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Responding to MPs’ Queries: DWP Performance

Volume 724: debated on Tuesday 6 December 2022

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Robert Largan.)

Before I begin, I hope it is in order, Madam Deputy Speaker, for me to place on record my hearty congratulations to my hon. Friends the Members for Aberdeen South (Stephen Flynn) and for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black), who have just been announced as the new leader and deputy leader of the SNP group here in Westminster. I offer my congratulations to both of them.

I am grateful to have the opportunity to raise in the House the woeful performance of the Department for Work and Pensions in responding to queries from Members of Parliament. I was particularly keen that the debate title should cover not simply correspondence, but all forms of communication—or non-communication—because the Department’s repeated failure to put in place a reliable and efficient way for MPs and our caseworkers to phone with urgent inquiries and speak to someone who actually understands the case is a recurring theme that I know causes immense frustration for MPs of all parties.

Let me quote just one of the many constituency cases I could refer to. Alison has a job, but it is low paid, so she gets universal credit and should have got her cost of living payment in July. It did not arrive. That, remember, is money that the Government have accepted she absolutely needs in order to make ends meet. By early September, Alison contacted my office in desperation. She told us that she had stopped the payments for her rent, council tax and internet service, that within 10 days she had to cancel her car insurance and that she was being referred to sheriff officers for council tax arrears.

My caseworkers went through the whole rigmarole of phoning and emailing all the right addresses at DWP, but they could not speak to or correspond with the people who were responsible for making Alison’s payment. None of the people my staff were allowed to speak to had any authority, even to ask for her payment to be prioritised. Two promised payment dates were not kept. Alison eventually received the money she was owed on 28 October, over three months late.

It is not the fault of overworked DWP staff that they could not do anything to help; it is the fault of the way the DWP has chosen to make it unnecessarily difficult for MPs to do our job of providing support to constituents in need. For Child Maintenance Service casework, our staff have access to an MP hotline and a dedicated email address. Until 2020, there was an MP hotline for working-age benefits such as jobseeker’s allowance, employment support allowance and income support. That gave my caseworkers and others a direct line to the local, regional and national complaints resolution team—based in Glasgow in this case—where staff had access to the various benefits systems and could contact other DWP departments with queries and to chase responses. The team was also contactable directly by email.

With the introduction of universal credit, that hotline became less useful—although the DWP staff at the other end continued to do the best they could. Eventually, the hotline for working age benefits just disappeared altogether—but the casework certainly did not. The current confidential list of all MP hotline contacts says in big bold letters, near the top of the DWP section:

“There is no MP hotline for Universal Credit”.

The question has to be: “Why not?” Similarly, the retirement services hotline was removed, although it was reinstated earlier this year after a lot of pressure from my office and a great many others. Sometimes, if the wheel squeaks often enough, it gets the grease.

Those hotlines and dedicated email addresses are not a perk for Members of Parliament; they are not some sort of freebie. For our constituency staff, whose workloads are heavy enough as it is, there is a massive difference between being able to phone and speak now to someone who understands the problem and can access the system, look at the details of the case and get someone to fix it straightaway, and waiting for an hour or more to speak to someone who is not allowed access to the constituent’s full record and who, because of their lack of experience or because their specialism is elsewhere, probably would not understand the complexities of the case even if they were allowed to see the details.

I believe there would be major repercussions—PARLYapp would probably go into meltdown—if I declined to take the intervention.

I commend the hon. Gentleman for securing the debate. Although it is sometimes frustrating when our queries are not answered, we must appreciate all the highly skilled workers working in Government Departments and external agencies. Does he agree that to deal with delays in correspondence, we must ensure that those employed within Departments are able to deal with all issues presented to them, with the knowledge and ability to prevent delays and get queries answered?

That is absolutely correct. I would not for a second want my comments to be taken as any sort of slight about the dedication and professionalism of staff at the DWP. There are simply not enough of them, and they do not have access to the information that they need. In fact, I would like to flag up some of them for special praise, but I am worried that the way in which they are being so helpful to my caseworkers is maybe beyond what the DWP thinks they should be doing, and I certainly would not want to get them into trouble for being too good in helping my constituents.

The way my office operates is that, when necessary, everyone in my staff takes on casework, so when I refer to my caseworkers, I mean everybody on my staff team. Every one of them does a fantastic job—as do the caseworkers of MPs right across the House—often delivering truly life-changing results for vulnerable people. I know that my constituents value them almost as much as I do—they could not value them more. But their performance is dragged down when they cannot get the answers that my constituents deserve.

