Employees at Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) centres in Bolton and Glasgow will strike on 20 and 21 July over inadequate IT systems and what they describe as an “increasingly oppressive working environment”.
The voted by 84 percent to strike over the implementation of the troubled project, which aims to merge six working-age benefits into one. PCS represents over 80 percent of staff at the two sites, about 1,500 individuals in total.
At a meeting with the DWP last Thursday, the union put forward last-minute proposals to “provide the cover they [DWP] need but maintain flexibility for staff” but they were rejected by the department, a spokesman told ComputerworldUK.
The dispute is primarily over attempts to introduce new conditions, including fixed start and finish times and restrictions on flexible working.
The employees’ 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”. Staff at the contact centres are responsible for taking calls from claimants, answering online enquires and processing claims.
The ballot, which closed on 29 June, saw 90 percent also 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. The union said it has not ruled out balloting members at Universal Credit sites in Bangor, Basildon, Dundee, Makerfield and Middlesbrough.
PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said: "The introduction of universal credit has been a textbook example of how not to reform essential public services, and the DWP's handling of every aspect of it has been disastrous.
"These harsher working conditions must be withdrawn, they simply heap more pressure on staff who have battled against poor IT, inadequate training and a lack of resources."
Despite the sizeable proportion of employees that voted to go on strike at the two centres, last week a DWP spokesman insisted the overall feedback from Universal Credit staff is "their training is effective" and "they feel supported and confident".
The department promised it will "ensure that the Universal Credit service continues to run smoothly" during the strike.
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.