Andy McCarthy, Casework Manager
An hour on hold to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is pretty common for our casework team. We’ve become accustomed to listening to the automated voice saying all advisors are busy at the moment, and all cheered when Vivaldi’s Four Season’s was finally cast aside as the hold music last year. However what we are increasingly finding is that DWP is continuing to flout its rules about speaking with representatives and in some instances just hanging up the phone.
Under the legacy benefits system, DWP has guidance for working with representatives for Job Seekers Allowance (JSA), Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) and Income Support. This guidance outlines the process in place to make sure that we can advocate for clients and assist them with their benefit issues without them being with us in person (called an alternative enquiry, previously implicit consent). It speeds up urgent enquiries when claimants can’t get to our offices, or advocate on their own behalf.
On many occasions, we have had to challenge DWP staff when they fail to follow this own guidance. They often ask us unnecessary questions such as the claimant’s bank details, tell us that they cannot disclose information without the claimant being with us, or in some instances will just hang up the phone as we try to explain that we are calling up on behalf of the claimant. On other occasions when we have sent in signed authority, we have been told they need to speak to the client directly to confirm they had in fact signed the consent form. It is only when we explain to a manager that the guidance exists and that our calling is in line with DWP’s guidance that we get past this hurdle (if we haven’t been hung up on first).
In the time of Covid, these practices have been compounded by the impossibility of face-to-face meetings with claimants. One of my clients Anna* had her Income Support stopped in the past few months without being told why. Her phone often cuts off mid-call, so contacting DWP herself was impossible. She was unable to go to the Job Centre as it was closed, and likewise could not come to our office to use our phone. After calling the Income Support team and waiting over an hour to speak to an advisor, they claimed to me that an ‘alternative enquiry’ was not a real term, and hung up the phone.
Under Universal Credit, the rules about speaking with a representative have changed. Instead of implicit consent/alternative enquiries, a new system called “explicit consent” has been introduced where the claimant writes on their journal allowing someone else to act on their behalf in relation to a specified issue. In theory this should improve the system, but unfortunately the same unfamiliarity with the guidance by DWP staff makes working with them as a representative equally as difficult.
We again are met with security questions meant for the claimant themselves, and assurances that there was no way to look onto the journal for consent until the claimant has passed security questions with us present.
In the case of our client Jamie*, his housing costs were not being fully paid so needed help addressing this issue to stop his rent arrears building. He pasted a Mandatory Reconsideration and notice of explicit consent onto his journal as English was not his first language and he didn’t know what information was needed for explicit consent to be considered valid. We then called UC to see why the housing costs weren’t being paid, only to be told that the consent was not being accepted as it was written by someone else.
Z2K fully accepts that DWP has an obligation to protect claimants’ data. However under both systems barriers have been put in place so that representatives cannot help claimant’s access to justice, and make it incredibly difficult for them to challenge unfair decisions. The Information Commissioner’s Office has warned about DWP’s overzealous approach, but little if anything has changed. At the very least, training must be rigorously implemented so that all staff understand DWP’s own guidance to ensure that everyone is able to both access the Social Security system and ultimately receive the income they are entitled to. We will be challenging DWP to deliver this in the months ahead.
*Names changed to ensure anonymity