Alan was diagnosed with a chronic and incurable medical condition, and was advised that he should claim employment support allowance, which he did online through his universal credit journal. He contacted us when he got no response. My caseworker emailed the only available email address—the generic DWP correspondence address—on 25 March, and on 26 April, 3 May, 25 May and 7 June. During that time, Alan told us that he had finally got his ESA but that it was not backdated. The DWP knew that we had been in contact about this, but it never came back to my office to tell us that Alan had got the money—well, he did. The DWP came back to us in November, months and months later.

When we got a reply on 21 July to my first two emails, whoever sent the reply had not been told about my three other emails, so I got a reply in July that did not mention the other emails I had sent—two in May and one in June. They explained how Alan’s payment had been calculated. It turned out to be correct. We thought he had been underpaid, and in this case we got it wrong and the DWP got it right. If there had been a properly supported ESA hotline we and more importantly Alan would have been told exactly how much he was entitled to and exactly when it would be paid in a single phone call almost four months earlier.

In response to Alan’s case and many others, I drafted a letter to the then Secretary of State asking for the ESA hotline to be reinstated. Some 63 MPs from, I think, every party represented in the House signed it, and I am grateful to each and every one of them. The letter went in on 29 July. Two reminders and nearly five weeks later we got a response, which stated:

“It is currently not possible to provide a date upon which the issue of the MP Hotline might be resolved.”

After I had applied for this Adjournment debate, my office received a copy of a letter dated 23 November 2022 referring to the joint letter of 29 July and stating that the working-age benefits hotline had been re-established. I did not remember seeing that letter come in—that is nothing unusual; I often do not—but what was unusual was that no one in my office knew anything about it, and they do not let these things slip.

I checked with colleagues who I knew had co-signed our letter. They confirmed that the reply had been sent out by email to all the joint signatories, but when they looked at the email circulation list, my name had been missed out. I do not know who else had been, but the person who initiated the letter had been omitted from the circulation list for the reply. The DWP had forgotten to tell me about its improved communication with MPs.

Sure enough, the latest online edition of the list of MP hotlines shows an “MP hotline for working-age queries only”. It is open for a three-month trial. We are already nearly one month into that, and to the best of my knowledge the DWP has not told anyone about it apart from the 63 MPs—well, 62 excluding me—who signed my letter. About 10% of MPs have been specifically alerted to the existence of this hotline. It will be no surprise if it does not get much use if nobody knows about it.

One firm request to the Minister is to give the new hotline a fair trial and to make sure that every MP is told about it in a simple dedicated email. The Government should not just assume that our caseworkers will check the intranet every time they want to speak to a civil servant or Department, just in case a new hotline has been established since yesterday. They should make it a proper trial of at least three months in real time after they have told MPs about it, and not including the Christmas and new year period. Most importantly, if they are going to call it an MP hotline, please provide the staffing and systems support to make it a proper hotline.

Anyone looking at the list of hotlines would not know it, but the working-age hotline in the exact words of the DWP is only

“for non-complex general enquiries that can be answered with little interrogation of our systems…Enquiries or complaints requiring thorough investigation”—

which is about 95% of DWP casework in my experience—

“should be submitted in the usual way by e-mail to”

and it then gives the standard DWP email address that my office has to wait five months for a reply from. That phrase

“can be answered with little interrogation of our systems”

looks to me very like saying that they will be able to answer general questions about the rules and regulations, but we will have no way of finding out why, for example, Alison went through months of utter misery or why Alan was not entitled to as much as he had thought. In other words, it is not a hotline at all.

Now that the DWP has been good enough to tell my staff about the hotline, I know they will use it. I am willing to be proven wrong and will even come to the Chamber and say I was proven wrong if it turns out to be working effectively, but it has all the hallmarks of a trial that has been set up to fail.

To conclude, when a Member of Parliament takes up a DWP benefits case on behalf of a constituent, there is a very strong probability—these days it is even stronger than before—that the constituent is already at the end of their tether and of their money. Often they will literally have no money and nobody but the loan sharks to fall back on if the DWP does not deal with their case quickly and effectively. Waiting weeks for any kind of reply is immensely frustrating for MPs and our staff—it wastes a lot of our staff’s precious time—but it can be much worse for the people we are here to serve. It can mean they are being denied the basics and the simple human dignity that any benefits system should surely be designed to protect. No Member of this House would ever tolerate their constituents being treated as badly as my constituents have been treated by the DWP’s inability to communicate properly with me or my staff. I certainly will not, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) on securing this debate on a very important issue. I assure him that the Government take this issue extremely seriously, and that does not just apply to the Department for Work and Pensions; all parts of Government take the issue of Members’ correspondence on behalf of their constituents very seriously, and in the DWP we certainly do.

