National reps from the group executive committee met with UC management. This article is an update on what was discussed in respect of UC Service Centres and benefit design, as well as on the recent meeting of the PCS UC advisory committee.
Full Service roll out completed, managed migration scaled down
As of 12 December, UC roll out is now complete. National management has expressed the view that they will now enter into a period of stability, while they seek to reduce the burden on telephony staff, whether national hub or integrated. GEC negotiators disputed this view, emphasising the reports from members, including through votes for action in car park meetings, that the pressure on all UC full service staff is intolerable.
The GEC negotiators repeated the Group demand for 5,000 extra staff, limits of 30 calls per week, limits to how Management Information (ACW, ACHT etc) is used, improvements to the case manager model and better consultation with union reps, on behalf of staff, across the whole of Universal Credit. The employer continued to be of the view that they are doing everything possible but they have nothing concrete to offer.
On 11 January, the Secretary of State announced that the draft regulations governing the managed migration of all ESA, JSA, IS, housing benefit and tax credits claimants to UC were being withdrawn after a period of consultation and scrutiny by the Work and Pensions committee, which PCS contributed to. The new regulations would only allow for 10,000 people to be moved across, drastically scaling down the speed of managed migration.
PCS welcomed this as a victory for common sense - but negotiators also made two points. First, that staff were still under pressure as new claims would not cease. Second, that despite the scaling down of managed migration, claimants would still be moving across based on changes of circumstances and that this could happen without transitional protection. DWP committed to discuss the changes announced but little else.
Group campaign continues – support our claimants, staff UC properly
As the employer still hasn’t moved on our demands, and with DWP making worrying noises around the “budgetary constraints” of the 2019/20 resource plan, the Group campaign must continue. Between now and March, 700 additional staff are planned for UC, as what remains of last year’s ministerial business case, but this includes Jobcentre staff. Concerns about attrition – staff leaving – were raised, and this is still higher than it should be. Managers have argued that this is down to local competitive labour markets (another way of saying poor DWP pay and terms and conditions!) but we were quite clear that UC is pretty miserable to work in, for a lot of staff, even those coming from elsewhere. Moreover, we need to be aware that many of the 403 fixed term staff in UC will be leaving towards February and March, if current plans remain in place. GEC reps have argued clearly in favour of permanency for these staff at every opportunity and will continue to do so.
DWP did let us know that recruitment suffered some delays in the closing part of 2018 because of difficulties with Government Recruitment Services, slowing down checks and the making of offers, but DWP hope this has now been resolved. Getting more staff into DWP as soon as possible is needed – but the current scale of recruitment is not calculated to make substantial improvements to the working conditions of our members.
Branches are advised to prepare car park meetings where they think the mood exists to demonstrate the strength of feeling of our members. These have already happened at Blackpool, Middlesbrough, Walsall, Wolverhampton and Stockport, and another is planned very soon at Bolton.
New sites are moving into Universal Credit all the time, including recently Chatham, Chesterfield, Bishop Auckland, York, Lowestoft, parts of Warbreck in Blackpool, remaining JSA staff in Glasgow Northgate and Clydebank (379 FTE total) and more are likely over the next period. It is extremely important that all of these branches, some of whom are new to UC, are kept informed about the UC campaign. As part of the organising work at group level, every branch has been allocated a specific GEC member to support them as part of national campaigning efforts.
Branches should also be working with OSN (i.e. regional) TUS to ensure that Group Directors for the UC Service Centres are being pushed on the five key demands of the UC campaign and that this demand is escalated to Area Directors. At national level, emphasis is put on the different needs of different areas by DWP, which means branches, regional TUS and the GEC must work together to hold them to account, raising the demands at every single level.
If you have questions, contact details for the GEC officers responsible are below. An appendix is included which maps the structure of senior UC management, to help.
Integrated Telephony calls reducing, national telephony expanding
While DWP did admit that the accuracy of “average call figures” was doubtful because it takes into account staff not taking any calls, skewing the average, they were still very pleased that the average has reduced from 46 to 38 since before Christmas. At Walsall, where members held car park meetings to protest the pressure on telephony, national hub work has been moved out and promised never to return, releasing additional staff to help case manage. Even with this, however, staff have reported that pressure is still there and this has been relayed to the employer.
Part of the reduction will inevitably be as a result of the expansion of national telephony, with staff moving in from other parts of DWP often being put straight on to the national telephony hub. As well as disappointing these staff who had been told about the virtues of case management, this does not address the underlying problem that we do not have enough staff to support caseloading, causing higher numbers of phone calls and reduced digital engagement, as journals are being missed. This has been something we have persistently raised and DWP have now set up a new contact strategy group aimed at reducing the volumes of calls going to national hub telephony, and thereby increasing the resource available to case management / integrated telephony.
Live Service close down arrangements
The concerns of live service staff, including those transfer team staff who are taking a lot of Live Service phone calls, were highlighted. Around 103 full time equivalents (the number of staff in post / “bums on seats” will be higher) currently work in this area, not counting the backfill arrangements where full service trained staff have occasionally been yanked off full service to cover live service telephony. This is small but extremely important work, dealing with very complex cases.
We made clear our view that there should be no pressure exerted on these staff in respect of numbers of calls etc., and that their work takes as long as it takes. Management agreed a supportive approach was required, bearing in mind how the hard work of staff had resulted in teams being ahead of the profiled caseload reduction (40,500 cases open as of 8/1/19, against 42,000 predicted). All reps are asked to make sure that any needs expressed by Live Service staff are dealt with through local negotiations as we go through the tough period up to the closure of Live Service in March. Any issues should be speedily escalated to the GEC if not addressed by local managers.
In-work conditionality and staff as claimants
GEC reps highlighted our discontent with progress on the question of DWP staff as claimants. We have continually shown that staff are now making claims to UC and have well-founded concerns about having to speak to staff in their own service centre, when they call in to make a claim or report changes of circumstances. PCS again raised the question of twinning sites, so that if staff at site A claimed UC, they would be dealt with by site B and vice versa, which is how PIP works. Special consultation has been happening with the UC programme on this, but no moves have been made to put in place arrangements to sort this question out. DWP acknowledged that these concerns have been raised for some time and a meeting has been scheduled for 29th January to finally resolve them, at least ahead of the implementation of a specialist team to deal with staff claims, which is what Conference policy calls for.
Specific instances from Wrexham were highlighted, where tense conversations happened between staff who claimed the benefit and staff delivering the benefit. Instances at Bangor were also highlighted in terms of management instructions that if people wound up with personal friends on their caseload, they were not allowed to swap them with someone else. UC managers expressed surprise at this and their view that this would be in breach of DWP policy. Managers promised to look into this.
Assumed consent has come up over the period. Christmas pressure on assumed consent seemed to be resolved at sites like Stockport, where reps robustly defended the prerogative of staff to flex off at the non fixed end of the day. However at new sites, such as Bishop Auckland and York, where staff were being told they have to justify using assumed consent and enter their own exception codes. This is a recurrent issue for new sites moving across. Good practice is for team leaders to enter any codes after staff let them know they’re leaving early or arriving late - but the key point is that staff do not have to justify their use of assumed consent.
A number of areas, particularly Scotland, had raised the question of the rolling annual leave year. Managers admitted that this had not happened or had been interrupted in a number of areas, but should now be restored, with members being able to book annual leave up to a year in advance, excluding Christmas leave.