Blanket approach unlawful says CPAG
People who claimed universal credit at the start of the pandemic when face-to-face identity checks were suspended have had their claims stopped and demands for the repayment of their entire award, Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) reports.
The charity says as part of the DWP’s retrospective checks on awards, claimants who didn’t supply ID evidence by the deadline set by DWP when asked to do so have had their awards summarily terminated (the DWP refers to this a “closing a claim”) and have been notified that all of the money they received during their UC award since March / April 2020 is an overpayment. They have also received demands to repay the purported overpayments – usually worth thousands of pounds – and threats of referral to and enforcement by debt collection agencies. In some cases, the DWP has arranged attachment of earnings orders with employers so that the money is automatically recovered in instalments at a rate of up to 20% of claimants’ earnings, even when they have made requests for an internal review of the DWP’s decision which have not yet been dealt with (see cases below).
It appears that DWP have unlawfully applied a blanket presumption across all claimants that a failure to respond to a request for evidence made well over a year after they initially claimed - and often with good reason due to difficult personal circumstances - means that claimants were not entitled to UC at the time they claimed, leading DWP to terminate claims and seek repayment. This approach would be unlawful because it falls below the legal requirement that individual decisions can only be retrospectively changed such a long time after they were made if there is evidence that the original decision was based on a factual mistake, a test not met by a simple failure to provide ID evidence within a short time limit.
Solicitor at Child Poverty Action Group Claire Hall said:
“Just as families are getting back on their feet, many of those who lost their jobs when the pandemic first hit are being put through a second ordeal by the DWP. Despite making legitimate claims for universal credit over 18 months ago, people have now received financially devastating debt notices simply because they haven’t been able to comply with requests to verify their details quickly. Families will only be able to rest easy if DWP urgently reviews all the cases where they have issued an overpayment notice for not providing evidence, and suspends collection of these supposed debts until they have done so.”
In one case taken on by the charity the claimant phoned the DWP to offer the requested ID evidence within two hours of receiving notice of the overpayment of over £13,000 but was told his award had been stopped and he would have to go through an internal review of the DWP’s overpayment decision. After waiting over 2 months since the decision for the outcome of the internal review to no avail, and with debt recovery letters being sent in the meantime, CPAG took up his case. Within 2 days of CPAG sending judicial review pre action correspondence the DWP revised the overpayment notice (in effect confirming his entitlement to the £13,000) and reopened the UC claim. The claimant had not responded to the DWP’s three attempts to contact him via his journal and missed a telephone appointment because within the space of a fortnight he suffered a close family bereavement and he himself contracted Covid.
In another case, CPAG is advising a taxi driver who claimed UC because he could not work during lockdown. His entire UC award of almost £12,000 was voided on the grounds that he did not supply “full proof of [his] ID’s” despite the fact that within the deadline given he uploaded to his online Journal his passport, driving licence and rent agreement, as requested by DWP. After receiving notification on his Journal that his “claim ha[d] been closed” he attended his local Jobcentre the next day where a member of staff took a selfie with him and photos of him and he asked for an internal review of the DWP’s overpayment decision. Five weeks later he received a letter from the DWP’s Debt Management team requesting he repay the entire amount. He still has access to his UC online journal, but because his award has been terminated, he cannot use it to communicate with the DWP. He has been forced to set up a monthly repayment plan to avoid the debt being passed to a third-party debt collection agency, even though his internal review request is pending.
In another case, the claimant uploaded all her ID documents which DWP had requested by the deadline but she had also been requested to provide a ‘selfie’, which she was unable to provide because she doesn’t own a smart phone with a camera. She explained this to DWP via her journal but her UC award was terminated and she was told she was not entitled to UC. By this time she was working again and was receiving a £0 award of UC but was shocked when she subsequently received a letter from DWP Debt Management notifying her that she owes £4,650. DWP started recovering the money through a direct earnings attachment to her wages from her new employer even though she had submitted a request for an internal review.
The DWP has retrospectively checked 900,000 ‘at risk’ claims made early in the pandemic. Eleven per cent of these were found to be incorrect. It is not known how many of those incorrect awards have been deemed overpayments but CPAG says evidence from welfare rights advisers suggests a significant number of claimants are likely to be receiving overpayment decisions and recovery demands for money they are properly entitled to. For overpayments of UC, unlike all other benefits, DWP’s policy is to not suspend recovery even if claimants are challenging the overpayment decision through the internal review process or the statutory appeal process.
Cases on CPAG’s Early Warning System:
A woman applied for UC in spring 2020 and was paid until June 2021. She received a letter from the DWP stating that it had closed her claim because it was unable to verify her identity, and that she therefore had a £4,000+ overpayment. The claimant had changed her phone number shortly after claiming and had called the DWP UC line four or more times to tell them her new number but was unable to get through due to long waiting times.
A claimant with mental health problems started on UC in March 2020. In December 2020 she was asked to verify her ID again. However, because of illness, missed appointment calls by DWP, being locked out of her journal and a computer updating problem at DWP, she didn’t manage to comply. Her claim has now been closed and she has been asked to repay £3,500. The DWP has applied for an attachment of earnings order.
Joint UC claim. Partner A verified her identity. Partner B couldn’t make verification work. However UC was paid for 11 months. Partner B has now received a letter from DWP debt management saying there is no entitlement to UC because they have been unable to verify his identity officially and want all the money back (£6,100).
A graduate living at home with his parents claimed UC from April 2020. He got a job in June, reported this and his UC entitlement ended from late July. He kept getting texts from UC re jobs, job fairs etc, which he ignored. In March 2021 he got an overpayment decision from UC covering all the UC he had been paid (£1,100), because in December 2020 he had apparently failed to provide the requested identification. As he wasn’t entitled to UC at the time, he hadn’t looked at the alleged request on his journal.
Note to editors:
*CPAG’s Early Warning System gathers and analyses case work from welfare rights advisers across the UK.
In the early weeks of the pandemic the DWP introduced a ‘Trust and Protect’ process under which face-to-face evidence verification interviews were suspended and claimants were dealt with by phone or online.
CPAG press contact: Jane Ahrends 07816 909302