When coronavirus hit in early 2020, like the rest of the country, the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) had to make some changes. As entire industries shut down, hundreds of thousands of people had to claim Social Security benefits for the first time so they had money to live on, or support with rent payments to avoid ending up homeless.
One of the changes DWP made was to relax the evidential requirements for people claiming Universal Credit (UC). Because of lockdown, it was much more difficult for people to access the supporting evidence they would usually need to provide.
But in the last year or so, a Risk Review Team at DWP has been looking into old cases, deciding where evidence has been inadequate and asking for updated evidence. Some people have had to show they are in the country by posing with a daily newspaper and a UK plug socket, like hostages. Others have had to provide different evidence, such as tenancy agreements for claims for housing costs. If not happy with the evidence provided, DWP have then taken away the person’s entitlement for that past period, creating a hefty overpayment it demands is quickly repaid.
My client Lisa (not her real name) had to claim UC after her industry was shut down and her employment ended at the start of the pandemic. She needed help with her rent, so provided information about her housing costs and a tenancy agreement for a property she moved into in April 2020 – the height of lockdown.
The original tenancy agreement wasn’t signed – understandably with virtual viewings, closed offices and social distancing. When she later provided a signed agreement, DWP alleged that it was fabricated. As a result, DWP decided all of the money Lisa had received towards her rent – almost £8,000 – was an overpayment that she was not entitled to. By the time it started to recover the overpayment, Lisa was working and no longer receiving Universal Credit. Undeterred, DWP simply took money directly from her earnings.
To add insult to injury, as it considered that Lisa was at fault, DWP added an additional Civil Penalty on top. This is a £50 fine added to an overpayment, but importantly it allows any overpayment to be recovered at a much higher rate.
The Tribunal judge dealing with the case many months later, provided some much-needed common sense. He took seconds to ask DWP’s representative whether there was any reason the appeal shouldn’t be allowed, noting that there were obviously difficulties with documents at that point of the pandemic. DWP’s rep conceded there was no such reason, and Lisa’s deductions were stopped and the money she had already paid was returned to her. But it should not have taken a tribunal judge and a months-long process to recognise this injustice.
Universal Credit recovery
There are several damaging features of how overpayments under the Universal Credit system are recovered. If DWP decides you have been overpaid, the money it says it’s owed can be recovered automatically – even if the overpayment was DWP’s fault. Second, unlike benefits under the previous system (such as ESA), recovery will continue even if you are formally challenging the overpayment decision. In the meantime, people like Lisa just have to manage with eye-watering deductions from their earnings or already-minimal benefits.
We do not know how many people have been stung with overpayments that are entirely wrong under the Risk Review process, but Lisa’s will not be the only case.
Please get in touch with Z2K if you live in London, have an overpayment like this, and are currently in receipt of a means-tested benefit. Please note that we are a small team with limited capacity so we cannot take all cases.