Good morning

One of my property investor clients, contacted me early January, having received an “invoice” for £1600 demanding repayment of an overpayment of Universal Credit. It covered the period, 26/05/2022 and 25/07/2022 and arose because his tenant vacated the property, without notifying both landlord and DWP. The tenant also held onto the keys of the apartment and left behind a few of his personal belongings.

The invoice simply stated: “benefit was wrongly paid as the tenant had left the property” and “we’re holding you liable, as you could reasonably have known the tenant was being overpaid.” No further explanation was given, nor was any email address offered as a means of contacting DWP for more information.

My client disagreed, and maintained, firstly, he had not received any prior letters concerning this overpayment, nor had he any inclination, until alerted by a neighbour, on 20th July 22, there was anything amiss with the UC award. Consequently, he had no reason nor obligation, to report the tenant’s vacation of his property. In contrast, the tenant was at fault for not alerting, both DWP and landlord owner of his intention to permanently vacate the apartment. He was aware of that fact, as he made a declaration to that effect, when he made his claim for Universal Credit, and gave a similar undertaking to his landlord, when he signed his tenancy agreement.

I submitted a Mandatory Reconsideration (MR), on his behalf, via email to DWP’s Service Leader, and in the past few days, received DWP’s favourable response, in the form of a “MR Notice”. As expected, DWP’s Decision Maker “revised” the earlier decision, in my client’s favour, accepting he simply wasn’t aware of his tenant’s change in circumstances and exonerated him of any liability.

However, a day later, I received a rather confusing and contradictory letter from a “Complaints Resolution Manager” responding to the same MR, advising me, she had been asked by her Service Leader to investigate & could now explain:

a) “A claimant’s entitlement can alter due to changes in their “personal” or “housing costs” circumstances, and when that occurs, the landlord will be responsible for repaying the resulting overpayment”.

b) “The UC award belongs to the claimant, therefor there is no right of appeal”.

So which of the two letters should I accept as being correct?

The answer is quite simple, the MR Notice is correct. Whereas the letter from the Complaints Manager is inappropriate as we’re dealing with the client’s “appeal” rights, not a “complaint”. The advice provided is also misleading, as culpability for repayment is not determined simply by receiving payment. Just as happens in Housing Benefit, landlords can be excused from liability, especially where the tenant fails to report material changes, and where the landlord can prove they’ve played no part in what caused the overpayment.

Worryingly, I am seeing, all too often, examples of DWP’s staff struggling to appreciate the difference between an “entitlement” or “adjudication” dispute, which need to be determined by “Decision Makers” and notified via an MR Notice, as opposed to a simple benefit query or complaint which can be dealt with by someone like a Work Coach or Account Manager.

By way of illustration; if your tenant reckons their benefit award is understated in some way (e.g., a missing child, disability, or carers element or their housing costs have been wrongly restricted, then the MR route is the way to proceed and once lodged, demands a MR Notice reply, indicating  either:

  1. DWP’s willingness to revise the award partially or fully in their favour; or
  2. The department’s intention to stick by its original decision, giving a full explanation why, and advice on how to appeal if they remain unhappy.

The Complaints Process should be focused on resolving disputes, where delays occur in the processing of claims or payments; DWP fails to reply to questions, posed on the tenant’s journal or act on information provided (e.g., passport, driving, marriage, birth documents/certificates etc.) to validate claims and allow awards to be made. Landlords experiencing problems with “direct payments” can only pursue complaints under UC, because the right to appeal, which exists under Housing Benefit, does not apply to Universal Credit – more’s the pity!

Customer Service or Complaints Officers should not be involved in determining Mandatory Reconsideration requests or Appeals. Those should be handled by more experienced adjudication staff. Furthermore, if you submit a Mandatory Reconsideration and DWP fails to respond in the way, I have explained, it’s within your rights to refer the case to the Tribunal Service, seeking the intervention of a District Judge to determine whether DWP’s failure to reply or revise your award, constitutes grounds for the Tribunal accepting jurisdiction. I use this tactic on a regular basis, especially where I believe DWP is simply trying to frustrate the MR or appeal processes.

If you require clarification on any aspect of this article, please contact me or phone 07733 080 389.

Bill Irvine

UC Advice & Advocacy Ltd