At the start of the pandemic, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) relaxed some evidence checks for people making a universal credit (UC) claim to provide quicker access to benefits. In January 2021, the DWP began reverifying the details of claims made while evidence checks were eased. This has resulted in some claimants being asked to pay back the entirety of their UC award. More than a year after the exercise started, we continue to hear from people who have had their UC payments stopped, who have received demands to repay all the UC they received, and who are unable to understand or challenge the DWP's decision.
The experiences of people who have been subjected to the DWP’s reverification process raise serious concerns:
- Some claimants have been asked to repay all the UC income they received during their claim, including those we assess to be (or have been) entitled to what they received.
- The evidence indicates that the DWP’s approach to retrospectively deciding that a claimant was not entitled to UC and proceeding to recover that UC income is unlawful.
- The way that the DWP has attempted to reverify claims has made it difficult for claimants to provide the required evidence, particularly those with complex needs and those with limited digital literacy.
- The DWP requests evidence from claimants to verify their eligibility for UC via the online journal, even from claimants who are no longer in receipt of UC and no longer need to check their journal.
- Some claimants only became aware that there was an issue with their UC claim when they received a letter from DWP Debt Management saying they owed thousands of pounds, months after the DWP decided to revise their benefit award. These claimants cannot therefore challenge the DWP’s decision before the one-month deadline. They can make a challenge after this point if they have a ‘good reason’ for the delay, but few claimants know about this and the DWP does not reliably accept late applications.
- Claimants who challenge or appeal the DWP’s decision may make repayments of amounts they should not owe, or receive demands from third party debt recovery agencies while waiting for the decision to be overturned. The mandatory reconsideration (MR) process, through which claimants can challenge a decision made by the DWP, can take many months. The issue may not be resolved for over a year if the challenge progresses to a tribunal appeal.
- Claimants are not provided with adequate information to understand why the DWP decided their UC award was an overpayment, and how they can challenge this.
- The design features of the online UC journal make it harder for claimants to access the information they need, and to challenge the DWPs decision.
Last month, as part of its efforts to tackle fraud, the DWP announced that it would establish a team of 2,000 staff who will review 2 million UC claims over the next five years, including those made during the pandemic. In light of the evidence above it is essential that the DWP addresses the issues with its reverification process before proceeding with any further case reviews. Specifically, we recommend that the DWP:
- Pause the recovery of UC overpayments while a decision is subject to a challenge (as is the case with other benefits).
- Take decisions affecting claimants’ entitlement in accordance with the law by following correct suspension and termination procedures, and by ensuring decision-makers are aware that a single missed deadline by a claimant is not a sufficient reason to change original entitlement decisions, without considering other evidence held by the DWP.
- Provide claimants with comprehensive information about the reason for a decision and overpayment issues.
- Communicate requests for evidence and information which could affect a claimant’s entitlement by physical letter, in addition to existing methods. This is particularly important when contacting claimants who are no longer receiving UC.
- Urgently improve the MR process by making it possible to request an MR via a closed digital UC account, and reducing the time claimants wait for the outcome.