Midlothian MP Danielle Rowley raised a point of order in the Commons last week over the DWP’s continued failure to release the ‘deflection scripts’ issued to Universal Credit helpline operators.
Ms Rowley used an FoI request to ask for the scripts mentioned by a whistleblower call handler in a Sky News report in October. But the DWP response denied any such scripts existed, while admitting there are “certain agent-led processes” and “supportive lines available”.
Despite lodging an appeal against the response on November 26, and with FoI rules stating that the target date for a response is normally within 20 working days, no further clarification of those “agent-led processes” and “supportive lines” has come.
Ms Rowley said: “I don’t think the department should be able to use semantics to wriggle out of providing the documents. If there are ‘supportive lines’ then that is what most people would call a script. I requested a review of the response, and I asked if I could be provided with these materials.
“Even accounting for the Christmas period, the 20 working days deadline has been and gone with no further reply. Once again, the response from the DWP to questions about deflection tactics used against sometimes vulnerable claimants has been more deflection.
“If, as an elected member, this is the sort of difficulty I can have getting a straightforward answer to a simple inquiry, it is all too easy to imagine the sort of problems callers to the Universal Credit helpline might be having. The UC rollout has been an unmitigated disaster – the least the DWP owes those affected is to answer their legitimate questions courteously. If they cannot be candid about this, just what are they hiding?”
Universal Credit Full Service allows customers to contact the DWP online through their personal account.
A Department for Work and Pensions spokesperson said: “There is no policy to get callers off the phones. Our call handlers help people with their enquiries, regardless of how long they take.”
South Scotland list MSP Michelle Ballantyne, Scottish Conservatives spokesperson for social security, added: “I hope Ms. Rowley appreciates the impact that statements like hers can have. There is nothing to suggest that the DWP are using scripts. Last week I went to the Dundee JobCentre Plus and spoke to a range of DWP staff there, including work coaches. Even they confirmed that they do not use scripts.
“I’d encourage the Midlothian MP to have a closer look at how Universal Credit works. The flexibility of the system is designed to make sure the system caters to individual people and because of that a blanket script simply wouldn’t work.
“All Ms Rowley is doing is discouraging people who need to access Universal Credit from doing so.
“Last week, the UK Government made considerable changes to UC to make sure that it works for everyone. If Labour have any meaningful contributions regarding how we can make our benefits system more effective then I welcome that, however, needless scaremongering such as this does nothing to further that conversation.
“I hope that Ms Rowley will be more careful in the future when making sweeping statements and the impact these can have.”