Why it can be difficult to talk shop

Neil Bateman on why benefits staff are cagey when dealing with
clients’ claims via advisers.

Often when trying to sort out problems with disability living
allowance, the DSS (now Department for Work and Pensions) has
refused to speak to me. What should I do?

To have someone on the other end of the phone refuse to speak to
you when all you are trying to do is help sort out a problem for a
customer is really frustrating. It can come across as
obstructiveness but is more likely to be a member of the benefits
staff feeling nervous about disclosing details over the phone.

They do receive a huge number of bogus phone calls – often from
debt collectors posing as social workers or as Department for Work
and Pensions (formerly the DSS)staff – and this makes for
particular problems. It may well be a criminal offence to behave in
such a way, the difficulty is tracking down people who do this sort
of thing.

With disability living allowance and attendance allowance
claims, things are even more difficult as the centralisation of
benefits administration means that staff do not get to know local
social care staff and advice workers.

Administrative failure also plays a part – not recording
representatives’ details, and inconsistent approaches to
information disclosure are well-recorded examples.

As a result of representations by advice agencies the old DSS
issued new guidelines (DLA/AA bulletin no 10/01) to their staff
about communicating with representatives who are dealing with
attendance allowance and disability living allowance cases. The new
guidelines cover social workers, welfare rights workers and other
representatives, including doctors and relatives.

The key point is to get authorisation in writing. This is now
almost certainly a basic data protection requirement and is best
practice. How many social workers would give out information about
customers to third parties without seeing any written

My own preferred approach is for the customer to sign a standard
declaration giving consent to act to all staff in an organisation.
This covers difficulties which can arise when particular named
staff are absent. So an action point would be to get your
organisation to draft a standard consent form which can be used to
cover all benefits and which is completed by all customers at the
start of their contact with the organisation.

It is of course a chore to have to get written authorisation,
especially when so much business is now done by phone, but it is
the preferred approach and the consent form should be regarded as
basic essential paperwork. The authorisation can of course be faxed
to the disability benefits centre in urgent situations.

Benefits staff are now required to record details about the
representative and keep them informed of progress on the matter.
This includes any claim, supersession or revision request or

The authorisation will last until the dispute is resolved and
the instructions to benefits staff are that they should remove the
details from the customer’s records 12 weeks after the matter is
concluded. If you want the authority to last longer, make this
clear in the written consent.

If you phone, you may be asked questions to verify your identity
from the details held on file – another reason to keep hold of a
copy of the consent form. You should also be phoned back before
being given any details of benefit entitlement.

Despite this clear guidance, things can still go wrong but there
should be no reason for your access to a customer’s benefit details
to be blocked.

A formal complaint, referring to the DLA/AA bulletin number
would be well in order if your access is still blocked despite
complying with the written consent requirement.

It is of course an essential part of everyday social work that
staff can access customers’ benefit records in order to sort out
disputes and administrative failures and now at least we know the
rules that benefits staff should be abiding by.



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