Cruel and chaotic? No, in the DWP’s fantasy land, universal credit is a huge success | Polly Toynbee

In a visit to a jobcentre, staff told me all was fine. Off the record, others talk of brutal cuts causing starvation and despair

Come with me on an eerie visit, where we step through the looking glass into an alternative universe where everything is as good as can be. You will like it here. Everyone smiles: they only want to help their clients fulfil themselves, nothing bad ever happens here. They love their work. This little utopia is the Middlesbrough jobcentre. As everywhere, they are rolling out universal credit to new claimants or existing “clients” with any change of circumstance. Here they prompt unemployed or underemployed people into work or more work, telling them how many jobs to apply for, what appointments and courses to take, and (whisper it) with what penalties if they fail (“But that’s very, very rare”).

It has taken me all of seven months’ applying to the Department for Work and Pensions to get here – my requests ignored, forgotten or parked, despite regular prodding. Pre-2010 I often sat in with jobcentre staff: but since then, in department after department, visiting any frontline is tortuous. With HMRC, eight years of requests to visit minimum-wage inspectors has yielded nothing – though they have never been outright refused.

Related: Coming soon: the great universal credit deception | Aditya Chakrabortty

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