Disabled people trying to contact the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to pass on urgent information about their disability benefit claims are facing delays of more than an hour before their calls are answered.
Even when the calls are answered, they are often abruptly cut off before they can pass on the information.
The minister for disabled people, Tom Pursglove, admitted last week that the average waiting time for the personal independence payment (PIP) enquiry line in March was 37 minutes.
He told Labour’s Beth Winter in a written answer that DWP was “experiencing higher than forecast call volumes” and had “recruited additional staff onto our telephony teams and have on-going recruitment to further increase resources”.
Only 15 months ago, the then minister Chloe Smith admitted that average waiting times were about 23 minutes, and she also claimed that call traffic had “increased significantly” and that the department had “deployed additional resources onto the enquiry line”.
Since then, the average waiting-times have grown even longer.
Smith also announced the introduction of new technology that would “improve information for customers when they first call”, simplify the identity and verification process, and “increase call handling efficiency and improve the customer experience”.
There are concerns now that this technology could be partly responsible for the increased delays in the last 15 months.
One disability website described the situation as a “disaster”.
The Benefits and Work advice website is so concerned at the number of its readers who have reported problems that it has called on them to contact the Commons work and pensions select committee to alert MPs to the situation.
Benefits and Work described the situation as “a hell of endless waits and disconnected calls, interspersed with pointless repetition of the same security questions posed by human-like voices”.
It also highlighted delays on the employment and support allowance enquiry line.
Benefits and Work has heard from hundreds of disabled people who are “at a complete loss as to how to contact the DWP”, with some afraid they will face fraud allegations because they cannot pass on a change of circumstances, others fearing losing their PIP because they need an extension of the deadline to return a form, and some desperate to request a review of their PIP award because their support needs have increased.
Some claimants, it says, “are panicking because they can’t meet a deadline given in a DWP text ordering them to call the PIP helpline”.
There were concerns that the introduction of new telephone software – apparently named Conversational Platform – could be contributing to the problems, but DWP said this week that this software had not been introduced.
A DWP spokesperson said in a 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.”
But Beth Winter, MP for Cynon Valley, said: “Almost everyone we speak to reports waiting an hour or more to get through, and often then being cut off without warning.
“Difficulties speaking to DWP advisors is causing unnecessary distress and anxiety among some of the most vulnerable people in the country.
“It is extremely concerning that despite promises from DWP ministers of increases in resources and ‘improvements’ in technology, waiting times to the PIP phone lines have gone up so significantly in the last 18 months.
“If this rotten Tory government really cared about disabled people, they would sort this out as a matter of urgency and set a reasonable target waiting time so that people are not left waiting for extended periods.”
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