Citizens who submit complaints about the Department for Work and Pensions are having to wait a year and a half on average for their cases to be resolved, it has emerged.
A DWP spokesperson told CSW it is hiring new staff to assess complaints "as quickly as [it] can" after a minister admitted it had taken the Independent Case Examiner’s Office more than a year to even begin investigating complaints it had decided to take on.
Between January and June 2019, it took ICE 59 weeks on average from the time it accepted a complaint against the department to begin an investigation, Mims Davies, a junior minister in the department, said.
The office, which reviews complaints submitted to public bodies that deal with work and benefits, took a further 23 weeks to complete its investigation once the case had been assigned to a case manager – overshooting its 20-week target. This means the average time to reach a decision was 82 weeks, or more than a year and a half.
Davies was responding to a parliamentary written question from Rushanara Ali, Labour MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, about the time it took to handle complaints in the first six months of last year.
The Office of the Independent Case Examiner is funded by DWP and is part of the department's formal complaints mechanism. Complaints – defined as “any expression of dissatisfaction about the service provided which is not resolved by operational staff as normal business” – must first go through an internal DWP process, but are referred to the independent watchdog if customers are unsatisfied with the outcome.
Complaints the office upheld last year, detailed in its last annual report, included a case where a Universal Credit claimant was incorrectly told he would qualify for assistance towards mortgage costs; a failure to properly accommodate a claimant's mental health condition; and a failure to correct an error that meant someone was paid too little in winter fuel payments for six years.
Between January and June 2019, ICE received some 1,757 complaints about DWP and its service providers and accepted 470 for investigation, according to the watchdog’s quarterly transparency data.
It is difficult to determine how waiting times compared with previous years, because the quarterly figures do not include the time between accepting a complaint and starting an investigation.
However, figures it has previously released under Freedom of Investigation legislation indicate that waiting times have risen significantly in the last couple of years.
In 2017-18, for example, the average time between cases being accepted and cleared was 61.21 weeks, up from 52.97 weeks in 2016-17.
A DWP spokesman said: “We want to make sure people can get the support they are entitled to if they have been treated unfairly.
“We are hiring and training new staff as quickly as we can, and cleared more complaints last year than in 2017-18. The vast majority of complainants are satisfied with the service they receive.”