‘It’s like receiving one line in your junk inbox’ DWP addresses Universal Credit problems

DWP member explains how they informed Universal Credit claimants

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Universal Credit payments were boosted by around £20 a week in 2020 as Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak aimed to help families through the pandemic. From the outset, the Government detailed this uplift would only be temporary but despite this, many were hoping the increase would be extended in the face of continued economic uncertainty. Additionally, some have argued the DWP wasn’t clear enough in its communications with claimants and many are shocked to see that their payments will be reduced in mere weeks.

Chris Stephens, the Scottish National Party MP for Glasgow South West, brought this issue up today in a Work and Pensions Committee meeting. Mr Stephens said: “We heard from claimants last week at a committee hearing that they felt the communications about the change had not been good enough.

“Some had only had a general message, without the usual text and email notification, and some had received no message at all. Let me quote what one of the witnesses said to [in regards to] communication with her: ‘The line I got in my Universal Credit journal was like receiving one line in your junk inbox. It was not like a big email with flashing lights at the top, you had to go looking for it and I think a lot of people even now are completely unaware that they’ve been in receipt of this. So they are going to be even less aware of the fact that part of their monthly income is about to be taken away.’

Mr Stephens continued: “Now Minister this is not some pure level communication format and protocol between professionals. This is ordinary people [seeing communication] poorly delivered. Are there any potential parallels between the communications to Universal Credit claimants on this uplift and the recent ombudsman judgement as it applies to 1950s born women and their pensions?”

In response, both Mr Quince and Neil Couling, the Senior Responsible Owner (SRO) for Universal Credit, remained adamant the Government had communicated its changes appropriately.

Mr Quince said: “[I’ll] answer that question with a simple no. But I will say that I was in the testimony of the witnesses last week, one of the most troubling elements was claimant awareness and communication so I have already raised this with Mr Couling.”

Mr Quince then referred to Mr Couling on what operational changes had been introduced to combat this issue. Mr Couling detailed: “So I’m just picking up on the pensions communication point as well. I mean the difference with a digital system is of course, I have a digital footprint of all the messages I’ve sent everybody. And I can even see when they’ve been read.

“So some of the things that were said in response to the pensions changes, if they’d had a digital footprint, then people could have checked back and checked the veracity of all of that. [In what] I have done with the five people who came in last week, and they all received a message from the committee once I can even tell you the dates that they got those messages, and what we’ve been doing is making effectively six changes over a period of three months so it’s a rolling programme of communications.”

Mr Couling went on to explain why the Government is now altering its communication plans and is specifically focusing on digital efforts.

“We know that people have a kind of brown envelope aversion to letters from the Government and the DWP in particular. So it is a task to get people to read our communications, so what we’ve done is make changes to the statement that pull out the fact that the uplift is temporary, so a mathematical calculation.

“We have then put a message in the statement, this was in August, that said the uplift is temporary and will be removed from a certain date.

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“We then put a message in their journal, which repeats that message, and also says, ‘Look at your statement.’

“Claimants get either a text or an email saying that they’ve had a new message in their journal and the claimant selects whether it’s a text or email they get.

“There’s about 5.2 million households affected by the removal of that temporary uplift. Why is it 5.2 and not the six million that you’ve seen headlines in various places? Because it’s 5.2 million households, the six million refers to the number of claimants.

“Couples are both claimants, under Universal Credit, So we sent 5,032,802 messages between the 16th and 27th of August.”

In the lead up to the Universal Credit uplift debate in the House of Commons yesterday, many charities and other organisations warned the cut would push millions into financial trouble.

Citizens Advice warned 2.3 million people receiving Universal Credit will be pushed “into the red” by the cut. It also found people are one and a half times more likely to claim Universal Credit in areas the Government has prioritised for “levelling up.”

Analysis of Citizens Advice data published this week highlighted “the precarious state of people’s finances heading into the autumn”, as the following details:

  • Referrals for further charitable support have surged. Advice on grants and in-kind support – including for furniture, clothes and toiletries – is up 91 percent compared to summer 2019. Referrals to food banks are up 30 percent on last summer.
  • Increasing worries about income. The charity’s webpage on how much Universal Credit people will receive has had 50 percent more page views this summer than last summer. Views of its debt advice webpage on increasing your income rose to their highest-ever level this August.
  • Increasing fuel debt problems as an energy price rise looms. The number of people Citizens Advice helps with fuel debt has risen over the pandemic, and they’re often facing other debts too. Their situation will be worsened as maximum energy prices increase by well over £100 a year for both default tariffs and prepayment meter customers in October.

Dame Clare Moriarty, Chief Executive of Citizens Advice, commented: “Millions are headed for an incredibly tough autumn.

“Families still struggling with the impact of the pandemic face a barrage of fresh challenges including the cut to Universal Credit, the end of furlough, and a sharp rise in energy prices.

“Against this backdrop, keeping the £20 increase to Universal Credit is the single best way of protecting people from a perfect storm.”

In mid-August, rightsnet reported Universal Credit claimants had started to be informed of when their final boosted payment would be issued and in response to this, a Government Spokesperson said: “We have always been clear the uplift was a temporary measure; we have communicated this directly to claimants through their monthly statement and will continue to do so, including via individual claimant journals. Claimants can discuss tailored support on offer via Universal Credit with their Work Coach.

“Our focus now is on our multi-billion-pound Plan for Jobs, which will support people in the long-term by helping them learn new skills and increase their hours or find new work.”

Express.co.uk contacted the DWP for comment

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