Universal Credit

Whether you love it, hate it or just plain don’t know what to think, Universal Credit (UC) is here to stay. Just the mention of it is enough to send many into fits of rage and here comes the statement that will cause some readers to lose the plot, ‘Universal Credit is a good thing’. The only problem is Universal Credit is not yet working properly and some of us are not sure if it ever will be.

It is often simply not that easy a system to navigate. I can assure you I speak from experience. I am currently helping a family member who was forced onto UC by a huge mistake made by the Cheshire East Council. When I tell you they sent both a letter and a gift by way of an apology you will understand just how badly they screwed up. I have yet to meet anyone, anywhere who has received the same apology.

The point of this article though is to try and help those that may have to deal with UC themselves and give some essential pointers and lessons I have learnt that could help you or someone you know out. Let’s start with “Don’t try and win battles that are unwinnable”. Once we discovered for our case we had been transferred to UC it soon became apparent that hell, high water and no amount of begging or pleading was going to change the situation. Once I realised I was wasting my time and getting stressed over something I couldn’t fix it occurred to me that the real battle was elsewhere and I should get on with that. The first item I needed to deal with was to get the correct amounts paid and second get it as quickly as possible. In our case we are over 12 weeks, yes, 3 whole months later and the correct payments are still not yet being made (although they are now closed) and the case manager has yet to sort out anything! Not one thing! We do not know if he is incompetent, can’t be bothered or just has so much work to do he can’t cope. We have been told his caseload is over 300 cases so it could be the latter although I have yet to be convinced of this.

Lesson 1

Pick your fights carefully, make a battle plan. There are three components in the case we are trying to get settled. Housing benefit, ESA with a support group element and a transition payment. I can’t stress how important it is to go into either a phone call or personal meeting with a targeted mission. Decide what your priorities are and in what order they come. For us, I soon realised the trick was to fight on ground that I was sure of (don’t guess or make it up on the spot). Then having won one battle with the authorities I used this as a base to win other further battles based on that win. Know when to pick your fights. Don’t try and win all the battles in one go, save some ammunition for future discussions with them.

My first battle was over housing benefit. We had this in black and white from our previous paperwork and payments from the council, before having to transfer to UC. It took a couple of weeks to resolve this one item and persistence was the key. I knew we were on solid ground and with those we talked to on the phone every single one agreed I was right. However as it had not been activated and the correct payment made it meant launching an official complaint, something I shall come back to later in this article.

Once this was sorted I moved onto the second battle of the ESA payments. Because I had won the previous battle there was more weight to my argument and they had to listen and act on it. This took the complaint (which was still open) and a regular two phone calls a week before the correct tick boxes on their systems were dealt with.

The third battle in our case is a transition payment. Again everyone we have talked to says we are entitled to this and even in Prime Ministers Questions on Wednesday afternoon Theresa May said anyone moving from the old system to the new WILL not lose out on overall monies paid. Everything else is now sorted but this is still taking some sorting out though and may take a little more time to get them to get it right.

Lesson 2

Get your paperwork/electronic application in yesterday. THIS IS CRITICAL. Why? Because everything is backdated to the point of your claim application. Every day counts Whatever this takes, get help if needed, but do not bury your head in the sand. DO IT NOW! The frustrating thing is that you may have to wait for payments in-between times. If you wait though it will cost you money.

Lesson 3

Get all your evidence together in front of you before you contact UC. There is nothing more detrimental to your case than 1) not knowing the answer for why you need something and 2) not having ALL your paperwork so you can answer their questions. Make sure you have your maths correct. I know it’s a bit like school, but it is important not only to be able to tell them how much you are owed, but also why and how it breaks down. If you are the one making the claim and struggle with this, find help first. If you get this wrong you are unlikely to get all you are entitled to.

