Work and Pensions Committee - Universal Credit implementation: meeting the needs of vulnerable claimantsWritten evidence submitted by AdviceUK

AdviceUK’s response to the Committee’s inquiry addresses the following questions.

The proposed arrangements for claims and payments and the provision of support and advice for claimants, including the presumption of a predominantly online, self-service claims process; monthly payment to one person in the household; and arrangements for providing telephone and face-to-face support and independent advice for claimants who need it.


Impact monitoring: what the DWP’s priorities should be for monitoring the impact of the transition to Universal Credit.

1. Introduction

1.1 AdviceUK is a membership organisation with around 860 members. Our members work in some of the poorest parts of England, Scotland and Wales, helping people to solve social welfare problems, providing advice and legal support to over two million people a year.

1.2 Our membership is broad, but at its heart are services working in some of the poorest communities of England, Scotland and Wales, reaching parts of the population not covered by other advice services. Our members provide advice across the range of areas of social welfare law. Debt, welfare benefits and housing represent the core provision of most members. They support over two million people a year.

1.3 AdviceUK’s role is to support members to improve the quality and effectiveness of their services and to provide them with a national voice. AdviceUK takes an evidence-based approach to tackling the problems faced by our members and their clients.

1.4 Since 2007, we have worked with advice organisations and local authorities to better understand demand for advice and the pressures faced by advice services from a systems thinking and Vanguard Method perspective.i This method identifies what matters to people who use advice services, and seeks to address the underlying issues and systemic failures that cause people to seek advice. It acts on the drivers of demand to improve effectiveness and efficiency, rather than seeking to ration supply. This work has unearthed important learning about the welfare benefits system and its impact on and interaction with advice services. We have shared our learning with the Department for Work and Pensions.

1.5 Our response to the Committee’s inquiry focuses on two areas:

The proposed arrangements for claims and payments and the provision of support and advice for claimants, including the presumption of a predominantly online, self-service claims process; monthly payment to one person in the household; and arrangements for providing telephone and face to face support and independent advice for claimants who need it


Impact monitoring: what the DWP’s priorities should be for monitoring the impact of the transition to Universal Credit.

1.6 The views expressed are not necessarily representative of the views of all AdviceUK members.

2. Summary

2.1 AdviceUK is very concerned that there is no ongoing liaison with the advice sector regarding the introduction of Universal Credit. AdviceUK is very concerned about this absence and the lack of any advice strategy to accompany the implementation plans for Universal Credit.

2.2 The implementation of Universal Credit is highly likely to produce a spike in demand for independent advice. This has already occurred as a result of the housing changes.

2.3 The capacity of advice services to handle this increased demand is already severely curtailed followed several years of public sector funding cuts and increased competition for grants from charitable trusts and foundations. Capacity will be further reduced by the removal of welfare benefits from the scope of legal aid in April 2013.

2.4 Simplification of the benefits systems and “digital by default” strategy is unlikely to cope with the variety and complexity of need experienced by many users of independent advice services, particularly the most vulnerable.

2.5 The preventable failure generated by benefits administration already accounts for at least a quarter of all preventable demand experienced by advice services. We anticipate that the new system will continue to fail in ways that could be prevented, especially but not exclusively in the transitional arrangements period. Advice and other services will be left to pick up the pieces.

2.6 The implementation of UC (Universal Credit) should provide an opportunity for the DWP to work closely with advice services to ensure systems work first time for people and that learning from advice services is fed back into continual improvement of UC. AdviceUK would be very happy to work closely in developing a virtuous circle with DWP and Jobcentre Plus on this.

2.7 Urgent attention is needed to build the capacity of face to face advice services in particular. Specific provision should be made for the DWP to work together with advice services to address issues arising from transitional arrangements, such as old and new systems operating in parallel to each other.

3. Systemic Failure in Work and Pensions Administration

3.1 The capacity of advice services is limited significantly by levels of systemic failure in public service administration which drive avoidable/preventable demand into advice organisations.

3.2 Our research shows that this typically increases advice demand by around one third and results in advisers having to take on casework to enable clients to navigate the complexity of the system successfully. Advisers themselves face the same repeated failures, taking up further capacity. The primary source of this systemic failure is the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and its agency, Jobcentre Plus (JCP).

3.3 For example:

In Nottingham, our work found that over 30% of demand for advice is the result of preventable systemic failure. 25% of this failure demand is the fault of DWP/JCP.

In Portsmouth, we found that 41% of demand is preventable, with 25% of this caused by the failure of JCP, 10% the Pensions Service and 5% the Disability and Carers Service.

The process for reassessment of claimants entitled to Incapacity Benefit, which has been ongoing since April 2011, is an example of a DWP process which is widely acknowledged to have generated large volumes of preventable demand for advice services, claimants and public services. The poor quality of initial decision making has resulted in many claimants approaching advice services for support and a large proportion of decisions being overturned on appeal. This led to the ongoing Work Capability Assessment Review by Professor Harrington.ii

3.4 The majority of this preventable failure is not caused by the issues that UC seeks to address. It is the result of DWP systems that are not designed “outside-in” from a customer perspective, and so fail to meet the needs of customers. Failing to design against the real demand of DWP customers means that people don’t receive the service they need. Customers then make repeat demands on DWP services and approach the independent advice sector for support. The end result is significant waste and cost both for the Department and the funders of advice services that pick up the pieces for citizens and are unable to provide valuable work to other clients.

