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Harrogate Jobcentre staff seek to bust Universal Credit 'myths'

Gill Hall, senior operations leader at the Harrogate Jobcentre, with Chris Joyce, customer service leader.
Gill Hall, senior operations leader at the Harrogate Jobcentre, with Chris Joyce, customer service leader.

“We don’t call it that any more,” whispers Harrogate Jobcentre Plus employer and partnership leader Helen Greensit, wincing slightly after hearing the words “signing on”.

Miss Greensit, who has been in the business for 16 years, stressed: “It’s not that. It’s us working together with the claimants.”

Her message is one that is at odds with a certain public perception that Universal Credit (UC) claimants deal with strict, no-nonsense rules – or face sanctions and lose their payments.

According to Government figures, there were 324,433 completed UC sanctions between August 1, 2015 and May 31, 2018.

But the four Jobcentre staff members who spoke to The Yorkshire Post during its series about UC say that is not the culture.

For them, in recent years there has been a concerted effort to create a “community” feel in their facilities, one which helps claimants overcome their issues, rather than impose rules.

“We don’t get people that don’t agree with things, really, because we’re having a conversation. We’re not saying ‘you have to do this, you have to do that’.

“It’s a two-way conversation, it’s not a dictatorship,” said Miss Greensit.

As the district’s senior operations leader Gill Hall sees it, they have “a duty of care”.

On the ground, this manifests itself with an important ‘front-of-house’ team offering help with various issues, often including IT worries – one common criticism of UC is that people struggle to grasp the online aspect inherent to the ‘full service’ benefit, which came to Harrogate a couple of years ago.

New UC claimants are given an introduction session, set up with a work coach, asked what their issues are and forewarned of any responsibilities they will have.

Chris Joyce, customer service leader, agreed that there has been a “stigma” about attending Jobcentres.

But he said: “That’s one of the things we’re trying to address. We don’t want people to feel nervous or anxious”, adding: “We’re creating that environment where people want to come.”

Among other external organisations which are considered crucial to addressing claimants’ holistic needs, mental health services such the NHS’s Improving Access to Psychological Therapies teams visit at least weekly to speak with claimants and advise work coaches.

However some charities such as Mind have, at a national level, been critical of how UC works, reporting that people with some mental health conditions are troubled by its lack of flexibility.

Work coach Vicki Collier insists that Claimant Commitments – conditions agreed between a recipient and Jobcentre – are “extremely tailored”.

In response to anyone who considers them a one-size-fits-all diktat, she said: “I would say that’s a myth that you need to bust.”

Miss Hall was also adamant that sanctions and any halting of payments are “absolutely a last resort and with regret”.