Vital letters that tell disabled people they have to transfer to the government’s new disability benefit are being lost in the system, leading to them losing financial support for months on end, according to a whistleblower.
Rebecca*, who has asked to remain anonymous, works for Serco, the company paid by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to run the helpline that deals with all new claims for personal independence payment (PIP).
Rebecca has told Disability News Service (DNS) that she believes the missing letters are probably the result of the “appallingly bad” PIP CS software designed for DWP by another private sector outsourcing giant, Hewlett Packard Enterprise (motto: Tomorrow Belongs to the Fast).
Her evidence backs up the testimony of Patricia Sadowski, a single mother with six-year-old twins, who told DNS last week how DWP stripped her of her disability living allowance (DLA) – which she had been granted through a lifetime award – after missing the deadline to apply for PIP.
DWP has told Sadowski that it sent her a letter last November, telling her she had just 28 days to make a PIP claim, and then another letter six weeks later, three days before Christmas, to remind her that if she did not put in a PIP claim her DLA would be terminated.
She says she did not receive either of the letters. Her DLA was then stopped when she failed to submit a claim for PIP.
Rebecca said her experiences on the PIP helpline back up Sadowski’s claim that she did not receive the letters.
She said: “Applicants often complain after being sent reminders that they didn’t get the original letter telling them to apply for PIP.
“Others don’t even get the reminder, and only learn that they need to take action when their DLA payments suddenly stop.
“A cynic might suggest that this is part of a systematic scheme to reduce the number of claimants, but it’s just as likely to be down to incompetence, for the computer software used by the DWP is a disgrace.”
She added: “Up until around two months ago, complaints about circulars not being received were routine.”
She said the situation “seems to have improved since then”, but she said she feared the problems could soon re-emerge, because several thousand letters were due to be sent out this week, telling existing DLA claimants that they have to apply for the new PIP.
PIP, which is gradually replacing working-age DLA, has been mired in controversy, delays and backlogs ever since its launch in April 2013.
And in February, new DWP figures revealed that only two-thirds (68 per cent) of PIP claimants were satisfied with the service they received from DWP, compared with an average of 82 per cent across all 10 benefits surveyed.
Rebecca said the software designed by Hewlett Packard – part of an IT contract with DWP reportedly worth half a billion pounds a year – is so poor that at least once a month Serco staff are unable to process claims coming through on the helpline and have to tell callers to ring again, because of problems with the computer system.
At one point late last year, the system was down for an entire day, meaning staff on the helpline were unable to process around 4,000 calls to the helpline.
Last month, another serious fault with the system meant that it was down for half a day.
Rebecca said software flaws mean that even after a disabled person – either someone trying to transfer to PIP from old-style DLA, or someone who has not previously claimed either benefit – has contacted the helpline to make a new PIP claim, the system could fail to send them the PIP2 application form they needed to fill out.
This can happen if bank details are not typed in capital letters, if address lines are too long, if there is more than one space in a telephone number, or if there are commas in an address.
Rebecca said: “If the operator doesn’t notice the submission has failed (and it’s very easy to miss) the claim stays on the system indefinitely, or until the claimant rings up enquiring about the missing PIP2 form.
“By this time of course, your claim for PIP may have run out of time, which means it will be disallowed.”
She added: “Looking at PIP CS, one imagines it was written by junior staff, or developers who are not very good, or simply don’t care about the quality of the product.
“So-called enhancements invariably break other parts of the system, leading to a great deal of time-consuming manual work.”
Serco has confirmed to Disability News Service that there have been occasions when its staff have been unable to use the PIP computer system and so cannot process PIP claims and have had to ask callers to ring again at another time.
Despite this confirmation from Serco, a spokesman for Hewlett Packard Enterprise said: “Hewlett Packard Enterprise does not recognise these allegations.
“We have a long history of providing quality IT products and services to our UK government customers: we always work closely with our clients to ensure that the services we provide support their policy requirements and respond quickly to any incidents raised.”
DWP also insisted that there were no problems with the PIP computer system and that it was “working as it should”.
When the Serco statement was forwarded to the DWP press office, a DWP spokesman said there was no need to change its own statement, but added: “Like all systems, at times there may be delays due to maintenance upgrades or other issues, the causes of which are identified and resolved as quickly as possible.
“As Serco points out, the delays in this case have not affected the ability for claimants to call in, and all of those claims were processed as soon as the systems came back online.”
He said that staff training includes “clear instructions” on how to “record information in a specific format”.
He said: “When taking a PIP claim, staff are required to check whether each claim has been successfully submitted.
“They do this using the PIP computer system and the requirement to do this for every claim is covered in training. There is also a clear process for resolving any issues.
“Once a PIP claim has been made, the claimant is advised to contact DWP if they have not heard anything after three weeks.
“DWP also receives daily reports from the system administrator on any failed notifications. These are marked as requiring further action by DWP’s operations team.”
The DWP spokesman added: “Our mailing system clearly shows if a letter has not been issued due to a processing error.
“After checking the system, we can confirm that a letter inviting [Patricia Sadowski] to apply for PIP was issued on 13/11/2015.
“A reminder letter was issued on 28/11/2015 as there was no response to the initial letter.”
*Not her real name