Hi, my name is Mike and I am a Universal Credit adviser with Citizens Advice Wokingham. I haven’t been here very long — I was made redundant last September, and spent a while to reassess what I was looking for in the future. One thing I was certain of was that I wanted to be doing something that would directly help others to solve their problems. Eventually, in February this year I applied to be a volunteer assessor with Citizens Advice Wokingham. Following some excellent training in March, I started as an assessor in April — initially observing and being observed, but soon I was let loose on unsuspecting members of the general public.
At about the same time, Citizens Advice were beginning the Universal Credit Help to Claim project — a national scheme funded by DWP aimed at helping clients who, for whatever reason, are finding claiming Universal Credit difficult. At Wokingham, this takes a couple of forms — the first being a dedicated day of face to face support at our nearby Woodley office. The second was to provide someone to support the national telephone and webchat service — for which a person needed to be recruited. I heard about this at one of the first development days that I attended, and thought that this was something I could do. I applied for the job, and was lucky enough to be successful at interview.
I started at the end of May, and it has definitely been a very rapid learning curve — including lots of reading and research around all of the various rules concerning Universal Credit — including when not to apply because other benefits are more suitable.
I am now working 2 days a week — Mondays at our Wokingham office, mainly focused on providing the Webchat and phone support, and Tuesdays at our Woodley office where we offer face to face appointments to help clients complete their Universal Credit claim and also offering drop-in support.
The two days are very different — on Monday I work from 10:30am to 6:30 pm (to make sure I can take calls and webchats from 11:00 to 6:00), and on Tuesday I work from 8:30am to 4:30pm. The one thing both days have in common is that they start with a cup of tea while I am logging in and getting everything I need up and running.
Mondays can be a bit uneven — sometimes with frequent calls or webchats coming in, together with the time needed to write up in Casebook, but sometimes with gaps where I am waiting for a call. These gaps can be quite useful in themselves — I often find myself doing additional research on recent calls or chats where, sometimes I will be answering Universal Credit related queries from assessor and adviser colleagues in the office. Right now, I am writing this — I will try to edit for consistency later, as it’s being done in bits and pieces between calls!
The calls themselves can vary hugely — between quick technical queries to full-blown assessment and benefit checks. Sometimes it is someone calling for information on behalf of someone else — such as a support worker or a psychiatric nurse. I personally find that webchats take the longest to deal with — as getting all of the required information for a benefits check takes a lot longer than over the phone or face to face.
Often when people have been given a bit of information, they are quite happy to make their Universal Credit claims themselves (especially those who come in via Webchat, who are already IT literate). Sometimes though, with some of the more complicated cases, or where people don’t have access to a computer or don’t know how to use one, I will need to refer them for a face to face Help to Claim appointment at their nearest Citizens Advice office. I always try to check up on these cases later, to make sure that the client has been contacted and that a way forward has been identified.
On Tuesdays we have a number of face to face appointments booked — usually to directly help someone to complete the Universal Credit application process, either individually or as part of a couple — when it is very helpful if they both attend! On these days, sometimes I am the “back office” staff member, ready to be consulted by our volunteers during the appointments, and sometimes I meeting the clients myself and go through the claim process with them, or see drop-ins.
The simplest types of case are individual claimants where the client is already IT savvy, and has an email address and mobile phone. Part of the claim process includes the gov.uk Verify system for checking someone is who they say they are. This works best if the client is able to install an app on their mobile phone to take pictures of their ID documents and (in at least one case I have dealt with), a selfie to compare with the passport photo. This can be quite tricky — in one case we found that we had to turn off the office lights and open the blinds to get a clear picture of the passport photo page — there was too much glare from the overhead light!
The very nature of our Help to Claim service though is such that we mainly get the more difficult cases — often clients who don’t have access to a computer, or who aren’t confident with IT. In these cases we have to start right from the beginning, in helping the client to create an email address and sometimes operating the computer ourselves, whilst showing the client how it works. Obviously we can also offer people ongoing support beyond initially making their claim, but this would be as part of our general advice services rather than the specific Help to Claim service.
In addition to the support I can offer, all of our volunteers are able to help clients with Universal Credit claims — although for some this is a new field for them, so I am looking to help put some training together with our Advice Services Manager and Training Manager so that UC becomes a bit more familiar. At the moment we are only dealing with new claimants and “natural” migration — where a change of circumstances means a client has to move to Universal Credit. Soon though it is likely that the DWP will start a broader roll-out of “managed” migration — where claimants on legacy benefits will have to move to UC. When this happens, I expect the demand for our service will increase significantly, so it may well be a case of “all hands on deck” for UC during this time.
Overall, I definitely think that I made the right decision to come to Citizens Advice, as every day is different, every day I am learning something new and every day I feel that I am helping to make a difference in someone’s life.
To find out more information about Citizens Advice Wokingham and opportunities to support us, visit www.citizensadvicewokingham.org.uk