Potential dispute in Universal Credit, October 2018

23 Oct 2018

At regularly scheduled negotiations with DWP on Tuesday, 16 October, GEC reps continued to raise concerns with UC national managers about issues faced by our members in UC service centres. The responses to these concerns were inadequate. This bulletin lays out the next steps in the campaign to improve working conditions.

What are the key concerns?

Staffing and working conditions are major problems faced by our members. Lacking the correct number of staff forces DWP to rely on massive use of overtime, but it also drives problem behaviours on the part of claimants. If a case manager doesn’t have enough time to clear journal entry tasks, then this makes it more likely that claimants will ring us. High volumes of telephone calls then further reduce the amount of time that case managers have to clear tasks. This cycle puts massive pressure on staff, who are dealing with unhappy claimants, and who know that vulnerable people are being poorly served by DWP.

The steadily increasing size of the national telephony team is a symptom of the crisis.

Telephony has been a problem in UC Full Service since it began rolling out. The introduction of geographic call routing (integrated telephony) was an attempt to allow case managers to answer calls from their own caseload. Where the case manager isn’t in the office, their team or site are supposed to be able to pick that up. The ultimate idea is that claimants will be supported by case managers who have developed an understanding of the area and a relationship with the Jobcentres where the claimant lives. National telephony teams are meant to be the last resort – picking up phone calls where sites are overwhelmed. The staff on national telephony teams, however, are drawn from an existing pool of UC staff, meaning fewer case managers to deal with enquiries in the normal way.

The lack of staff overall has meant that in multiple sites case managers are dealing with 15+ calls per day – far in excess of what DWP are saying the average is, of 45 calls a week per case manager, lasting an average of 7 mins 43 seconds.

What have GEC negotiators asked for?

The GEC asked for the following, in line with long-standing demands that have been voted on by DWP conference.

  • A halt to any further rollouts until we can ensure that working conditions of staff are stable, and that the case manager model is properly bedded in.
  • Substantial additional recruitment to be able to adequately manage telephony whilst allowing time for case management, to deliver the best service for claimants.
  • Proper consultation on plans for managed migration, including in-work conditionality, and for any proposed changes to the case manager model.
  • That where work is temporary, and is not predicted to exist in the long term, that this is managed through recruitment of FTAs, not through outsourcing.

What have DWP agreed to?

Managers refused to go back to ministers to discuss the potential for a delay to the remaining 100+ Jobcentres being rolled out by the end of December. They have agreed to keep talking to us about managed migration and apologised for the poor quality of consultation, that saw reports on managed migration reach the press and the evaluation of in-work conditionality published online without any discussion with PCS. A proper consultation framework is still not in place however, despite being something that employee relations have been working on for more than a year.

DWP has stated their intention is to recruit 1732 additional staff up to March 2019, with most to be in post by end of December 2018 – though the majority will be in jobcentres. This is something of a concession to the concerns raised by PCS, including that our work coach members are often handling overspill work from service centres, including task clearance. This exercise involves recruiting 140 staff more than the original business case to ministers asked for.

However, bearing in mind that managed migration is scheduled to begin in the first half of 2019, negotiators are not convinced this is enough, especially for the service centres. Substantial rises in phone calls follow Jobcentre rollouts, and even with the successes we have had in pressing for permanency for our fixed-term staff, and the limited additional recruitment and transfers from other business areas that have happened, it is likely that there will be substantial pressure on the network.

Management continue to acknowledge a wide disparity between teams. In Canterbury SC, for example, some staff are handling 60 calls per week, whereas others are handling 27 calls per week. Previous branch bulletins have already identified the work that is on-going to address this disparity and to ensure caseloads are balanced and that cases that require intensive support (e.g. in the first assessment period) are shared out. As previously noted, if staffing is not calculated correctly, this becomes an exercise in sharing out the misery, and that does not deal with the overall problem.

