Benefits claimants have a new champion who will investigate their complaints about the service they receive, says Gary Vaux
John Hanlon, a former commissioner of the Scottish Care Commission, has been appointed the first independent case examiner (ICE) by the secretary of state for social security.
According to the Department for Work and Pensions, the post holder will be independent of the DWP and “will provide an impartial and thorough investigation of all aspects of complaints about the service received”.
Claimants can approach the ICE direct if they have exhausted the normal complaints process, and will receive a personalised investigation service. This service was introduced in April and handles complaints relating to Jobcentre Plus, the pension service, the disability and carers service, the rent service, debt management and the financial assistance scheme, as well as continuing to provide a service to Child Support Agency customers.
This is a huge task. The ICE will not look at the quality of actual decisions made by the DWP – that is still the remit of the appeals, tribunal and commissioner system. But they will look at the way that a decision is reached and the type of service that the client received. These can be quite difficult to untangle in practice.
For example, a claimant makes a claim for disability living allowance. The DWP “loses” the initial claim form and the accompanying evidence. A fresh claim is made and it takes months to process, as the DWP seeks evidence from the claimant’s GP, who isn’t that knowledgeable about this claimant. Eventually, the claim is refused, based largely on the GP’s evidence.
A tribunal will be the place to argue that the claimant should have the allowance awarded – fresh evidence will be required, and a persuasive case made. At the same time the claimant could use the ICE to complain about the lost evidence, the reliance on the GP’s report and the time taken to resolve the case. Clearly, the two issues are interlinked but it is only the tribunal that can “correct” the benefit decision.
What the ICE can do is award compensation, in line with existing DWP guidelines, as well as do a spot of knuckle-rapping presumably. In addition, they can “identify customer service failures or shortcomings in internal complaints handling and deliver systemic improvements”, according to the DWP.
These tasks also fall within the scope of the parliamentary ombudsman, which claimants can access through their MP. In terms of “clout”, the ombudsman is still seen as the more senior and influential figure, but the advantage of the examiner is that claimants can access him direct. The downside is that they must go through the “normal” complaints process first, usually by complaining to the manager of the office that is handling their claim.
Now that claims are dealt with by various DWP offices (an initial call centre, a benefit processing centre and a local JobCentre Plus office, for example, will all handle an incapacity benefit claim) it can often be difficult for the claimant to know whom to complain to. It is hoped that the examiner will take a pragmatic and non-bureaucratic approach in assisting claimants follow their complaint through to its conclusion.
Anyone who has worked on the advice frontline in recent years will also appreciate that two of the biggest areas of concern for claimants has been tax credit administration and delays in housing benefit. Neither of these falls within the scope of the ICE, which is unfortunate.
So I think we can give a guarded welcome to John Hanlon and his team of examiners and wish them well as they take on what seems already to be a gargantuan task.
Gary Vaux is head of money advice, Hertfordshire Council. He is unable to answer queries by post or telephone. If you have a question to be answered please e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article appeared in the 3 May issue under the headline “Will the independent case examiner be frozen out?”