When the Benefits Agency was killed off, we were told that the Department for Work and Pensions would get it right this time round. Benefits delivery would be handled by three new bodies: Jobcentre Plus (for all working age claimants), the Pensions Service and the Disability and Carers Service.
But after a year of the new structure, benefits administration is probably at its worst level for many years. And the faults are spread evenly across all the new bodies.
The errors made by the Inland Revenue in the administration of tax credits are already a matter of public record (“Now you see it,” page 40, 6 May). The IR is the wrong body to handle benefits for low-income people with fluctuating circumstances. In the world of stable annual incomes and constant family relationships, the IR could just about cope. But in cases where tax credits are most essential, the IR’s approach to income maintenance falls flat on its face.
On the other hand, Jobcentre Plus is making what it sees as improvements in the “work for those who can” target. But what about the “security for those who can’t [work]” target? Routine benefits administration is falling down in many parts of the country. For example, I have been told privately that the service offered to 16 and 17 year olds who claim benefits is “no better than atrocious”, with untrained staff making inconsistent and unjustified decisions over severe hardship claims.
Recent research commissioned by the DWP found that “many customers feel that they have little power in the relationship with Jobcentre Plus, that they are not treated and respected as individuals and that their views and opinions carry little weight”. A House of Commons public accounts committee report found that 57 per cent of incapacity benefit decisions that were challenged at appeal were overturned in the claimants’ favour.
The Disability and Carers Service did even worse in the same report – 62 per cent of disability living allowance decisions were reversed at oral appeal hearings. The report said that almost half of all DLA decisions could not be justified by evidence that the decision-makers had on file. Even with new, allegedly simpler claim forms for attendance allowance and DLA, welfare rights staff from around the country are reporting that standards of decision-making are falling.
This is true as far as the Pensions Service is concerned. Setting up a new service at the same time as introducing pension credit was always going to be difficult. The problems stem from a lack of experienced, trained staff. In a recent letter, a customer service manager admitted to me that: “Some staff on the telephones do not have sufficient knowledge of pension credit to answer customer queries.” Not surprising really, as around 80 to 90 per cent of the staff in some of the PC centres were new recruits to benefits administration.
Errors on pension credit cases, involving carers and disabled pensioners in particular, are so widespread that there are grounds for demanding that the Pensions Service does a trawl of all negative decisions to uncover cases decided wrongly. Until then, I would make a presumption of error in such cases individually.
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 write to him c/o Community Care.