Poorer pensioners are waiting months for their benefit applications to be approved after the Department for Work and Pensions was overwhelmed by rising demand stimulated by its own publicity drive.
In early April, the DWP launched a campaign to encourage pensioners to apply for pension credit – the benefit paid to people on low incomes who are over the state pension age – to handle rising living costs.
Welfare rights advisers have told the Observer that the DWP was unable to handle the subsequent flood of applications, leading to long delays.
“[Last week] we got a phone call from someone who’s been waiting since April, having put in a claim then,” said Matt Hunt, assistant coordinator of Derbyshire Unemployed Workers’ Centres.
“We’ve got at least eight cases that are now open of people who are waiting over three months to hear back from pension credit, which is unusual in our experience.”
He said that online forums were reporting cases of people waiting since February, whereas applications would normally be processed within six weeks at the most.
“We often just get told exactly what the claimants get told, which is, ‘there’s a backlog, you’re just going to have to wait’. So we’re now referring cases to the local MP’s office to try to at least establish that there’s a pattern of these cases, and try to put pressure on externally where we can.”
The government’s targeted £650 cost-of-living payment goes only to people claiming means-tested benefits – so those whose pension credit applications are delayed can’t get the targeted cost-of-living payment either. They are eligible for the £300 pensioner cost-of-living payment in the meantime, and if their pension credit application is eventually accepted they can get the targeted payment backdated.
“Some people are waiting six months plus – some even longer. I chased up a case for an 87-year-old who had waited three months,” said a welfare rights adviser in northern England.
“Claims used to go through within four weeks and that’s the timescale still given when your claim is acknowledged. As advisers we [normally] tend to chase after about six to eight weeks … but decided not to bother chasing all the pension credit claims on our caseload until the three-month point.
“When we phone to chase they promise the client a call-back in two weeks. That’s their response. I don’t want a call-back, I want the claim looked at and paid.”
The Labour MP Tan Dhesi told the Observer that he recently intervened to help a constituent who had been forced to rely on food banks owing to delays in processing his pension credit application. The constituent was eventually granted backdated arrears.
The DWP has now redeployed staff to deal with the increase in applications. The Observer has heard anecdotal evidence that recent claims are being dealt with more quickly, but that backlogged cases remain stuck in the system.
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Labour’s shadow pensions minister Matt Rodda said: “The Government has a poor track record on delivering pensions credit and their failure is leaving less well-off pensioners paying the price.
“The absolute priority for the department in the Conservatives’ cost-of-living crisis should be supporting more to people to claim this extra help, not delaying payments.”
A DWP spokesperson said: “We want to ensure pensioners receive all the support to which they are entitled and the success of our recent pension credit campaign is driving the volume of pension credit claims being submitted to an all-time high.
“Additional resources are being deployed to ensure we deal with the increase as quickly as possible. We are also working closely with stakeholders and service providers to identify potential process enhancements that will drive efficiency and reduce processing times.
“Successful claims and arrears are backdated and paid accordingly, to ensure those who are entitled do not miss out, so we urge anyone who thinks they might be eligible for pension credit or a cost of living payment to check.”