I’ve just responded to a First-tier Tribunal Judge’s, Directions Notice, on behalf of my Housing Association client and one of its disabled tenants. The tenant is of “working age” who was receiving ESA (IR), PIP and Housing Benefit, until February 2018, when he agreed to an exchange with another of the Association’s tenants. As the move was within the same council district, he should have notified his council;  it would have treated the move as a “change in circumstances”; and, simply adjusted his Housing Benefit to reflect the new rental charge.

Wishing to ensure he was doing the right thing, he contacted his landlord for advice. As the area had recently changed to “Full Service” the area Housing Officer made a UC claim, but suspecting something wasn’t right, contacted DWP and was advised Universal Credit was indeed the route to pursue.  So, the tenant proceeded with his claim, waited 5 weeks, only to discover he was around £300 per month worse off.

The HO, anxious to remedy the situation for her tenant client, contacted DWP by phone and spoke to an Account Manager. She asked whether it would be possible to withdraw his claim for UC and have his previous benefit entitlement reinstated, allowing payment of ESA & HB. Thankfully, the conversation with DWP was recorded. You can clearly hear the question posed and the Account Manager’s response, stating she had checked things with her manager and been told, withdrawing the UC claim was indeed possible and the client should record his request on his UC “journal”.  By doing so, she maintained HB could be restored and there would be no overpayment to repay.

The tenant subsequently followed the advice, which resulted in his ESA (IR) being reinstated. However, his local council wasn’t so cooperative. It refused to reinstate Housing Benefit, stating that it couldn’t, as it had previously received a “STOP NOTICE” from DWP preventing this.

What happened illustrates DWP staffs’ complete lack of understanding. Firstly, it should never have advised the Housing Officer that a UC claim was appropriate. Secondly, once the tenant made his claim to UC, entitlement to “legacy benefits” including ESA (IR) and HB should have ended. Thirdly, it was wrong to reinstate ESA (IR) once the claim for UC has been made, albeit wrongly. Fourthly, as the STOP NOTICE still applied, the local council couldn’t reinstate Housing Benefit. The net effect of DWP’s poor advice has resulted in the tenant accruing substantial rent arrears, causing him unnecessary stress and anxiety. But for the efforts and dedication of the HO and sympathetic understanding of the Association, he could, quite easily, have lost his tenancy!

At some time in the future, the tenant, due to his underlying SDP entitlement, will receive some relief for the mistaken advice he received. How much he’ll be awarded will depend on the “compensation scheme” which I highlighted in one of my recent bulletins

In an attempt to reduce his rent arrears, I drafted a “late revision” request, to effectively have the flawed cancellation of his UC reviewed and revised in his favour. DWP surprisingly refused the offer to remedy its earlier ESA howler. It treated my request as a Mandatory Reconsideration, and stated its staff were not the source of the wrong advice. Complete nonsense, as the phone record clearly demonstrates.

So, I drafted an appeal. The HO sent this to the Tribunal Service and twice followed this up, over the past couple of months. Despite DWP being instructed by the District Judge to respond, it has yet, failed to do so. The Judge has now instructed a hearing to take place, in the next few weeks, when, hopefully, we’ll be able to secure, at least, a partial “housing cost” payment to cover the intervening gap and reduce his ever-mounting arrears.

You could be forgiven for thinking this case is unusual, if not unique, but if you speak to your Housing Officers, Welfare Rights, Benefits Advice and Financial Inclusion staff, you’ll find many such horror stories already exist in your caseload. For example, the recently introduced “Gateway” designed to stop Severe Disability Premium (SDP) cases from migrating until “Transitional Payments” are in place, has already been breached by both Councils and DWP. I regret to say, there’s every likelihood, mistakes of this nature will become even more commonplace, as “Managed Migration” is implemented, trebling the number of UC recipients, placing more pressure on an already heavily criticised and struggling DWP administration and creating an even more challenging environment for tenants and landlords alike.

Bill Irvine

UC Advice & Advocacy Ltd

May 2019