19 September 2006
The DWP's drive to put an end to paper claims continues with the announcement that several hundred local benefits offices are to be closed and replaced by 77 call centres between now and April 2008.
If current DWP performance is anything to go by, claimants will have to make dozens of attempts to get through to a call centre by phone, often over a period of days. This rules out making claims in the presence of an advice or support worker.
Because the calls are 0845, local rate, ones it also means that claimants, rather than the DWP, are picking up the cost of the call. The only exception to this is calls for crisis loans, for which an 0800 freephone number is available.
However, telephone claims are much cheaper to process than paper claims and advice workers all over the country are already reporting that the DWP is unlawfully failing to process properly completed claim packs. Staff who ring up to ask for a claim pack report that they are frequently told that there are none available or that one is in the post but it never arrives. Where claimants manage to get hold of and complete a paper pack - for example by downloading and printing one off from the internet - welfare rights staff report that many are being told that their form has been lost or are simply obliged to go through the entire claim again on the phone anyway.
According to the DWP claimants who are unable to contact them by phone can arrange an office interview or a home visit - no mention is made of being able to make a paper claim. In reality, claimants who are unable to use a phone will have great difficulty in getting through to the DWP in the first place: call centres are even sending out letters to claimants with no address on them, just a telephone number. Even if claimants can get in touch, remaining DWP offices struggling with massive staff cuts are extremely unlikely to have anyone to carry out home visits.
The switch to virtually mandatory call centre claims flies in the face of the Disability Discrimination Act and makes a mockery of government initiatives such as Equality 2025, intended to achieve equality for disabled people by 2025. It fits in very well, however, with a drive to reduce administration costs and cut the number of incapacity benefit claimants by one million by any means available.