I want to start with two preliminary comments before I get to the nuts and bolts of the hon. Member’s important speech. First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Stephen Flynn) on his recent election and pass on the Government’s congratulations to him; I look forward to seeing him at Prime Minister’s Question Time tomorrow. Although this is a Scottish debate, it is only right, when we have an opportunity at the Dispatch Box, to congratulate the England football team and the England cricket team on their triumphs in Qatar and Pakistan respectively. We should not forget the beating that we hope to hand out to Monsieur Macron and his fellow Frenchmen on Saturday.

The hon. Member for Glenrothes is right to have high expectations of responses to communications that are submitted to the Department for Work and Pensions. As I will set out, in the vast majority of cases the DWP sends out timely replies. However, I accept and understand the frustration that all Members of Parliament, whether Government or Opposition, feel when the Department has not responded in the right way. We have worked constructively with Members on many occasions, and I am proud to serve in a Department with tens of thousands of people who are doing a fantastic job to deliver an awful lot of public services across this great country. In total for 2022-23, Department for Work and Pensions support and services represent £224 billion of public money, which is 9% of all GDP. That reflects the enormous force for good that the Department for Work and Pensions is and, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) set out, the energy and efforts of thousands of DWP colleagues every single day to support people up and down the country, to change and improve lives. We should put on record our thanks for their sterling efforts.

I want to turn to covid, because many of the problems that the hon. Member for Glenrothes rightly identifies date back to the pandemic. We saw the degree of support that the Department gave during the pandemic, with enhanced universal credit to literally millions of extra people and masses of extra work coaches coming in, and there is unquestionably a context for why some of the hotlines were subject to cessation or have taken a while to come back. If he gives me a minute or two, I will explain why.

We rightly focused during the pandemic on ensuring that we got the right support to those who needed it quickly. That included, for example, responding effectively to the doubling of universal credit claims across the country and helping people to move back into work following the pandemic. We also had to make operational decisions, which ultimately are made by Ministers but fundamentally are made by the operational teams that run big Departments such as the DWP. A significant number of colleagues who would ordinarily be handling complaints and MP correspondence were redeployed to essential frontline services.

As part of that, the Department took the decision to temporarily suspend the retirement services hotline, while the disability services hotline was redirected to an answer machine, which was checked, and there was no change to the child maintenance hotline. To ensure that the Department continued to deliver a complaints service during this time, we brought all remaining complaints handlers together into one new centralised DWP complaints team. We also introduced a triage process that allowed us to prioritise complaints from our most vulnerable customers and those relating to payments. The centralisation of the complaints service meant that working-age and universal credit complaints teams were no longer aligned to individual districts. That may potentially have had an impact on any local arrangements between complaints team and MPs. However, the focus at that time was simply on supporting frontline delivery in the middle of a pandemic, with all the complications of running public services with the attendance of staff at that stage.

Following the pandemic, we have slowly but surely returned the handling of complaints and correspondence to service delivery areas, which has seen greater accountability and ownership and allows complaints and correspondence to be investigated by specialist complaints teams. The Department has also improved signposting on the w4mp website, which enables parliamentary staff to find the right contacts for general and case specific inquiries, and to direct complaints to a dedicated mailbox.

I will try to deal with the assertions made about MP hotlines. We now operate a number of dedicated MP hotlines in relation to child maintenance services, which continues; disability services, such as personal independence payment and disability living allowance queries; and retirement services, enabling people to raise issues on the state pension, pension credit or winter fuel payments.

Last month, we started a three-month trial of an MP hotline for queries relating to working-age benefits. This is available from 9 am to 4 pm, Monday to Friday, with a voicemail facility available outside those hours. As part of the trial, we will assess the demand for the service and ensure that it meets the needs of hon. Members and is sustainable for the Department. I assure the hon. Gentleman that his representations—most robustly made—have been taken on board about the degree to which he believes there is a demand.

We are also developing a dedicated universal credit hotline for MPs. System testing is under way and we hope to have the line up and running shortly. All MP hotlines are regularly checked during operating hours and calls from Members are answered directly or a voicemail message can be left that will be picked up and responded to as soon as possible.

The hon. Gentleman raised MP hotlines in particular, but I will briefly address other forms of communication, because this debate is about all correspondence and responses. In terms of written correspondence, as he probably knows, the Cabinet Office publishes guidance that sets out the principles that Departments must follow when handling correspondence from Members of this House, as well as peers, Members of the devolved Parliaments or Assemblies and members of the public. That includes performance response times for responding to correspondence—specifically, a timeframe of up to 20 working days.

In 2021, the Department received a total of 7,116 pieces of correspondence from Members, about 70% of which were responded to within 20 working days. The latest data from quarter 2 of this year shows that about two thirds of the correspondence received was responded to within that timeframe.

Can the Minister clarify exactly what “responded to” means? All MPs—certainly everyone who has been an Opposition MP—will have had responses from Ministers that do not tell them anything. Does he mean a response that actually provides information or does an email that simply says, “Thank you for your email” count as a response within 20 working days?

