The Department for Work and Pensions has launched a hiring drive for its complaints division to try and tackle a massive backlog of cases, as new figures laid bare the rising delays in the time it takes to deal with complaints.
DWP is advertising for seven investigation case managers to work in the Independent Case Examiner’s Office, which reviews complaints about DWP and its suppliers. The job advert was online as CSW obtained figures showing the office took nearly 20 months to deal with its most serious cases in 2018-19 – five months longer than two years earlier.
The figures, released following an FOI request, shed more light on the department’s admission last month that it had taken 18 months to clear cases in the latter half of 2018-19, partly due to an influx of complaints about changes to the state pension age.
They show that the office took five weeks on average to decide whether to accept a complaint for investigation in 2018-19 – a delay not included in the numbers shared in January. Two years earlier, complaints were being accepted just two weeks after they were submitted.
But the biggest delay came after this point, with people waiting 57 weeks on average for the office to begin an investigation one their complaint had been accepted. The wait time was nearly 50% longer than in 2016-18, when the wait was 40 weeks.
From start to finish, the office took 85 weeks in 2018-19 to pick up a complaint, assign it to a caseworker and complete an investigation, the figures showed. The previous year, the process had taken 76 weeks, up from 66 weeks in 2016-17.
The figures were for the most serious cases, which are sent to the independent case examiner, Joanna Wallace, for adjudication. The delays were less severe in simpler cases that case managers were able to settle themselves – taking around three months less in total.
One likely reason for the lengthy delays is a huge increase in the volume of complaints being submitted. Complaints to the ICEO almost doubled in the space of a year, peaking at 5,885 in 2017-18 – which DWP has attributed largely to a gradual increase in the state pension age for women up to November 2018. This number dropped to 4,824 the following year, but was still significantly above the 2016-17 total of 2,957.
The office only accepts a portion of the complaints it receives, turning away those that concern legislation or that have been submitted prematurely. It only reviews cases that government bodies have been unable to resolve through their internal complaints procedures.
Even so, the number of complaints the office took on in 2017-18 spiked to hit 2,784 – more than double the previous year’s 1,137 – before dropping again to 1,299 in 2018-19.
As well as DWP, the ICEO deals with complaints about the Financial Assistance Scheme, the pension protection and independent living funds, the Northern Ireland Social Security Agency and Northern Ireland's child maintenance enforcement division.
Asked about the delays, a DWP spokesperson said: “We want to make sure people can get the support they are entitled to if they have been treated unfairly."
They said the number of cases going to ICEO was “returning to normal levels” and added: “We are still hiring to get staff numbers up as quickly as we can."
The office’s headcount has already grown by around 10% in the last two years – from 71 to 77 full-time equivalent staff in 2018-19.
The job ad for the latest wave of recruitment says case managers will be responsible for investigating complaints and liaising with DWP and its suppliers to resolve complaints where possible. The will also pass on “the most complex and contentious complaints” – those that suffered the biggest delays last year – to the independent case examiner for adjudication.
The advert warns that the process of investigating complaints “can be lengthy and requires an eye for detail”.
Applications for the executive officer-level jobs closes on 8 March.