Remembering the Week...

Remembering the Week...

28th May 2024

Remembering the Week Everyone Hated Us

by Derek Mitchell, CAS Chief Executive.

This article was first published in The Herald on 25 May 2024.

Just over five years ago I was having crisis management meetings with our Comms team. CAS was experiencing our first ever twitter pile-on!

We’re used to having a public image as the good guys, so it was a bit of a shock to see real anger and disappointment all over our social media. How did we come to such an unpleasant pass? Let me explain.

In early 2019 the UK government introduced a new social security benefit - Universal Credit (UC). It was supposed to make everything simpler. But in practice, bluntly, UC is not that easy to claim. For one thing, it can be claimed online and via the telephone, particularly challenging for those who are vulnerable or can’t use the internet. And even for those who can, the process is quite complex.

So that spring CABs all over the UK were overwhelmed by people seeking help just to make their claim. We reported this to the government and a decision was made by them to provide specific funding that was dedicated just to helping people claim UC. Thus our ‘Help to Claim’ (HTC) project was born.

All very sensible, right? But you can never under-estimate the ability of people to take things the wrong way. Some saw this ‘CAS/DWP alliance’ as a gross betrayal of our brand and integrity. How dare we ‘take the devil’s shilling’? We’d ‘sold out.’

But to me, the situation was very straightforward: there were people desperate for help; we needed more resources to deliver that help; the government offered us those resources. We weren’t going to say No and leave all those people suffering. 

What our critics failed to realise was that we’d made absolutely sure that the funding agreement guaranteed our complete independence and freedom to go on calling out the failings in UC – and in government policy in general. And if you look at our public statements since 2019 (not least right here in this column) we’ve repeatedly criticised the size of the UC payment; we were very critical of the £20 cut from UC after the pandemic; and we’ve consistently argued for the abolition of the 5 week wait between claim and first payment. One ‘win’ I’m particularly proud of is scrapping the premium rate phone number that cost people a fortune to call.

Throughout all this fire and fury, our HTC advisers have been working hard behind the scenes, quietly helping people, case by case, every day, to claim the money they’re entitled to but were struggling to access.

Over the five years HTC has helped over 70,000 such people in Scotland, helping them access a total of £123 million. That’s food on the table, radiators turned on, rent paid, stress reduced.

Judging from a distance is always better than instant knee-jerk responding. The brief twitter storm was unpleasant but fleeting. As always, we just rolled up our sleeves, got our hands dirty and did something. In this way we not only helped all those people but we also developed a strong evidence base that we use to challenge the DWP to provide a better customer-focused service.

Or should we have told those 70,000 people and their families, ‘No we can’t help you because the funding is from the wrong source?’ I’ll let you decide.