By Tony Collins
IDS says Universal Credit IT is working – but C4 Dispatches asks: is it?
In a documentary broadcast yesterday [9 March 2015] undercover reporter Karl Eriksson got a job working for the Department for Work and Pensions, training as a Universal Credit call centre adviser.
While filming secretly for several weeks he heard several loudspeaker announcements about parts of the main IT systems going down – on one occasion for a whole day. An example:
“The only thing we can suggest at the moment is keep rebooting and try again. There is nothing official out there at all.”
The Dispatches documentary contrasted the statements by Iain Duncan Smith that the IT is working with the reality in a DWP office.
The programme raises the question of whether a national broadcaster should have to film undercover to establish whether UC systems are working well.
When Channel 4 put it to the DWP that its IT is struggling to cope with 35,000 claimants let alone the 2 million the systems are supposed to be handling by now, the spokesman said:
“None of the examples of IT issues [in the Dispatches broadcast] related specifically to Universal Credit and on the rare occasion a problem occurs it is fixed as a matter of urgency.”
Does it matter, though, which systems are failing if the DWP’s IT infrastructure cannot cope with even a low level of Universal Credit claims?
Everyone expects teething problems with a new system, especially as Universal Credit has the enormous challenge of rolling six benefits into one.
But Dispatches raises the question of whether UC will ever be able to handle 7 million claimants which ultimately it will need to do – for such numbers cannot be managed with the amount of manual intervention that is currently needed, according to a National Audit Office report.
More importantly the Dispatches programmme raises a question of how open government can survive when a major government department says, with impunity, one thing – that its IT is working well – while staff and claimants are apparently experiencing the opposite.
These are some of the announcements and staff comments the uncover reporter recorded while working at the DWP:
– Loudspeaker: “This is an IT announcement. We are currently aware of issues with all FMO icons that go through your published desktop via the cloud. There seem to be issues all down the country about it. The only thing we can suggest at the moment is keep rebooting and try again. There is nothing official out there at all. So if you can just try that and if it doesn’t work we’ll take it further. Thank you.”
– Staff comment: “Sometimes the Universal Credit portal just blocks, stops running… it is clogging up for some reason. So somebody centrally now has to try and unclog it all…It can happen when you’re on the phone. You have to tell the customer to phone you back if that happens.” [It can cost up to 40p a minute to dial the UC 0345 helpline and one claimant told C4 he’d spent £25 that month alone on ringing the helpline.]
– Loudspeaker: “This is an IT announcement. Just to let you that there is a major incident out at the moment with Universal Jobmatch and with access issues and it is affecting the Benefits Directorate and the Local Services Directorate. The current update at the moment is that it is affecting the telephony agents and other staff who use UJ at the moment.”
– Staff comment: “I will have to load my screen again. It has crashed again.”
– Loudspeaker: “Attention please. Attention please. Camlite is being taken offline so the system can be rebooted. This will take approximately 50 minutes. Please can all users log out of Camlite and stay out until further notice.” Trainee: “How do you take a call then?” Answer: “You can’t. You have to say phone back in 50 minutes on that one.”
[CAMLite is an enquiry and work management system for Universal Credit which pulls information from other DWP computer systems.]
– Staff comment to a claimant who has received a DWP letter wrongly stopping a Universal Credit claim: “It’s a letter that has been sent out because it has been closed down wrongly and the system has done it. Sometimes they do shut themselves down and we have to rebuild it. In the meantime it is done manually.”
The undercover reporter witnessed 9 separate system failures. Dispatches quoted a PCS union survey which said that 9 out of 10 members questioned had said the IT was not up to the job. The DWP’s reply was that only 13% of the 2,700 people working on UC responded to the union survey.
The DWP spokesman said:
“At the beginning of February 2015 we deployed a planned upgrade which impacted the service for 3 days and has since had no issues. This upgrade resulted in an improved performance, up to 37 times faster.
“None of the examples of IT issues related specifically to UC and on the rare occasion a problem occurs it is fixed as a matter of urgency. We have robust checks in place to ensure payments are made correctly and on time.”