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There is a scandal brewing around the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP). This is because a secret, newly formed “unit” allegedly took money due to overpayments from Universal Credit applicants. But it looks like the DWP can flout the law when it takes money from people – in some cases up to as much as £ 14,000.

DWP Coronavirus Chaos

At the start of the pandemic, the DWP restricted applicants’ access to its Jobcenters. As The Canary reported at the time, this had implications. For example, people may not have been able to prove how many children they had, what their housing costs were, etc. This is because usually would take documents in a Jobcentre to prove these things. So the DWP accepted what the applicants told them online.

Now it turned out that the DWP is starting to browse its archives. He has set up a dedicated unit to do this. It checks people who have not physically proven the elements of their claim. And this information was only revealed following an access to information (FOI) request.

Join the “repair team”

In March, a man named Andy Pennington asked the DWP about its so-called “repair team” or “audit trail”. He wanted to know what information he had about this unit that checked people’s complaints. Pennington noted that the repair crew was:

responsible for reviewing each complaint and requesting that the information now be provided [that couldn’t be physically proven before].

The DWP responded. He said he couldn’t give Pennington all the information. This is because if he did:

would be likely to interfere with the prevention and detection of fraud and crime.

Read on …

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But the DWP said that:

when universal credit applications were made during the initial period of the pandemic, customers were informed that their application was accepted under specific COVID 19 regulations and that the ministry would contact them at a later date and ask them for evidence in support of their claim.

We are now reviewing these cases and re-applying the auditing standards that would have been in place at the time had it not been for COVID-19. If the evidence does not support the claim, it will be reviewed and revised to the correct fee and, if applicable, a calculated and assessed overpayment.

1,400 nosy

In June 2021, the DWP gave more details about this to parliament. The Public Accounts Committee noted that the DWP stated that universal credit claims:

the first cases where payments have been made without satisfactory data have been flagged for review and it now has a team of 1,400 people who are methodically reviewing these cases, one by one, to correct them.

Thus, the repair team exists and has around 1,400 DWP employees working there. Since then, reports have been published on the work of the unit. And people are already expressing concerns about it.

A “successful team”

The rightsnet site is a social security forum and news site. Among others, it is used by welfare advisers from charities like the Citizens Advice Bureau to share information and best practices. This is where a discussion between advisors started on the Repair Team. People are talking about clients the unit has taken money from.

A Citizens Advice adviser called it a “hit squad”. Others shared examples of where the repair team got involved. One claimant had to reimburse more than £ 4,000. The DWP told another claimant they overpaid them by almost £ 14,000 – and they had to pay that back.

People are already questioning the legality and procedural correctness of the repair team’s actions. For example, the affected claimant with an invoice for £ 4,000 asked the DWP for a mandatory reconsideration of his decision. He didn’t give them any. Thus, the Citizens Advice adviser brought the applicant’s case directly to the Tribunal Service. This case highlights potential broader issues with the repair crew.

Ignore the rules? Or no rules at all?

Some Citizens Advice advisers believe the DWP is ignoring or not following the law; it is because he is acting illegally. As the DWP claimed, those who did not have to provide physical evidence (verify) parts of their claim complied with emergency Covid-19 legislation; just like the DWP said it would eventually check people’s claims.

An FOI has shown that the DWP appears to either not know or – as one Citizens Advice adviser put it – to “refuse to respond” to exactly what legislation it is referring to. Because, in response to an FOI, he pointed to coronavirus legislation that makes no mention of relaxing verification processes. So, The Canary researched the correct legislation. But it doesn’t seem to exist. As Elliot Kent of the Shelter charity noted on Rightsnet, the bondage of the applicant’s verification process:

was not based on any new statutory authority or decision-making process; it was just updated guidelines.

So if there was no coronavirus legislation for applicants to claim universal credit without providing evidence, under what laws is the DWP now trying to recover people’s overpayments? ?

Gray areas

This is where the repair team seems to be walking on thin ice. Because it seems to flout the existing rules. As Kent pointed out:

where DWP has simply failed to request evidence it now considers appropriate, it is difficult to see what legal basis exists for award decisions to be reviewed if that evidence is not now provided…

Further, while the DWP is entitled to request evidence relating to a past period, failure to provide such evidence does not, by itself, authorize the DWP to revise the award or generate an overpayment.

