Universal Credit staff vote to strike over 'inadequate' IT systems

Universal Credit staff have voted for a two-day strike, citing problems with the projects' IT systems among their grievances.

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Universal Credit employees have voted to go on a two-day strike over inadequate IT systems and what they describe as an “increasingly oppressive working environment”.

Staff in Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) centres in Glasgow and Bolton voted by 84 percent to go on strike over the troubled project, which aims to merge six working-age benefits into one.

The Public and Commercial Services union has about 1,500 members across the two sites, representing over 80 percent of all staff, according to a spokesman.

Staff at the contact centres are responsible for taking calls from claimants, answering online enquires and processing claims.

Their demands include “proper investment in IT and training”, an end to the “excessive target culture” and a “fundamental rethink of the new ways of working”.

No dates have been set for any strike action yet but the union is due to meet representatives from the DWP on Thursday 9 July to discuss the employees’ grievances.

The ballot, which closed on 29 June, also saw 90 percent vote for industrial action short of a strike, for example a ban on working overtime. The turnout was 56 percent of all PCS members within the centres.

Despite the sizeable proportion of employees that voted to go on strike at the two centres, a DWP spokesman insisted the overall feedback from Universal Credit staff is "their training is effective" and "they feel supported and confident". The department added it will "ensure that the Universal Credit service continues to run smoothly" if the strike does go ahead.

A DWP spokesman said:

“We are in on-going constructive discussions with PCS and no industrial action has been announced.

“The overall feedback from Universal Credit staff is their training is effective and more importantly, they feel supported and confident in delivering this major welfare reform. In the event of any strike action the Department will ensure that the Universal Credit service continues to run smoothly.”

In March a poll conducted by the PCS union found 90 percent of Universal Credit staff believe IT systems for the scheme are “less than adequate”.

There is mounting evidence that existing IT systems for Universal Credit are unworkable. An undercover Channel 4 reporter who posed as an adviser trainee in a jobcentre in Bolton in March found Universal Credit IT systems crashed for nine out of 20 days.

The National Audit Office warned in November that systems rely heavily on manual intervention and can only handle a small number of claims.

The DWP is currently following a ‘twin track’ approach of developing existing error-prone systems, but with a view to replacing them with a new digital solution, currently being trialled on first-time single claimants in Sutton and Croydon.

However last month Whitehall watchdog the Major Projects Authority highlighted major problems with Universal Credit in its annual report. 

The programme got an amber/red rating, signifying successful delivery is 'in doubt', the project has 'major risks or issues' in a number of key areas and it needs 'urgent action' to address them.

This was despite the fact Universal Credit was judged to have been ‘reset’ only last year, after it received the same amber/red rating in 2013.

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