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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