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Last Updated: Friday, 25 November 2005, 09:31 GMT
Third of benefit calls unanswered
A phone
A third of calls went unanswered between April and September
One in three benefit claimants who call a new computerised system is unable to get through, according to figures obtained by the BBC.

The system, operated by US firm EDS, is used by Jobcentre Plus call centres to allow people to claim over the phone.

On average, a third of calls went unanswered between April and September.

But spokesman for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) said performance had since improved, with 90% of calls answered last week.

A BBC social affairs correspondent said many claimants were spending hours trying to get through and staff sometimes took two weeks to return calls to fill in forms over the phone.

On average, a third of calls went unanswered between April and September, but some centres did even worse. In Sheffield, our correspondent says, two thirds of calls were not answered.

There is also anecdotal evidence of processing delays once the claim forms had been filled in.

In one instance, a claimant had been told she would not receive benefit payments until after Christmas, despite having applied on 10 November.

Job cuts

Unions representing staff working in DWP call centres said computer failures were leading to benefit delays.

"This is categorical proof that not only do the computers not work, but that when you force vulnerable people to go through call centres to access the benefits system, if there are not enough staff and computers don't work, one million people have tried to get through and can't," Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) said.

Mr Serwotka called on the government to shelve plans for 30,000 job cuts in the DWP.

He added that problems for benefit claimants would get worse in January.

Compensation paid

This is not the first time that EDS has found itself at the centre of a storm over IT systems it operates for the UK government.

On Tuesday, the firm agreed to pay HM Revenue & Customs 71m in compensation for the poor performance of its tax credits IT system.

Early problems with tax credits meant thousands of families were overpaid and face clawbacks totalling 2bn.

HM Revenue & Customs had threatened to take EDS to court if it did not pay compensation.

EDS had argued that it had repeatedly asked for more time to test the computer system it developed for the launch of tax credits in April 2003.

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