Disabled people have described how “disgraceful” and stressful waiting-times on a benefit enquiry line are now regularly lasting as long as 90 minutes.
The minister for disabled people, Tom Pursglove (pictured), admitted last month that the average waiting time for the personal independence payment (PIP) telephone enquiry line in March was 37 minutes.
But claimants have told Disability News Service (DNS) that they are facing “exhausting” waits that are more than twice as long as that, and are also having to cope with malfunctioning software that cuts them off as they try to navigate DWP’s automated voice-response technology.
Courtney Hodgkiss, from Islington, north London, was on hold for about 80 minutes while she waited for a conversation about her PIP claim that lasted just three minutes.
When she finally got through, she was told she had not needed to call because DWP had wrongly told her she needed to repay a PIP overpayment.
She said: “I am a disabled woman with a decent amount of support behind me, emotionally.
“What I don’t have is the ability to spend my entire morning on hold to a service that is barely functional at best.
“I have to work – incidentally as a peer support worker helping vulnerable people in the community to get PIP. If this is my experience, as the ‘expert’, what is theirs?”
She added: “I left that morning of phone hold stamina feeling angry, frustrated, worried, upset (yes, I cried), unappreciated and most importantly like I was being punished.
“I can’t tell you how this phone system is just another cog in the wheels of us being made to feel responsible for our disability and embarrassed for asking for help.
“I’ve no doubt this is intentional and meant to dissuade claimants from being able to speak to a person (who I’ve mostly found to be polite and kind).”
She has a chronic health condition that is triggered by stress, and the experience caused a flare-up of that condition.
She told DNS: “I’d like to dedicate this flare to [former work and pensions secretary] Therese Coffey and the legacy of the PIP phone system she left in place when she went to tell farmers how to do the jobs they’ve been doing their entire life.”
Because of her slow reflexes – she has cerebral palsy and epilepsy – Mary* often spends half an hour just trying to get through the automated security process on the PIP enquiry line.
She then has to wait for as long as 90 minutes to speak to a DWP adviser.
She told DNS: “It’s a real nightmare, and it’s a lottery if you get through to someone who understands what you’re talking about.
“I am now trying to avoid phoning DWP unless it is absolutely necessary.”
Her most recent call took 10 minutes to get through the system, and then another hour waiting for her call to be answered.
Tess, from Bristol, said they had had to take annual leave to use the PIP enquiry line because the waits were so long.
They said their experiences last summer had seen them phone the line several times about an extension for their PIP renewal, and even then most of the time they were waiting close to or more than an hour to speak to someone.
On a couple of occasions she was cut off and “ended up in tears because you just have to rejoin the queue”.
Others responded on Twitter to last week’s DNS story by describing their own “exhausting” waits.
One claimant, tweeting at @LuminousTribe, said: “I can confirm it’s over an hour every time, as well as so much recorded messages and automated voices requiring responses which make it longer and trigger further anxiety and exhaustion.”
Another claimant, tweeting at @Gordon_McGlone, said: “How about 1.5 hours and being cut off.
“Or again for three hours and not getting through? Ridiculous additional unnecessary stress. #PIP is a deeply flawed system.”
Matt Hunt, assistant co-ordinator at Derbyshire Unemployed Workers’ Centres (DUWC), said the impact of the delays causes “incredible stress” for clients as they wait to speak to a DWP call handler.
DUWC is a small welfare rights organization which runs daily advice sessions across Derbyshire, but he said it is “losing valuable time waiting to get through to the DWP on behalf of our clients”.
He said: “Ever since the pandemic, it has become increasingly difficult to get through, and we are now at the point where it is impacting our ability to support, and advocate on behalf of, our clients.”
One DUWC adviser tried four times over a two-week period to get through to PIP alongside a disabled claimant.
Hunt said: “On the first attempt, the client, who has caring responsibilities, had to leave the advice centre after 90 minutes on hold.
“The next attempt was abandoned after one hour as the advisor had a tribunal they needed to attend.
“On the third attempt, they were cut off after finally being put through to the PIP call handling office after 90 minutes of waiting.
“Finally, on the fourth attempt, they were able to speak to a call handler and escalate the case, after another 90 minutes of waiting.”
In all, it took five-and-a-half hours for a 10-minute phone call.
Hunt said: “Our advisors are frustrated and stymied by the amount of time they spend on hold, when as a service, we are busier than we have ever been.
“In some cases, we have had to instruct clients to contact PIP independently rather than assist them ourselves because of the time we know such a call will take.
“Not being able to help every single person at the point they access our service is antithetical to the values of DUWC and we strongly urge the DWP to get a hold of this situation immediately.”
Sir Stephen Timms, the Labour chair of the Commons work and pensions select committee, said he had received “a number of concerns” about telephone waiting-times across DWP, and asked a parliamentary question about the issue in March, before questioning work and pensions secretary Mel Stride at a committee evidence session later that month (PDF, question 176).
He added: “I have continued, though, to hear concerns about telephone waiting times and that the ‘average wait’ figures don’t reflect some people’s experiences.
“I will continue to pursue this with DWP.”
For the second consecutive week, a DWP spokesperson refused to answer questions about the delays and problems with the PIP enquiry line.
Instead, it issued the following statement, which did not refer to telephone waiting-times: “Reducing customer journey times for PIP is a priority for the department and we are making constant improvements to our service, including expanding dedicated teams and using telephone and video appointments to make the process faster and to deliver a more efficient, user-centred service.”
*Not her real name
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