Problems with computerised call centres at the Department for Work and Pensions have led to a million calls from first-time claimants not being answered, The Guardian reports.
The Liberal Democrats' work and pensions spokesman David Laws said JobCentrePlus officials had written to him saying that the new IT system is so bad that in many cases they have had to go back to clerical processing.
The paper says that according to confidential DWP documents, more than half of all calls to the worst performing centres (Sheffield, Hastings, Poole and Coventry), are going unanswered. It also reveals that even the best performing centres (Blackburn, Paisley and Grimsby) are missing one in five calls.
Following a government decision to downsize the civil service by 80,000, the DWP has shed more than 14,000 jobs, and reorganised the way it handles benefits claims. This means local benefits offices handle fewer claims, and more people are asked to register their claims with centralised call centres.
The claims are then passed to processing centres which the DWP's documents show are unable to handle the workload.
"Job cuts and the new IT system, all supposedly in the name of greater efficiency, are leading to people having to wait four to six weeks before they receive their first benefit payment when it used to take about 12 days," said Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union.
He described the system as being "in meltdown", and said the job cuts were "crude".
The government says it is working to resolve the difficulties, and claims that service levels are improving from week to week.
However, Labour MP Anthony Wright said that in Norfolk, claimants are facing the prospect of a 50-mile round trip to make a claim, as they will have to travel to one of the three remaining claim centres in Suffolk to do so. ®