A minister has been asked why the benefits of hundreds of sick and disabled claimants are apparently being sanctioned, even though they should not have to meet any of the strict conditions imposed by the government’s new universal credit system.
Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) figures show that more than 1,100 claimants of universal credit were being sanctioned in February this year (1,108), even though they had been moved into the “working enough” or “no work-related requirement” group.
They have usually been moved into these groups because they have been found not “fit for work” or are not expected to look for jobs.
The figures also show a striking increase in the number of claimants in these two groups who were being sanctioned from January 2017 (649) to February 2017 (1,109).
The concerns have been raised by the Commons work and pensions committee, after it was sent the figures by employment minister Alok Sharma.
In a letter to Sharma, the committee’s chair, Frank Field, says: “What is the point of applying sanctions to people who cannot work and are not expected to look for jobs?
“The DWP have yet to make the case that benefit sanctions work to get people into employment and it’s difficult to see how they can have that affect for people who are ‘working enough’ or cannot work.
“Benefit sanctions are the only major welfare reform this decade to have never been evaluated, and the picture DWP paints of the policy doesn’t match the troubling stories we’ve heard.”
The committee also raised concerns with Sharma that DWP’s figures “consistently understate” the number of benefit claimants being sanctioned, particularly those on the out-of-work disability benefit employment and support allowance (ESA), where there is a high rate of successful appeals.
In Field’s letter, he says that DWP removes a sanction decision from its statistics if it is overturned at an appeal.
This had been pointed out by Dr David Webster, a leading researcher on unemployment and sanctions at the University of Glasgow, when he gave evidence in May to the committee’s inquiry into the benefit sanctions regime.
Webster had told the committee that the only reason DWP had not abandoned ESA sanctions when the National Audit Office reported in November 2016 that their use led to a fall in the time claimants spent in work was because of “embarrassment”.
Field asks Sharma in his letter to publish pre-appeal sanction figures so that “the true picture can be understood”.
In one month, in December 2016, the pre-appeal figures would have been 57 per cent higher (1,173) than the figures published by DWP (749).
By January 2018, the pre-appeal figures were still 30 per cent higher (544 rather than 420).
Asked to respond to the points raised by Field in his letter to Sharma, a DWP spokeswoman declined to explain why disabled people were apparently being sanctioned when there were no conditions attached to their universal credit.
She did not dispute the universal credit sanction figures but said that “where someone’s situation changes and they have different conditionality, we can adjust an ongoing sanction amount”.
And she claimed that “only a small proportion of sanction decisions are appealed and in the cases where they are overturned, the claimant’s payments are backdated”.
19 July 2018
McVey’s U-turn means DWP will pay at least £100 million more to disabled claimants
Disabled people will be paid more than £100 million extra in backdated benefits owed by the government, after a U-turn by work and pensions secretary Esther McVey on the eve of a court hearing.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) had previously only agreed to offer a partial backpayment to an estimated 70,000 disabled people who for years did not receive the correct level of out-of-work disability benefits.
The underpayments were caused by the botched migration of former claimants of incapacity benefit and other benefits to the new employment and support allowance (ESA) from 2011 onwards.
The department failed to realise that many of the claimants were entitled to income-related ESA – and therefore to associated disability premiums – rather than just the contributory form of ESA.
Although DWP had previously agreed to pay back as much as £340 million to those affected – with average payments likely to be about £5,000 – it had said it would only backdate arrears to 21 October 2014, the point at which the upper tribunal ruled that DWP should have assessed claimants for both income-related and contribution-based ESA when deciding their entitlement.
DWP had been refusing to pay back another £100 million to £150 million in arrears that dated from before 21 October 2014.
But yesterday (Wednesday), McVey announced that claimants would receive arrears backdated to the date they moved onto ESA, with some claimants now likely to receive up to £10,000 more in arrears.
It is just one in a series of major errors by DWP senior civil servants relating to disability benefits, with the department now believed to be carrying out six separate trawls through the records of disabled people unfairly deprived of benefits.
In a written statement to MPs, McVey said that individuals contacted about their backpayments could expect to receive the “appropriate payment” within 12 weeks after the “relevant information” has been gathered.
Those who have already received arrears payments from 21 October 2014 will have their cases looked at again, with additional arrears paid dating back to the date they were moved onto ESA.
The announcement came as DWP was about to face a court hearing in a judicial review case taken by the Child Poverty Action Group on behalf of a claimant who was underpaid from 2012.
Meg Hillier, chair of the Commons public accounts committee, welcomed McVey’s announcement, which came hours after a report by her committee had attacked DWP’s “culture of indifference”, which saw it take six years to start to address its ESA error.
She said: “I was appalled by the department’s apparent indifference to correcting its mistakes.
“Today’s statement, coming so soon after publication of our report, indicates DWP finally intends to treat this problem with the seriousness it deserves.”
Hillier had said earlier, in publishing her committee’s report, that DWP “simply didn’t listen to what claimants, experts, support organisations and its own staff were saying.
“Its sluggishness in correcting underpayments, years after it accepted responsibility for the error, points to weaknesses at the highest levels of management.
“Indifference has no place in the delivery of vital public services. It must be rooted out wherever it is found.”
19 July 2018 by John Pring, Disability News Service