23rd July, 2019
In today’s bulletin, we highlight the critical part played by specialist benefits staff, in helping tenants overcome the ever-increasing obstacles placed in their path, by DWP’s mishandling of claims, its seeming reluctance or inability to remedy errors, and, on occasions, downright intransigenence.
West of Scotland Housing Association (WOSHA) employs a welfare rights team, who, amongst other things, provide advice & support to housing and income management colleagues and, in some of the more complex and challenging cases, assume responsibility for pursuing the issues, under dispute, with council Housing & Council Tax Benefit sections and DWP staff, in relation to other means-tested and disablement benefits.
The following case example underlines the critical role these specialist staff currently perform. Demands for their specialist input are likely to spike over the next few years, as Managed Migration and an additional 5 million claimant caseload takes effect. Approximately one third of migrating cases will involve tenants claiming Employment Support Allowance (ESA). As highlighted in earlier bulletins, this group of claimants are being badly mishandled by DWP as they transition to UC, invariably experiencing an unacceptable level of financial turmoil & distress.
Ms X (40) an MS sufferer, moved from her parent’s home to her own tenancy in June 2018 and made a claim for UC, including her housing costs. Prior to this she received ESA (support group) and had the enhanced rates of PiP for both mobility and daily living. Ms X contacted the ESA department to advise she had claimed UC. ESA payments initially stopped, but then restarted as DWP’s UC team failed to issue a Stop Notice preventing further payment of ESA(IR).
Ms X and her HA representative were advised by Jobcentre that the ESA would be overpaid but that as this was down to DWP “official error” in issuing the stop notice belatedly, recovery would be waived.
Ms X received her first payment of UC in late July 18. Rent was deducted and sent to WOSHA and an overpayment of ESA amounting to £550.98 was deducted from the remaining balance, leaving tenant with only £23.75 to live off for two weeks. In between, there was no contact from Case Manager, through online Journal, nor any letter of explanation or offer of a repayment schedule or ability to negotiate one. DWP also overlooked to include her work capability element (£328 LCWRA component) in the UC award. It’s difficult to comprehend just how badly each of these elements was mishandled!
Online “Journal” entries from Ms X querying the above were ignored. Welfare Rights Officer picked up the baton, phoned DWP, querying why all this had happened when previously she’s been advised that the Overpayment, would not be pursued. The WRO lodged a Mandatory Reconsideration (MR) highlighting the missing disability element, the overly punitive deduction and made a formal complaint about DWP’s poor handling of the case, which had caused stress and anxiety for the tenant.
After phone calls were made to/from DWP by WRO, the case was escalated to two different Partnership Managers. Neither seemed to know how best to handle the situation and the conclusion reached made no sense whatsoever. Consequently, a further email was sent to the Senior Partnership Manager who immediately passed it back to yet another Partnership Manager to deal with. Thankfully, she did take ownership, recognising the MR and complaint had to be dealt with separately, but the staff member she passed the case to clearly didn’t understand what was required to remedy the errors.
Nevertheless through the WRO’s endeavour, the UC was award was eventually amended to include the disability (LCWRA) element, backdated to Ms X’s first benefit assessment period (BAP). An overpayment recovery rate of £10 per month was also agreed to ensure the remaining ESA overpayment was recovered at a much more affordable rate. Some progress at long last!
However, only two months later, Ms X contacted the WRO to advise, despite the earlier agreement, DWP had, without further discussion, increased the recovery rate and failed to answer related Journal queries. When the WRO contacted UC Debt Management, she was advised that any recovery arrangement only lasts six months, before automatically being reverted to the standard higher rate; a fact no one had thought to explain beforehand. But due to the WRO’s perseverance, DWP agreed to revert to the original agreement.
The WRO continued to pursue the complaint with the Complaints Resolution Team (CRT) questioning why the Overpayment is being pursued, when originally DWP had agreed to waive recovery? Why, the large deduction was made to Ms X’s award, leaving her with £23.75 to live off with no warning? Why the journal entries remained unanswered?
CRT has since concluded that the MR and complaint should be treated as one; apologised for the degree of misinformation that had been given and intimated “responding to “online journal entries was way down the list of priorities issued by DWP hierarchy to its Case Managers and Work Coaches”. Whatever happened to the notion, promulgated by DWP, from day 1, that regular “online journal” communication between claimant and DWP would be critical to the success of the new scheme?
One year later, the complaint has moved to stage 2 and is currently awaiting an outcome response from JP Marks, Director for Work & Health. Neither the tenant nor WRO is expecting DWP to concede its position. More likely, the case will need to be referred to the Independent Case Examiner (ICE) where the current waiting time is 18-20 months BEFORE it starts its investigation. A classic case of “justice delayed……. justice denied!
The big worry is, as the rollout expands, cases of this nature, will become the norm, creating further demand for specialist advice services, like those offered to WOSHA tenants, with Associations, UK wide, picking up responsibility for related advice & representation services, with all the associated costs this entails, in order to protect their most vulnerable tenants from DWP maladministration and indifference.
UC Advice & Advocacy Ltd