James Regan waited more than two months, spent more than 70 hours on the phone and had to threaten legal action before he was finally able to tell his mother that she would be getting her state pension each week. Susan James* from Eastbourne is not so lucky – she is still waiting for her first payment despite putting in an application back in March.
Up and down the country retirees are reporting that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has failed to process their state pension and to start making their much-needed payments.
The charity Age UK warned that claimants face delays of several months – delays, it says, that have left many of those affected in “dire financial straits”.
Most of those facing waits are new claimants aged 66 but the problem has also affected older people who had deferred their pension, perhaps because they carried on working past retirement age.
“DWP stopped my mother’s employment and support allowance right on time yet failed to pay the pension she was due,” Regan says.
“What really annoys me is the fact that I was promised a response back that never happened. They only finally started making the payments after I threatened legal action.”
Regan says he has spent the last two months calling the DWP on his mother’s behalf.
“I had no choice but to be almost militant about it, that seems to be the only way to get the DWP to listen. In the end we threatened legal action, and even then it was paid after the 48-hour deadline.”
In Eastbourne, James is equally frustrated and has contacted her MP for help.
“I turned 66 in July but claimed online back in March,” she says. “I have still not received my award letter and have had no other communication with DWP other than me ringing and writing to them. When you call up you have to wait 40 minutes to talk to someone but nothing happens.
“I have been paying contributions since I was 15 years old. I am one of those ladies who had to wait a further six years to get the state pension, and now this. I’m upset and angry.”
The delays are the latest fiasco to affect the Department for Work and Pensions. In March it emerged that it had underpaid 200,000 women an average of £13,500. Some who wrongly received as little as 86p a week were owed in excess of £40,000 in back payments.
Last month, Guardian Money was contacted by the family of a taxi driver in his 70s who had just been diagnosed with terminal cancer but was having to battle the DWP from his hospital bed to get his deferred state pension.
“It took weeks for them to send him a form,” a family member wrote.
“We are now waiting for them to send a letter detailing his entitlements, and another form that must be filled in before it can be paid, despite us contacting them several times and explaining the urgency of the situation. It is heartbreaking to see a man who worked an additional six years after retirement age on his deathbed, with no income.”
Caroline Abrahams, the charity director of Age UK, says the situation has become “totally unacceptable”.
She says: “We are hearing from lots of older people whose state pension should have come through but who are still waiting, leaving those with little behind them in dire financial straits.
“In some cases these delays are running into several months and, to make matters worse, the DWP does not seem to be routinely informing them that they can receive advance payments instead to tide them over until the paperwork is complete. Ministers must get a grip and sort it out before hardship turns to tragedy, which we believe to be a growing risk.”
Christina Rees, the Labour MP for Neath, wrote to the work and pensions secretary, Thérèse Coffey, last week, saying “over a dozen” of her constituents had told her that they were worried about how they were going to pay bills and buy food after months of delay.
“Like the cut to the £20 universal credit uplift, delays in payment of state pension leave people in financial hardship,” she says.
“This is completely unacceptable but yet again the Tories are out of touch with the lived experiences of people, be it hardworking families or those who will rely on their state pension to make ends meet during their retirement.
“Many people across my Neath constituency do not have savings or lump sum payments to cover the delay … I’m calling on the government to sort things out before any more people have to suffer needlessly while they wait for their own money to be paid to them.”
The DWP conceded last month that the pandemic and staffing problems had caused backlogs in payments, with the pensions minister, Guy Opperman, telling parliament: “Normal service will be resumed by the end of October 2021.”
A DWP spokesperson told Guardian Money: “We are sorry that some new state pension customers have faced delays receiving payment.
“All those affected have been identified and we have deployed extra resources to process these as a priority. Any claims made today should not be subject to delay.”
David Sinclair, the director of the International Longevity Centre thinktank, says 2021 has not been a good year for the DWP.
“In July the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman said that the DWP had failed since 1995 to provide ‘accurate, adequate and timely information about changes to the state pension age for women’.
“Then in September the National Audit Office found human errors were ‘almost inevitable’ due to outdated IT, complex rules and a failure to automate processes. This feels like yet more maladministration, and it’s time for the minister and departmental bosses to get to grips with the problems.”
Stephen Timms, the chair of the work and pensions select committee, says the DWP has serious questions to answer.
“It is not yet clear how many people have been affected,” he says. “The government says it is only a small number but there is growing evidence that significant numbers of people may have been affected. Many of them will risk hardship as a result.”
If you are one of those adversely affected by the pension payment delays, did you know that you might qualify for an advance payment to allow you to keep going financially?
Advance payments were used a great deal by universal credit applicants as the Covid lockdowns hit but not everyone is aware that they are available for those waiting for several other benefits, including the state pension. However, there is a proviso – you have to be able to show that you are in “urgent financial need”.
This is generally defined as there being a serious risk of damage to the health or safety of you or any member of your family. If other benefit payments have ceased in expectation that you will start receiving your pension, that should be reasonable grounds for an advance to be paid. Age UK says it is important to provide as much information as possible about your circumstances, including details of any health problems or disabilities.
To apply you need to call 0800 731 0469, the pensions’ advance hotline. You must tell the adviser about your circumstances and how much you think you will need to borrow.
If you are approved, the advance will be paid straight into your bank account, often the next day. The money will be recovered from your pension payments once they come through. Advances have to be repaid within an agreed period, and there is no interest payable. There is nothing to stop applicants applying for more than one advance in the face of continued delays.
* Name has been changed
Additional reporting by Miles Brignall