Civil servants described to colleagues how they were “ashamed” to work for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) because of the experiences of their own relatives when claiming universal credit, leaked documents have revealed.
The thoughts of DWP civil servants were shared with colleagues on the department’s intranet earlier this year, and they have now been passed to Disability News Service.
In all, three separate civil servants used the DWP intranet in early May to criticise the way their own relatives had been treated while attempting to claim UC.
It comes as Labour has promised to scrap UC if it wins next week’s general election, as has the Green party, while the Conservatives have pledged to “continue the roll-out”, and the Liberal Democrats have said they would try to improve the system.
A DWP staff member who passed the comments to DNS said he wanted the public to know that many of his colleagues did not share the views of Conservative ministers like work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey, who insists that universal credit (UC) “provides a safeguard for the most vulnerable in our society”.
Instead, he said, many of his colleagues were concerned about the flaws in the system, which is gradually being rolled out by the government and has been described as “toxic” by disabled campaigners and linked to “soaring” rates of sanctions and foodbank use in areas where it has been introduced.
The comments were made on the DWP intranet, which is open to all staff members, in response to an update headlined “Universal Credit – the myth busters get to work”, which was posted by a senior member of staff on 2 May.
Soon after the discussion, a DWP memo was leaked to the media and led to widespread outrage when it revealed that the department was planning a national “myth-busting” campaign aimed at dealing with media “negativity and scaremongering” about UC.
The newly-leaked intranet comments appear to show what DWP members of staff really think about UC.
The update had explained how jobcentres had invited local reporters into their offices to “show the reality of the great service we provide within our community”.
But the post drew a scathing response from several staff members over the following week.
One civil servant told colleagues, less than an hour after the original post, that his brother’s experience on UC was “not made up or exaggerated”.
He added: “I was and still am ashamed to work for [a] department that could treat my Brother so poorly. I am sorry to say ‘myth busting’ is another name for propaganda when it comes to Universal Credit.”
His post secured widespread support from colleagues, with 98 of them rating it positively (DWP does not allow staff to rate intranet posts negatively).
He added later: “The truth is UC works for some people and does not/has not worked for others.”
A fellow staff member, responding to the post, said he believed DWP “lets itself down” in the way it responds to stories about UC, because of its “evasive” attitude.
He said: “It’s a bit like someone trying to sell you a three-legged racehorse, and when you point out the obvious, they start talking about its lovely teeth.”
Another DWP member of staff said the department needed “a lot of damage limitation for a lot of damage”, and he added: “And with the best will in the world and the brilliance of our colleagues… it’s still impossible to make a silk purse out of a pigs ear.”
Another DWP staff member then commented on her sister’s “shocking” experience of UC, which had “exacerbated her condition”, following a series of “incredible” errors made by DWP.
She said: “We should never consider damage limitation.
“At the end of the day the claimants can’t be the collateral damage (but they are) whilst the dept gets its act together and goes out on myth busting missions.
“The time has come for total honesty and integrity, it’s the only way forward for staff and claimants.”
A few days later, a third member of staff raised concerns in the intranet discussion about the way a relative had been treated by the UC system.
He said his son’s UC claim had been “handled in an absolutely atrocious manner – impersonal, distressing, frustrating and also at the end of the day causing significant expense and loss to public funds”.
He added: “I too was and am ashamed to have had any connection to the organisation responsible.”
The criticism of UC by staff members continued.
One DWP worker had criticised the film-maker Ken Loach for alleged “bias” in his critically-acclaimed film portrayal of DWP’s “fitness for work” system, I, Daniel Blake.
But a colleague then questioned whether this was “any more extreme than that of a government intranet site which publishes only good news about Universal Credit, treating severely delayed implementation plans and increasing use of food banks as almost an irrelevance?”
Another DWP civil servant added: “The bad experiences of our customers appear to outweigh the good and trying to dress it up or hide the truth is facetious.
“Paying claimants exactly what they are due isn’t something to be celebrated, it should be what is expected.”
But not all DWP civil servants attacked UC in response to the original post.
Some backed DWP’s official position, with one insisting that one “negative experience” did not “undo the copious amounts of work we put in on a daily basis to assist those most in need”.
This staff member insisted that DWP “myth-busting” was not propaganda but was “just publishing the good news stories that usually get swept under the rug in favour of newspaper-selling embellishment of bad stories”.
Another said: “I have had so many customers who have burst into tears with relief at the end of an interview because they have been scared to claim Universal Credit due to the negative myths.”
The DWP staff member who shared the intranet posts with DNS said this week that he had done it to ensure that the people who work in the system “can have their voices heard” and express their concerns about UC.
He said: “Obviously claimants are thinking staff are very removed from them and that we are not that bothered and cannot see the obvious faults with UC, but that’s just not true.
“There are people that work here who have cried foul about UC because it’s crap.
“Maybe the public need to know that so that they don’t think everybody who works here enjoys inflicting the inevitable pitfalls onto people who can’t manage that process or can’t deal with it.”
DWP was asked to respond to the intranet posts but declined to comment.
A note from the editor:
Please consider making a voluntary financial contribution to support the work of DNS and allow it to continue producing independent, carefully-researched news stories that focus on the lives and rights of disabled people and their user-led organisations.
Please do not contribute if you cannot afford to do so, and please note that DNS is not a charity. It is run and owned by disabled journalist John Pring and has been from its launch in April 2009.
Thank you for anything you can do to support the work of DNS…