3.5 Increasingly, the introduction of technology and the drive to reduce costs has led to “channel-shift” in both central and local government services—withdrawing face-to-face interaction in favour of customer contact centres, digital access gateways and back-office processing centres. Plans for UC are a prime example of this. The received wisdom is that these approaches reduce cost and, indeed, the cost of individual transactions may fall as a result. However, forcing people to make themselves “service-shaped” rather than designing services that are “people-shaped” reduces the ability of those services to respond effectively to the variety and complexity of demand and drives up cost overall: squeezing the balloon in one place merely causes it to bulge in another. One place where the bulge will appear is in demand for independent advice.

3.6 The “digital by default” approach to the implementation of UC will present significant challenges for many advice service users. Lack of access to computers and IT skills, coupled with disability, poor health, language and literacy barriers will cause the system to fail for many people. Advisers will be left to pick up the pieces. The DWP’s research report, Insight to support Universal Credit user-centred designiii noted

“The repeated references to providing help and, if necessary, alternatives, for groups who do not have internet access at home or are not confident internet users.”

3.7 Face to face advice service capacity is needed to provide people with the ability to access and interact with the new system.

3.8 Simplification of the benefits system is a worthy aim of the Government. However, we doubt this will be achieved by the implementation of UC and we do not believe that advice services will experience a reduction in demand for benefits advice as a result. We anticipate a spike in demand as changes are introduced, and people seek independent advice about how they will be affected. We also anticipate that the system will fail to cope with the variation in need and circumstances experienced by claimants. The means-tested, conditionality-based system will have to cope with new claims and changes in circumstances. That will be extremely difficult to achieve via primarily remote on-line and telephone-based access points. When it fails, it will drive more preventable failure into advice services that will be unable to cope.

4. An Alternative Approach—Designing out Failure, Continually Improving UC Systems

4.1 AdviceUK has drawn the attention of DWP to our learning. We have met with Terry Moran (Director General and Chief Operating Officer) and with several other people at a national and local (JCP) level. While the senior level interest has been good, this interest has not been followed through to understanding the implications of our work for frontline service delivery.

4.2 The reform of the benefits system and introduction of UC should be an opportunity to work with the independent advice sector to ensure that new systems work first time for people, that these systems are able to improve, and that capacity exists within advice services to help people navigate the new system.

4.3 DWP could learn from our work. AdviceUK has worked with different partners, including local authorities to pilot approaches that engage advice services in designing out preventable demand.

4.4 In Nottingham, the local authority benefits department worked with advice services to understand customer demand for housing and council tax benefits. A pilot was set up, in which these services worked together to a common purpose that would deliver what mattered to customers:

“Help me to pay my rent and council tax by making a decision and paying the right benefit quickly.”

4.5 A citizen-focused purpose meant staff roles changed. The role of the adviser shifted away from advocacy and negotiation to identifying a potential claim and ensuring that the individual accessed the benefits officer who could make a decision as quickly as possible, and did so with the full information they would need to support their claim. The benefits officer took ownership of the claim and ensured that it was dealt with end-to end, meeting with the customer as required to complete the process, and ensuring s/he understood the decision.

4.6 The results were striking. Mean case processing times reduced immediately from 100 days to 23 days. By the end of the initial pilot period when the new working methods had been embedded, this reduced further to two days (see chart below). And the number of times a case had to be “touched” reduced from over 25 to five and ultimately to two.

4.7 The authority and advice services are working to roll out the approach more widely and build their learning into core service planning. The final goal is that the benefits service is enabled to meet customer need without the need for intervention by advice services.

4.8 This approach could be used to inform the pathfinder-led rollout of UC, enabling the learning from advice services to be fed into system design and improvement. For this to happen, urgent attention must be given to working with advice providers and networks and building the capacity of the sector.

5. The Capacity of the Advice Sector

5.1 We have major concerns about the absence of specific advice provision in the Government’s plans for the implementation of UC, particularly in a context of reduced funding for advice services. We predict a considerable increase in demand for advice as a result of the introduction of UC, and believe that the advice sector will be unable to cope with this. As a result, people will suffer hardship as they fail to navigate the new maze of benefit regulations.

5.2 Demand for advice has risen to record levels since the start of the economic crisis in 2008. 78% of AdviceUK members reportiv that demand has increased by 10% or higher in the last 12 months. Demand far outstrips supply: Pleasance et al (2010)v found that 36% of the UK population had a civil justice problem but fewer than half manage to access advice.

5.3 Since the inception of the Government’s deficit reduction plan, pressure on funding for advice has increased. With local authorities as a primary source of income, independent advice providers are directly exposed to the squeeze on the public purse. In 2011,vi 95% of AdviceUK members reported cuts in funding averaging £34,000 and were anticipating deeper cuts next financial year. 70% were cutting services. Whilst the Legal Services Commission is not the primary source of funds for AdviceUK members, the removal of welfare benefits advice from the scope of legal aid from April 2013 will further exacerbate the limited capacity of the sector to meet demand, particularly as welfare and benefit systems are being reformed.

16 August 2012


i AdviceUK has worked closely with Vanguard Consulting who have pioneered the application of Systems Thinking using “Vanguard Method” based on the work of W Edwards Deming in UK service organisations. For more information see Vanguard Home Page

ii Work Capability Assessment independent review, see page on DWP website

iii Insight to support Universal Credit user-centred design, Monique Rotik and Luke Perry, Department for Work and Pensions Research Report No 799, 2012

iv Online member survey, December 2011. Based on 60 responses, 79% are from members based in England.


vi Online members survey (see note above re response rates)

Prepared 21st November 2012