Lesson 4

Patience is the key. The only way to get anything done with UC appears to be with a LOT of phone calls. Be prepared this is probably going to take time. My experience, coupled with my conspiracy theorist side, suggests the system is stacked in the hope you will go away and not therefore claim any money. It starts with the pointless security questions that you are only going to be asked again once you get to talk to a human. It moves on to the stupid on-hold music, Aaargh!

Lesson 5

Be polite! I cannot stress how important this is. Put yourself in the shoes of the person at the other end of the conversation. If you are shouting and swearing at them do you really think they will want to help? If you were them would you perhaps forget to tick a box just to get your own back? You see my point. It is much better to get them on your side. One of my favourite tactics is to come out and say to them “Look I am really sorry, please don’t think this is aimed at you” or “It’s nothing personal but I am desperate and really need some help. Use a calm voice as it is much more likely to win over the person you are talking to. It’s not a guarantee, it’s just common sense. In short, get them onside and if possible feeling sorry for you.

Lesson 6

Gather information. Make sure you write down the name of the person you are talking to. All conversations are supposed to be recorded so it is important to be able to trace your conversations so write the date, start and end time of conversations and brief notes on what was said. Get them to say things. Easier said than done as staff training covers being non-committal, especially on policy decisions. The trick here is to say things like “I understand it might take you a day or two to get this item sorted out, so do you think I would be unreasonable to call back in two days?”. If you are given the answer ‘yes’ then this sort of statement justifies you chasing your situation, the trick is to also shorten their timespan so if you are told it takes a week to get something sorted out, make the above statement suggesting four days.

Lesson 7

Stay on point. Don’t waffle on about stuff they don’t need to know about or won’t care about. Make every sentence of your call on point. If for instance, you are claiming housing benefit there is no point in talking about your neighbours or how bad your landlord is. It just isn’t relevant.

Lesson 8

Complaints. Do not be afraid to launch a complaint. This said there is a way to go about it. Before you complain tell your story so it is in the notes. Wait until they then break their terms and conditions. i.e. if you are promised action in your journal (they usually four days to act and reply). So if nothing has happened on day five, that’s your next call and if the matter is not resolved correctly with the person you talk to on their front line, ask first to speak to a supervisor. If you are calm and reasonable they are not allowed to say no. That doesn’t mean they won’t try though. If you can’t get hold of a ‘Line Manager’ ask if they are refusing to put you through. They cannot say they are refusing if you have given no cause to offend and are being reasonable. Only once have I not been able to talk to a line manager and was told I would get a call back in a few days. I promptly told them the time span was not acceptable and I would like a call back in 24 hours. I got it!

Lesson 9

The journal is everything. Make them report every item here. They are supposed to be acting in your best interests and if it is not written down, they can deny knowing about your case details. One of the problems with so many calls is you almost never speak to the same person twice. It is important you ask them at the beginning of the call to read your case notes so they are fully up to date. Thus again The Journal Is Everything. If an item, point of communication or payment is missing, get it on there asap.

Lesson 10

You can make mistakes. If you got something wrong and you know it, it’s OK. You won’t get everything right, every time. Remember mistakes go both ways. Sometimes they are not even mistakes. I was absolutely positive I had the right amount of housing benefit being paid. It turned out last week they had upped this as I had asked for the wrong amount. They can be good guys if you let them be!

A Political Conclusion

Both Labour and the Conservatives on the whole say in principle Universal Credit is a good thing for the country. The difference between the two comes in how the system should be implemented. I think if those using UC found it easier to access, fairer and quicker to fix problems it would be judged many more to be fair. Subsequently, the Tories would not be seen as much as “nasty party” as they currently are. Its all well and good making the telephone lines free and taking out the first week where claimants are unpaid, there are other just as important problems that need fixing. Why the Conservatives cannot get their head around making the system easier to use, training the staff to use it correctly and frankly adding more staff to deal with its problems is just beyond me. On the whole, all the UC staff we have dealt with come over as being helpful and have shown us that they only want to help.

Perhaps I should be dictator for a few days, bang a few heads together and make it work!