Universal Credit chiefs have drawn up plans to let private firms run a string of benefit phone lines.
Up to seven hotlines are in line to be outsourced from May 2022 under a planned “strategic contract”, according to a message to Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) staff obtained by the Mirror.
They include Universal Credit general enquiries, “initial evidence interviews” to help confirm claimants’ identities, and a “triage” system for people applying for an advance payment.
It’s thought many of the services involved were already outsourced to Serco during the coronavirus pandemic, to free up the DWP’s in-house staff to work on claims.
But staff have now been told of plans to put this on a permanent footing from next year.
The plans were contained in a union briefing to members at the DWP and leaked by a concerned staff member.
The staff member voiced fears that giving more of a role to private firms could make it harder for poor families to get an advance.
An insider also slammed the timing, saying: “To use a global pandemic where people have been impoverished and dying as cover for outsourcing is just despicable.”
In the message to its DWP members seen by the Mirror, the PCS union said it was “utterly opposed” to the plans and will be fighting them with management.
It raised fears outsourcing will lead to “inferior terms and conditions” for staff, be more expensive for taxpayers long-term, and lower the quality of crucial Universal Credit work by raising staff turnover.
The union also warned of “costly and long delays” that happened when a UC computer system was outsourced previously.
The message added: “It is our firm belief that the continuation of this programme of outsourcing will further damage the fabric of the DWP and its ability to undertake its function of service to the public in the long term.
“We call for urgent talks to agree a better, more efficient long-term plan for this work.”
PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said: “The government should not be allowing private firms to profit from the misery of claimants struggling to make ends meet during a pandemic.
“The only explanation for this cash grab is greed and Ministers wanting to reward their friends in the private sector at the expense of our members and claimants.
“It is completely unacceptable, and we demand that this proposal is scrapped.”
Labour ’s Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Jonathan Reynolds added: “The Conservatives have clearly not learnt the lessons of the past. Outsourcing and bare bones public services will not secure our economy.”
The DWP’s workload has exploded after the number of Universal Credit claimants doubled to around 6million due to Covid.
The department already “borrowed” 3,000 staff from Capita, Serco and other government departments between April and August last year, according to the National Audit Office.
Officials also set a target to double the number of in-house Jobcentre work coaches to 27,000 by last month.
The DWP clarified that the Initial Evidence Interview (IEI) phone line was first outsourced in 2016.
But general enquiries and advance payments lines were first outsourced in July 2020 – and that will now become permanent.
A DWP spokesperson said: “We are focused on helping the UK build back better and getting people back on their feet. That is why we have hired 13,500 new Work Coaches to help support more people than ever before.
“During the pandemic, we expanded our call centre services to ensure we could deliver on the unprecedented increase in Universal Credit claims. This worked and 9 out of 10 claims were processed on time.
“Some contracts will remain outsourced so we can continue to focus our efforts on helping the country recover.”