Further evidence that Iain Duncan Smith is making it up as he goes along comes from the DWP’s Major Programmes Director Steve Dover who admitted this week that Universal Credit (UC) will be ‘digital by default’.
In a piece buried in the Guardian’s Computing section Dover says:
“The starting point, I said to our telephony collaboration teams based in Newcastle, was just think of a contact centre, but it has got no people in it and think of an operating model that has got no back office, and start from there,”
This may well comes as a shock to the thousands of people who currently work processing benefits and dealing with claims in jobcentres and Housing Benefit offices. At present new claimants have a face to face interview with an advisor at the jobcentre, where a Job Seeker’s Agreement is drawn up and a claim for benefits is established. It appears this is no longer to be the case.
Whilst the DWP claim there will be a small back office for ‘vulnerable’ claimants, for the vast majority there will be a “massive web-enabled internet channel for the vast majority of the transactions that will be done for universal credit.”
It therefore seems unlikely that IDS is planning to retain Jobcentres and Housing Benefit Offices to carry out the same job. However this doesn’t fit with Duncan’s Smith’s claim that Universal Credit will feature the toughest ever sanctions regime, with even part time and low waged self-employed workers to face being bullied off benefits. Currently this type of bullying is carried out by jobcentres. There is also the small matter of helping people find work, sometimes jobcentres actually help someone find a job.
Are these services to be farmed out to private poverty pimps like A4e, effectively privatising jobcentres and condemning thousands of public sector workers to the dole? Is this his plan to curb rocketing unemployment – close the jobcentres and sack all the staff?
The alternative is that the two systems will be run in tandem, creating two huge bureaucracies which is hardly conducive with IDS’ claims that Universal Credit will simplify the benefits system. And like so many of his increasingly bonkers plans, it will cost of fortune.
Despite the DWP persisting with claims that the new benefit will be ready to roll out next year, so far there have been no clear answers to these questions. Possibly IDS himself doesn’t know and if he does he ain’t telling. The goal posts seem to be shifting ever more frequently as the deluded Secretary of State attempts to blag and bluster his way through the quagmire he has created.
Equally worrying is the fact that according to Ofcom only 75% of people have access to broadband. It’s not a big leap of imagination to assume that those without broadband generally represent people with lower incomes and therefore includes a substantial proportion, if not most, of the millions of people set to be moved onto the new benefit.
Will these people be expected to process their claims and provide sensitive and confidential information to the DWP from internet cafes in full view of any passing fraudster?
Even possessing a broadband connection, an additional expense to be inflicted on the very poorest, may well not be enough. Many claimants have literacy and numeracy difficulties, some people do not speak English as a first language, and the ability to use IT varies hugely from person to person. Some people have disabilities and may not be able to afford specialist IT equipment or use internet cafes and libraries to administer their claims.
When Working Tax Credit became available to claim online the system quickly fell over and was abandoned as millions clogged phonelines for advice on how to use the clunky bug-ridden system. Universal Credit is set to be far more complicated than Working Tax Credit, taking into account as it allegedly will, housing provision, health needs, childcare support and possibly even Council Tax Benefit. On top of this Working Tax Credit was an annual claim. Universal Credit is planned to be a real time benefit, with monthly alterations to awards.
This ‘contact centre with no people in it’ looks set to be a very busy place.
None of this is stopping Iain Duncan Smith, who appears to have been bought an lap-top for Christmas and now thinks he’s Bill Gates. He won’t be the first silly old man to get himself in a muddle with computers. Unfortunately he plans to inflict his ineptness onto millions of the countries poorest people.
But it’s not all bad news. Cameron nailed his colours firmly to the mast by forcing the Welfare Reform Bill through Parliament last week. So when the whole thing comes crashing down it won’t just be Iain Duncan Smith who might find himself queuing up outside a non-existent Job Centre.