Illegal actions?

He then went further, pointing out that the 1992 Social Security Administration Act:

authorizes the recovery of amounts in excess of the entitlement (i.e. overpayments). What it does not do is authorize the review of decisions so as to modify the right of the plaintiff and thus create an overpayment. If the underlying eligibility decision has not been legally revised, then there is no payment in excess of eligibility, so there is no overpayment to be recovered.

In other words, the DWP cannot recover money from applicants by simply changing their Social Security allowance. That is, the DWP should follow the rules regarding changed circumstances, reviews, mandatory reviews, etc. Instead, it’s just a matter of telling claimants their allowances are wrong, changing them, and then hitting them with an overpayment bill.

Kent has highlighted a case where this might not be the case – in terms, for example, of a claimant claiming he had no capital over £ 16,000 when he actually did. . But even with that, he noted that the regulations state:

failure to provide the information could provide sufficient grounds to terminate the entitlement in the future, but not to create an overpayment; however, the claimant actually owning the capital can provide a basis for the review of past legal decisions and the imposition of an overpayment.

In addition, it appears that the DWP is reneging on a commitment it previously made.

Go back on pledges

Legally, the DWP is authorized to collect overpayments for which it is responsible. But in 2011, he said he didn’t have to.

At the time, the process of creating Universal Credit was underway. In May 2011, former DWP Minister Chris Grayling testified before the Parliament’s Public Bill Committee. He said that for overpayments attributable to the DWP (known as the “official error”):

The practical reality is that we do not have to collect money from people where an official error has been made, and in many cases we do not intend to collect money where an official mistake has been made. There will be an absolutely clear code of practice that will govern the circumstances under which recovery action will or will not be taken, in order to ensure consistent and thoughtful decision making.

Fast forward to August 2021.

Millions of mistakes

The DWP revealed in an FOI that between April 1, 2020 and March 31, 2021, the DWP made a whopping 337,000 overpayments when the error was theirs. The value of these was over £ 228million. But the DWP also revealed that it had only waived about 10 of the 337,000 overpayment recoveries. This despite what his former minister told parliament in 2011. The value of these waivers was £ 22,000. So that’s 0.0096% of the overpayments the DWP was at fault for. Moreover, he seems that applicants have the right to request a waiver. But as the policy manager of Advice NI charity Kevin Higgins Noted, there seems to be a lack of awareness about this.

DWP says…?

The Canary asked the DWP for comment. A spokesperson told us:

At the start of the pandemic, we rightly suspended some verification processes because we could no longer see customers face to face. However, we have informed customers that we may return to request this verification in the future.

If claimants have received money to which they are not entitled, then it is fair that we seek to correct this on behalf of the taxpayer, while also providing support to ensure that all refunds are affordable.

So what can we do?

A possible class action?

Campaign groups Black Triangle and Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) are asking for evidence of the situation. They said they are:

request proof of retrospective overpayments. Have you received a letter informing you that you have been overpaid by DWP or HMRC since you claimed or transferred Universal Credit?

If so, can you contact us… with proof of the overpayment and your contact information for a possible class action lawsuit to bring the DWP or HMRC dispute to court.

It looks like the DWP has been in chaos since the pandemic hit. But what is really going on here?

Chaos or cruelty?

Is the DWP now desperately trying to make up for the millions of additional claims it has accelerated, and so the Repair Unit is carrying out its duties without realizing that it is breaking ground rules?

Or is it intentional about playing quickly and freely with the law? do it in order to recover as much of your budget as possible? DWP’s spending on universal credit reached over £ 38bn in 2020/21, up from just over £ 18bn in 2019/20. This is an increase of about 111%.

Either way, the DWP appears to be penalizing claimants without following the law. This is not that this is new, as the department has been in court several times in recent years. But as always, it’s the people who can least afford it who end up suffering.

Featured Image via VideoBlogg Productions / The Canary and Wikimedia

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