The Department for Work and Pensions is being urged to launch a recruitment drive for additional staff to help deal with a backlog of payments to people who are newly eligible for their state pension.
Pension payments to thousands of people are understood to have been delayed and the civil service’s biggest union, PCS, has said DWP now needs to start staffing its operations adequately to fix the problem.
Martin Cavanagh, PCS group president at the department, said it was “totally unacceptable” for pensioners to be experiencing stress and financial insecurity because DWP had not hired enough staff.
Cavanagh said issues in the pensions services had become more acute since the government initiated the “state pension correction exercise” to address billions of pounds in underpayments owed to pensioners.
A National Audit Office report in September said the underpayments issue, which first emerged in April last year, affected 134,000 people.
Cavanagh said pensioners and benefit claimants deserved a better level of service than they were currently receiving and called on DWP to urgently recruit staff to ensure the delivery of services to the most vulnerable people.
“Our members have gone above and beyond to deliver vital services to the public in the most difficult of circumstances, yet despite their best efforts, pensioners are being placed at risk of real hardship due to staff shortages,” he said.
“PCS has argued for more permanent staff to be recruited to deliver vital services to some of the most vulnerable in society. Without that investment services will suffer, payments will be delayed and the vulnerable number in society will increase.”
Cavanagh also questioned the logic behind the planned closure of the DWP’s pensions and benefits centre in Cosham, Portsmouth, which he said had put more than 100 staff with many years of experience at processing pensions claims at risk of redundancy.
DWP already has more staff than any other central government department. Last year it embarked on a major hiring drive, increasing its headcount from 80,790 at the end of March 2020 to 93,530 at the end of March this year.
However, a significant number of those new hires were work coaches destined for jobcentres.
A DWP spokesperson apologised for the delays some new customers faced in getting their state pension.
“We have now issued all outstanding payments and are in contact with those customers where more information is required in order to complete processing,” they said.
Earlier this week, BBC News reported that around 4,900 people's pension applications had yet to be processed because extra information was required.
DWP said new claims from today should not be subject to delay. It added that the department had worked hard to clear outstanding claims that occurred because of the Covid pandemic, with hundreds of additional staff being redeployed.
This story was updated at 16:15 on 5 November 2021 to include a DWP response