been updated or policy changes – so we got given a piece of paper to pin up in our booths to let us know the new process.
After four weeks, our training facilitators were replaced by mentors, but their advice conflicted with not just our training, but even with each other.
One mentor told me they close a claim immediately if a claimant fails to book an initial evidence appointment within the first month of the claim, while another said they give the claimant a day or two to call in.
These sound like small issues, but these can have a hugely different outcomes and can add weeks to the payment process, forcing claimants into debt, behind on their rent and the need to use food banks.
The rules around payments were interpreted differently by different agents, with some teams making different decisions, and different service centres appearing to have vastly different processes.
There were jokes about which service centres to trust when looking at notes on claims because some had a history of regularly getting things wrong.
Now back to getting claimants off the phone.
We were told to discourage claimants from calling and instead redirect them to the website, even when they told us they could not use the internet.
But in effect this just created even more problems, and these people, who I found where often the most vulnerable claimants, ended up being punished because they missed payments.
Each telephone agent is given a flow chart on how to deal with the problems that may arise on a call, but it was clear this is basically just a system to try and get people off the phone.
So instead we just apologised a lot while reeling out a plethora of unhelpful phrases.
The most common were:
“Put a message on your journal.” (The journal is the claimant’s record of everything they’ve done whilst claiming Universal Credit.)
“I have to send a handover.”
“Speak to your work coach.”
“Contact Citizens Advice Bureau.”
We apologised because we couldn’t help, but placated with “here’s the phone number for the switcher team, debt management, the local authority, another benefit”.
It really was luck of the draw for the person picking up the phone to call us.
One day an agent will be able to help, but the next day they are told not to answer anything or take any action on any claims and just send a handover to the case manager.
Time on the phone was limited and the workload meant that journal messages can take days or weeks to be answered, if they are answered at all.
Again, not ideal if you are left hundreds of pounds out of pocket when you’re not flush anyway.
It’s not just policies that make Universal Credit harsh and put people into hardship, the front line processes are fundamentally broken – as I mentioned above, the IT system is unable to cope with the complexities, and it is built in a way that it evades criticism because it’s always “evolving”.
Disenchanted with the system, I left in July 2018, but during my time at Universal Credit, not much of these processes changed other than in name, so I don’t have much reason to believe these issues will have significantly changed since then.
I want to be clear, the colleagues I left behind really do care about the claimants, but they are overwhelmed and working within such a broken system it is impossible for them to do their very best for the claimants.
I hope by speaking out that I can help explain why these processes, hidden behind levels of bureaucracy, have such a devastating effect on what is often some of our country’s most vulnerable and in need people.
A Department for Work and Pensions spokeswoman said: “These claims are completely false.
“We take the training of our call handling staff extremely seriously to ensure they are prepared to handle a range of enquiries, regardless of how long they might take – there is no policy to get callers off the phones.”
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