15th August, 2021
In May this year, one of my Housing Association clients contacted me, seeking assistance with three separate overpayment invoice demands, from DWP, collectively amounting to, circa £5000. Before contacting me, its Finance Manager decided to tackle the problem, by contacting DWP’s Debt Management team, who had sent the invoices.
She quickly discovered, the telephone numbers on the invoices were surprisingly non-operational. The Customer Service number, again, highlighted on the invoice, was tried, but, almost immediately, an automatic answering machine kicked in, then promptly cut her off. She tried to reconnect but experienced the same outcome. It was at this point; she referred the cases to me to deal with.
You might be surprised to hear, firstly, there is no dedicated form or process, relating to Universal Credit, which allows landlords to request Mandatory Reconsiderations. In contrast, tenants can do so, by simply phoning their account manager, post their challenge using their online journal, or use the dedicated MR form designed for claimants, which I have found, when representing tenants, is the most effective way of securing a quick outcome.
In my client’s cases, I emailed DWP’s Area Director, inserting only “Mandatory Reconsideration” in the subject box. In the body of the email, I cited the three cases, and attached each of the invoices. I also pointed to the fact, my clients had never received a “decision letter”, which should precede the service of the invoice. I also questioned why my clients were being held culpable, when the invoices suggested, the overpayments were caused by a failure to report a change in the tenant’s circumstances.
As claimants, each of the tenants had a legal obligation to report any relevant change, that could alter the quantum or duration of their award. Whereas, my clients had not made the claim, nor had they assisted the tenant in this respect, so had absolutely no knowledge of what the tenant had disclosed or failed to disclose. Consequently, how could they be aware there had been a material change, and, as they had played no part in the cause or extent of the overpayment, they should be exonerated.
It was apparent from the detail in all three cases, my clients were being pursued, simply because they had received “direct payments” with DWP leaping to the conclusion “they could reasonably have known they were being overpaid” without offering any rational explanation. However, the law on culpability and recoverability is a bit more sophisticated.
When overpayments occur, it is incumbent on the Decision Maker to examine the facts and firstly, determine the true cause(s) of the overpayment (e.g., misrepresentation of facts or failure to disclose changes) before determining culpability. The fact my clients had received payments direct, did not itself, permit DWP to conclude, they should be held culpable. In all cases, the tenants appeared to have been at fault, so it was to them DWP should pursue recovery, using the Third-Party process. But DWP is aware of the limitations this places on them, as in terms of the hierachy, overpayments are well down the pecking order, whereas, recovering from landlords can be done in one swoop!
DWP has since revised its decision, in favour of my clients, in one case. The other two are still in the process of being re-examined because DWP overlooked to send copies of my original email and attachements, to the appropriate Decision Makers. That mistake has been remedied, so it is now a case of waiting. I’m confident we’ll persuade the Decision Maker to reverse the original decision and secure my client’s desired outcome. If not, I will assist my clients appeal to the First-tier Tribunal.
Overpayment demands from DWP will increasingly become another problem for your staff to tackle, as DWP tries to recoup the £6 billion overpaid in 2020-21 and the similarly horrendous sums from earlier years. If you receive one, and feel it is unwarranted, start the process of challenging it immediately and do not let up, until the dispute is concluded, one way or another.
If you require any advice or assistance with Housing Benefit or Universal Credit overpayments, or any related matter, please contact me via email firstname.lastname@example.org or by telephone 07733 080 389 and I will do my best to assist.
UC Advice & Advocacy Ltd