DWP to overhaul complaints procedure

"Non-priority" complaints will result in letters to "manage customers' expectations", department says
Photo: A3397 Gero Breloer/DPA/PA Images

The Department for Work and Pensions will overhaul its complaints procedure based on a review and lessons learned from the coronavirus crisis, it has said.

DWP will soon move from a two-tiered complaints process to a “priority-led, one-tier approach”, according to its annual report. The change is based on a review that began before the Covid-19 outbreak but has been informer by its response to the pandemic, it said.

As people lost jobs due to the coronavirus crisis, the department was forced to change its complaints process to enable it to move staff to frontline services. It moved “somewhere in the region of 10,000 staff” to help process claims, the report said.

At the moment, cases are handled initially by a complaints resolution manager (Tier 1), before being passed to a senior manager for review (Tier 2) if the customer is still dissatisfied.

Under the new system, complaints that frontline staff are unable to resolve will be passed onto a new DWP complaints team, who will determine whether they are deemed a priority.

The national, remote team will be made up of “experienced complaints handlers”, managed centrally by DWP’s customer experience directorate.

The team will prioritise complaints about payment issues and those from vulnerable or at-risk people, the department said. In these cases, staff will aim to contact the customer within 15 days to either clear the complaint or agree how to investigate it.

Non-priority cases, including those that do not affect benefit payments, will be answered “as soon as resources allow” as the department shifts its focus to recovery from the coronavirus economic crisis.

“We will contact these customers by letter to manage their expectations and they will be categorised at triage, so we can take a targeted approach once resources become available,” the annual report said.

Customers that are not satisfied with DWP’s response will be able to ask the Independent Case Examiner to review their case, as in the past.

Data from the report shows the department received 39,319 complaints last year – a 12% drop from the year before.

The department said it had made efforts to “listen and respond more effectively” to citizens, including establishing a Serious Case Panel to review sensitive cases.

But DWP has refused to publish details of the members, meetings and scope of the panel, which became public when the department said it would investigate the death of Errol Graham, who died eight months after his benefits were stopped. DWP was criticised for describing the panel as “independent”, before admitting it was comprised of civil servants and would be “independent of the case, not necessarily the department”.

In response to an FOI request from CSW for redacted minutes of the panel’s latest meeting, DWP said in March that the public interest in disclosing the documents was outweighed by the need to ensure ministers could receive “the best advice available and a full consideration of all the options without fear of premature disclosure”.

A second FOI request in February about the panel’s membership and scope has gone unanswered, with DWP citing Covid-19 pressures on its resources as the reason for the delay.

Shifting focus

The complaints overhaul comes as DWP shifts its focus to “getting Britain working again and responding to the economic impact of Covid-19”, permanent secretary Peter Schofield wrote in the report.

The way the department has responded already gives me confidence we will rise to these challenges as well as continuing to transform our services and successfully deliver EU transition,” Schofield said.

Between 1 March and 26 May, DWP received 2.4 million new household claims for Universal Credit.

It moved staff from its fraud, compliance and debt and other divisions to front-line roles to process the claims.

It also suspended some of its usual fraud and error controls and checks, including verification of claimants’ ID and circumstances, because face-to-face meetings were paused and “because it was imperative to pay people impacted by the crisis”, the department said.

The department said these measures are likely to have led to an increase in the level of fraud and error, and so it is now developing a plan to tackle the issue.

“The plan will look to apply learning from the Covid-19 period to enhance our approach, including how we can improve our control of the Universal Credit gateway. It will also consider opportunities for new policy proposals and establish a timetable for revisiting doubtful claims in order that we can raise any resulting over (or under) payments,” the report said.

It added: “The actual level of fraud and error will depend on how long the pandemic lasts, and consequently how long the easements are in place, as well as the impact of the prevention and detection controls we have in place.”

Fraud and error

Throughout the year, the department recorded a slight increase in fraud and error overpayments, which rose from £3.9bn in 2018-19 (2.1% of the total) to £4.6bn (2.4%) in 2019-20 due to a slight increase in fraudulent claims. Overpayments due to mistakes by officials and claimants remained about the same as the year before, accounting for 60% of the overpayments.

The department also underpaid benefits by £2bn last year – 1.1% of the total – the same as the year before.

The report noted that the year-to-year levels of fraud and error are not directly comparable because of differences in the way tax credits and Universal Credit are calculated.

The department therefore said it “always expected” the move to UC would lead to higher recorded levels of fraud and error – but said that when the welfare reform is fully rolled out, Universal Credit will lead to a reduction in the overall proportion of money lost due to fraud, error and other overpayments.

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