PCS opposes further outsourcing to Serco

DWP have also tried to say that they are trying to reduce telephone volumes being faced by our members by giving additional work to Serco. As on legacy benefits, some telephone calls relating to appointments in Jobcentres are outsourced. The existing Serco contract runs into 2019 and up to the end of that contract DWP intend to give re-booking work to Serco, and they estimate this might reduce calls answered by DWP staff by 10%. GEC negotiators indicated opposition to any extension to the contract and expressed clearly the view of members that outsourcing does not work, and will involve additional support from DWP to private companies and often will involve our members having to double-handle cases because of the poor quality delivered by contractors. Managers acknowledged our concerns but are intending to press ahead with this.

Other measures

Managers are working to get UC service centre staff who have been loaned to other areas, such as JSA, to be moved back UC. They are also considering increasing the average speed to answer time, i.e. increasing the amount of time claimants wait before having their call answered. This, they believe, would reduce the pressure on staff taking calls. Managers are also considering how they can provoke a “channel shift”, i.e. to stop claimants calling in by encouraging them to rely on digital communication. GEC negotiators pointed out that these are discussions that have been going on for years and they don’t seem to have substantially altered the problems faced by our members on the front line.

PCS members’ meetings approved where sites are under pressure

Car park meetings were held during the summer at Blackpool, and last week Middlesbrough SC held a car park meeting. GEC negotiators will be speaking at car park meetings scheduled for Tuesday, 23 October at Walsall SC and Wolverhampton SC. Negotiators made clear to DWP that these were with the approval and support of the GEC and would be used to test the mood of members around whether or not the time had come to go into formal dispute. Further news will be published following these members’ meetings.

Decision making

GEC reps raised concerns about the use of observations by HEO line managers in decision making. An unhelpful pro-forma had gone out from national UC decision making management that seemed to take these observations into the realm of quality checking, which HEOs are not trained in unless they have previously been decision makers. The pro-forma will be re-drafted and the terms of its use will be discussed with the union before re-issue.

Christmas leave

Percentage figures have been discussed with OPP, the directorate that handles planning across all DWP operational areas, and now with UC management. The figures are better than previous years in some cases. Leave percentages apply to staff who would ordinarily be at work on that given day – they do not apply to people with non-working days due to compressed hours or due to part-time/term-time working patterns.

Saturday

Sunday

Monday

Tuesday

Wednesday

Thursday

Friday

15th

16th

17th – 30%

18th – 30%

19th – 30%

20th – 30%

21st – 40%

22nd

23rd

24th – 50%

Christmas

Boxing Day

27th – 40%

28th – 40%

29th

30th

31st – 50%

New Years

2nd - 30%

3rd – 30%

4th – 30%

24th – Scotland open, England and Wales closed.

2nd – Scotland closed, England and Wales open.

These figures have not yet been agreed by PCS. We have highlighted particular concerns about leave during the third week of Christmas, w/c 31st December. Management have indicated that the majority of people got what they asked for, or that they will have got two days – a small number of sites indicated that they weren’t sure if preferences had actually been gathered, which raises a question about how managers can know that. Nevertheless, we have asked for the number of refusals and will immediately raise any concerns that branches identify; these should be escalated to the GEC as soon as possible.

Site specific escalations

Dundee SC had escalated an issue with regard to leave in summer 2019; national management report that they have intervened and that this problem has been fixed to ensure staff are getting two weeks together.

Glasgow had identified previously that KWOs were being used to suggest that staff using assumed consent and thereby being non-adherent to the schedule, were somehow not meeting performance objectives or were not being professional. National managers had believed this sorted, but it had to be re-escalated and a change to the KWO is being drafted.

St Austell had raised a number of concerns about assumed consent and the ways in which leave is being calculated. The leave cap of 18% is to be applied at a site level and not at a team level – and advice has been issued in relation to assumed consent, especially as it applies to part-timers or staff on compressed hours.

Welfare reform

A number of significant reports, debates in the House of Commons and other events have been occurring in relation to Universal Credit over the last month. Conference policy this year focused very much on welfare reform and a separate branch bulletin is being produced on this, including in relation to sanctions/conditionality.

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