I wanted to come to that point, which I will deal with in several ways. The hon. Gentleman will be aware and will understand that much of the correspondence to the Department is complex; it is not simple stuff that can be assessed. I was the Minister with responsibility for pensions for five years where the entitlement to, say, pension credit had to be assessed on a case-by-case basis. Those things take time.

The hon. Gentleman raised the letter that he wrote on 29 June. It is my strong assurance from the Department that at 10:42 on 31 August—I have the email printout here—his standard parliamentary email inbox received a specific correspondence in relation to that letter. That may have got lost in the ether, but the assertion is strongly made by the Department that it replied on 31 August at 10:42.

On the hon. Gentleman’s campaign, I applaud and endorse his work, but he will understand that, post covid, all Departments are resurrecting and reincarnating various hotlines and capabilities. I take on board one key point—obviously, I will try to answer his other point too—that it is not always possible to reply within 20 working days, and in such instances, the Department must ensure that correspondence is responded to as quickly as possible and that the correspondent is kept informed, particularly where there is likely to be a significant delay in sending a full reply. I accept that it is important to highlight that many cases that the DWP receives are complex, so it is particularly important that individual situations and circumstances are looked into carefully and properly, and that a full and considered response is given. I genuinely take his criticisms on board, however, because they are honestly made and well thought through.

I will touch briefly on other ways to communicate with the Department. On parliamentary questions, we have a 90.8% response time for named day parliamentary questions, which is 277 out of 305 over the last period, and for ordinary written questions, there is a 93.5% response time, which is 389 out of 416.

The hon. Gentleman raised a number of other specific matters. I totally accept that, on the one key point about his ongoing treatment and how it is handled, the individual Minister who deals with correspondence at the Department for Work and Pensions, as he knows because we discussed this earlier, is Baroness Stedman-Scott in the other place. If there are any matters arising out of this, she will go through them and write to the hon. Gentleman—in good time, I hasten to add—to ensure that a proper response is given.

I want to contextualise two other quick points, and I have a little time. The first is that all efforts by the Department need to be judged against the background of covid and the background of the cost of living support. This is the Department that has had to deal with the £37 billion package set out by the Chancellor in May. That includes, as we all know, the £650 cost of living support, the £300 extra winter fuel payment and the £150 disability cost of living payment. We have had to find people and use them to deliver all those things, which is a massive enterprise. While the hon. Gentleman is right to have legitimate criticism of individual cases, they have to be seen in that context.

On top of that, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that, in the September sitting of Parliament and then subsequently in the 17 November autumn statement, again a vast amount of things were brought forward, ranging from the further energy support package to the extra cost of living support and the energy price guarantee. Those are all things that have had to be brought forward and actioned by the Department for Work and Pensions.

I apologise to the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) for not being here earlier, but I did let him know that I was delayed.

May I say with the deepest respect, because nobody respects the Department more than me, that I just do not think this correspondence is working? We got a call in my office the other day to say that it would not now be writing to us, because people were too hard-pressed in the Department to write to anybody and they would make a quick call. We did not want a call; we want correspondence. When I was in the Department, the Secretary of State and Ministers all signed off their own correspondence, and nothing went out of the door that they had not read and checked. That had added value in that we knew what was going on in the Department. Each Minister should sign off every single bit of correspondence to MPs, and anything else is simply substandard, if the Minister does not mind my saying so.

I take my right hon. Friend’s point very seriously, and we will look into that specific point. I am not aware of the individual example of course, but we will definitely reach out to his office tomorrow to ensure that we get chapter and verse on that specific case. He will know and understand—and I am not disputing that we need a verification of his particular case—that responses in certain cases are handled by officials and responses in other cases are handled by Ministers and the Secretary of State. I cannot possibly comment on the nature of this case, but it is very traditional and usual for anything from a Member of Parliament to be responded to by the Member of Parliament who happens to be a Minister or the Secretary of State. That is clearly the normal way, but I will look into this and make sure that Baroness Stedman-Scott writes to him promptly and investigates the matter forthwith.

I want briefly to touch on two final points. On FOI handling, there was a 97% response time for quarter 1 and a 96% response time for quarter 2. On the correspondence guidance, clearly the hon. Member for Glenrothes can hold the DWP to account, but a whole bunch of guidance is set out for all Departments—it is published quarterly, and it is available both in the House of Commons Library and on—from which he can see a comparison of this Department with other Departments.

While the statistics show that most Members do receive timely replies from the DWP, there is clearly room for improvement, and I take that on board. We closely monitor that performance, we take on board the points raised by those on both sides of the House, and we will ensure that things are done better in the future.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.