Feel free to email your views and experiences on this if you don’t want to leave a comment. I know many of you have canvassed this topic in recent times:
In the past fortnight, I’ve called the DWP’s 0345 600 0723 Universal Credit line twice to ask about the best place to send the sick notes (DWP calls them fit notes I think) which excuse benefit claimants from jobsearch activities. Sick notes are crucial when a Universal Credit claimant is sick or injured. They explain why people can’t work or carry out jobsearch activities. Benefits can be sanctioned if people miss job activities without a medical note.
Problem is this. People raise concerns with me about sick notes and other communications to the DWP not being properly recorded, or taking ages to process, or being processed out of order, or apparently not even arriving when posted to the DWP. God knows what’s going on with all of this. You should see the masses of paperwork that goes to and from the DWP and benefit claimants. Keeping track is a nightmare.
Last week, I called the DWP after speaking to a volunteer at South Chadderton foodbank. Her 40-year-old son had his Universal Credit sanctioned in June. He’d been about to start a warehouse job in May when he broke his wrist. His sick note from his doctor should have excused him from the placement and jobsearch activities. Something went wrong. He was sanctioned. His mother wondered if there’d been a problem with the processing of his sick note. Nobody was sure at the time of interview. The DWP still hadn’t sent a letter explaining the reasons for the sanction. People were still trying to guess what had happened.
Because I’d spoke to this woman and because others have raised this issue, I decided to call the Universal Credit line to ask general questions about the best place to send sick notes. I especially wanted to know if people everywhere could drop their sick notes in at their jobcentres, or if they should send them in to the DWP’s Freepost address.
Four points emerged from those phone calls (one made on 14 July and the other on 17 July). All four were cause for concern, so I’m putting them here. Feel free to weigh in.
1) The DWP seems to have a sick-note processing backlog of some description, so claimants must allow time for sick notes to be processed. The officer I spoke to last Monday said that UC claimants should allow up to seven days for sick notes to be processed: “because obviously they’re [staff are] so busy.” People online report delays of ten days for DWP mail processing.
That “obviously they’re so busy,” is a line I’m sick of hearing. Why are delays in this area considered so acceptable? Why must benefit claimants always wait and wait before their information is dealt with? The people who use these so-called systems are on extremely limited incomes. Those incomes depend on the right paperwork getting to the right people IMMEDIATELY. Everything can go wrong if it doesn’t. Claimants could be sanctioned if they missed a jobsearch activity while an explanatory sick note was stuck in a pile. If there are processing delays because staff are “so busy,” someone needs to hire more staff.
2) The officer on I spoke to on 14 July said some jobcentres could not process sick notes. The officer I spoke to on 17 July said that all jobcentres could process sick notes, so people could drop their sick notes into their jobcentres. I have no idea which answer was right, or if either was. I find this sort of conflicting information completely unacceptable. It wrongfoots people who must use the system.
3) People must be sure to write their National Insurance numbers on the front and back of notes they send in. This rang more alarm bells. I’ve attend jobcentre meetings with people who’ve been told to post their sick notes to the DWP, but have not been told to put their National Insurance numbers on their notes. Some people would work that out for themselves and know that they’d need to include information that connected a note to their claim. Other would not know that. I attended meetings at Kilburn jobcentre last year with a woman with learning and literacy difficulties whose claim was closed when she missed jobsearch meetings because she was sick. She would not have known to add her NI information to a sick note. Nobody told her to do that at any of our meetings. Nobody offered to do it for her.
4) The DWP uses some sort of mail opening service to open and upload sick notes sent to the DWP Freepost Universal Credit address (“a mail opening unit,” the officer I spoke to said). Staff there upload the notes to the system, whatever that means. I realise that there have been plenty of stories and FOIs published about the DWP’s mail-opening-and-uploading services in the past few years. I’m publishing this one, because I have ongoing questions and have no idea where things are at with the DWP’s processing of private information as we speak. Who gets to see this personal information? Where and what are the processing backlogs? What are the staff turnover rates?
I’d like to go in and see these mail opening services in action. Maybe this post will spark an invitation.
For the record: I rang the DWP press office for answers to some of these points. I wanted clarity on questions these calls raised. The DWP press office was unhelpful in the extreme. I was told to submit my questions via FO: “I I’m afraid your request isn’t the sort that we would deal with in the press office, as you’re asking for information rather than a response to a story.” That was a new one on me. And a useless one, for that matter. You have to wait 20 days for an FOI response, which is hardly fast-turnaround stuff. I’ve submitted one FOI request and have another ready to go. I asked the press office if it would answer a couple of questions in the meantime and was ignored.