Disabled benefit claimants have been facing significant delays with their claims because of pandemic-related issues at Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) mail-handling sites run by one of its contractors, DWP has admitted.
Last month, DWP blamed Royal Mail for any delays and insisted that all documents being sent in by claimants as evidence were being scanned onto the IT system within 24 hours of being received from Royal Mail.
This came despite one disabled woman, who was trying to discover what had happened to her personal independence payment review form, being told by a DWP adviser that claimants’ documents were taking between four and six weeks to be scanned onto the system.
DWP denied this week that the delays were ever as long as four weeks.
But DWP has admitted, in a freedom of information response, that there were problems from 21 July onwards “due to resourcing issues” within its mail opening unit that were “caused by a surge in Covid isolations generated by the NHS App”.
One benefits advice company, Benefit Answers, said that one of its staff was told by a DWP PIP adviser last month of “severe delays with scanning onto the system”.
A Benefit Answers spokesperson said some DWP call handlers were blaming Royal Mail for delays, while others were admitting they were due to COVID problems at DWP’s mail handling sites, which meant it was sometimes taking weeks for evidence to be uploaded onto the DWP system.
DWP’s mail handling unit is run by EQUANS, part of the French multinational utility company ENGIE, at two sites in the West Midlands.
Disability News Service has heard from a DWP staff member who received a DWP-wide memo only last week which warned there had still been a backlog of nearly 26,000 cases on 26 August.
The memo warned DWP staff that, following an earlier update issued on 28 July, the mail opening unit was “still experiencing delays due to resourcing issues” and was “currently working through a recovery plan to deal with the backlog”.
But the memo said that the oldest post being scanned was only three days behind schedule.
DWP claimed in the freedom of information response, dated 8 September, that a recovery plan had been put in place and the mail handling unit was now “fully up to date”.
An EQUANS spokesperson also said the backlog had now been cleared.
She said: “We experienced higher than expected absences due to track and trace isolations across a six-week period from the end of July which resulted in some short delays processing mail.
“Working closely with DWP we agreed a contractual recovery plan.
“The situation is now fully resolved and mail is being processed within 24 hours as per the agreed timescales.”
A DWP spokesperson said: “At no time was there ever a delay of four to six weeks in the department’s mail opening unit and it is meeting contractual obligations to have all DWP post scanned within 24 hours.”
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