DWP abuses the power they have over peoples’ Universal Credit journals

Many people receive incorrect Universal Credit payments as a result of Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) maladministration. As Liz* and Emma* have experienced, it can be difficult to identify maladministration when the DWP retrospectively correct their errors on peoples’ Universal Credit journals.

Becca Stacey, Policy and Campaigns Officer

I have recently started as a Policy and Campaigns Officer at Z2K, and the policy area that I am focusing on is Universal Credit. Over the past month, I have engaged with some of our clients to gain an insight into what their experiences of being on Universal Credit are. Something that I was shocked to learn, was that the DWP has retrospectively edited incorrect payments on some clients’ Universal Credit journals, causing confusion for our clients and caseworkers.

It is not uncommon to be overpaid Universal Credit as a result of Departmental error – in 2018/19 alone, the DWP recovered £19.3m related to Universal Credit overpayments across the country arising as a result of Departmental errors.

Previously, for people in receipt of legacy benefits who had been overpaid as a result of Departmental error, this overpayment was not recoverable. However, people now in receipt of Universal Credit, New Style Job Seekers Allowance, and New Style Employment and Support Allowance have to repay any overpayment of their benefit, regardless of how that overpayment occurred.

If someone has been overpaid due to Departmental error, up to 15% of their standard allowance is deducted from future payments until this overpayment is repaid. This means that people receive less money than they had expected, through no fault of their own, which can lead to financial difficulty. What’s more, it can often be hard identifying when an overpayment occurred, because of the DWP correcting their errors on peoples’ Universal Credit journals, creating further confusion and stress for the person in receipt of that overpayment.

This was what happened to Liz. The DWP wrote to tell her that they had overpaid her Universal Credit one month. However, there was a discrepancy between the amount they said they had overpaid, and the amount that Liz had actually received in her bank account. When Liz checked her Universal Credit journal to clarify, she could not see the overpaid amount the DWP said had been made, nor the amount that she had received in her bank account, but instead that month’s payment amount was recorded as being what she should have received had the error not occurred. The DWP had gone in and amended their original mistake. Eventually, the actual overpaid amount was clarified, but due to Universal Credit overpayments not being challengeable, Liz’s future Universal Credit payments are subject to £10 deductions until this overpayment is repaid. This leaves Liz, who is already in rent arrears, in a difficult position financially.

As well as overpayments, DWP maladministration can also result in Universal Credit underpayments. Emma had set up an alternative payment arrangement so that her Universal Credit housing costs were paid directly to her landlord. Due to DWP maladministration, her landlord was underpaid her rent by £205 per month for four months. This led to a shocking shortfall of £820. As a result, she was in rent arrears, and it took the DWP two and a half years to make this back payment in rent.

However, according to Emma’s Universal Credit journal, the DWP paid her landlord the correct amount of £640.98 for these four months, as they had retrospectively rectified their initial error. If it wasn’t for Emma screenshotting the original underpaid payments of £435.98 on her journal before this amendment, there would have been no evidence of what the previous entitlement was.

Screenshot of original payment:

Screenshot of revised payment:

Not having a mechanism in place to see when payment amounts are revised on a client’s journal is extremely confusing, not only for people claiming Universal Credit, but also for caseworkers trying to support these people in navigating the social security system. It also raises the question of whether this retrospective editing results in the removal of audit trails.

As our client Emma recommends, having an additional entry on Universal Credit online journals to demonstrate when a payment has been retrospectively amended, would provide both clarity and transparency, and remove unnecessary stress and confusion for people claiming Universal Credit.

Going forwards, we will be working to outline this issue and Emma’s proposed resolution, in particular through our response to The Economic Affairs Committee’s evidence inquiry into Universal Credit, and through working with the Work and Pensions Select Committee once it has formed to ensure that the voices of our clients are listened to when reforming Universal Credit.

*Pseudonyms have been used to protect our clients’ identities

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