News : Benefits Staff on Strike in ‘Oppressive' Universal Credit Call Centres
London, UK, July 20, 2015 -- Benefits call centre staff are on strike today - just as MPs vote for a brutal new round of welfare cuts.
Around 1,300 Universal Credit workers are walking out for 48 hours in fury at the 'oppressive' culture under Tory welfare reforms.
They've complained of staff shortages, poor training and at least £40m 'squandered' on IT that wasn't used as the flagship scheme is rolled out across Britain.
And there could be more to come as Tory and Labour MPs face off over the fresh £12bn round of cuts in the Commons.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has put in a contingency plan today which will 'prioritise' the most vital payments, like housing benefit, to ensure the system doesn't collapse.
But reps for the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) - who gained an 84% vote for the strike - say they've been ignored by DWP chiefs.
PCS officer Charles Law told Mirror Online: "The staffing levels are too low, the training is too poor and the the IT isn't fit for purpose.
"The arrangements for flexi-time have been torn up and new very restrictive practices are going to be put in their place. Our members see that as the final straw.
"The employer has failed to recognise they've got a problem. They've insisted on telling us everyone's okay and happy.
"We don't want to be on strike and we don't want to cause disruption for Universal Credit claimants.
"But we've been left with no choice."
The call centre staff in Bolton and Glasgow are in charge of helping people who've experienced hitches in the Tories' welfare reforms over the phone.
The strike could spread to other Universal Credit service centres in Bangor, Basildon, Dundee, Makerfield and Middlesbrough, union bosses say. Turnout in the vote was 56%.
Today's walkout will be followed by an overtime ban running until August 18.
The union claims the Department for Work and Pensions isn't giving the scheme enough resources and has performed a 'massive scaling back' of flexible working hours.
General secretary Mark Serwotka said: "The introduction of universal credit has been a textbook example of how not to reform essential public services.
"The DWP's handling of every aspect of it has been disastrous."
It's the latest in a string of blows to Iain Duncan Smith's bid to roll a package of benefits into one 'simple' payment.
The cost of rolling out Universal Credit is an eye-watering £16bn and will now take 9 years , a watchdog report found last month.
Huge costs include £40m which was spent on computer code which then wasn't used - with officials admitting in 2013 it'd end up having 'no value'.
And a PCS survey earlier this year found 90% of staff still had concerns the IT system wouldn't be good enough.
A think tank has also picked holes in the welfare reform itself, saying cracks in the system will leave some people not wanting to look for work .
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And one undercover reporter in the Bolton call centre, where workers are now going on strike, said he was told not to mention an emergency fund unless callers asked about it .
A trainer was recorded telling him: "It's a bit like Fight Club - we don't discuss what happens in Fight Club.
"So you don't talk about flexible support fund either."
The DWP said "only a small minority" of universal credit workers will go on strike, and that "plans are in place to ensure the smooth running of the service and to prioritise payments and priority tasks like housing benefit to ensure a good service to claimants is maintained".
A DWP spokesman said: "Universal credit is already transforming lives with people moving into work faster and staying in work longer
"Only a small minority of universal credit workers will be taking part in strike action. The fact is staff are already administering universal credit in almost 50% of Jobcentres, and feedback shows they feel supported and confident in delivering this major welfare reform."
Posted by Veronica Silva Cusi, news correspondent
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About Universal Credit:
Universal Credit is a welfare benefit launched in the United Kingdom in 2013 to replace six means-tested benefits and tax credits: Jobseeker’s Allowance, Housing Benefit, Working Tax Credit, Child Tax Credit, Employment and Support Allowance and Income Support.
Published: Tuesday, July 21, 2015
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