18th May, 2021
You may already have seen this article which appeared on BBC news the other day. It explains how in 2020-21, Fraud & Error in respect of DWP’s overall benefit payments amounted to £8.4billion, up from £4.6 Billion the year before. £6 Billion or 75% of the overall figure is attributed to Universal Credit, representing around 14% of UC’s overall expenditure.
By anyone’s standards these staggering figures simply beggar belief. Not so, we are told by DWP’s Director General, Neil Couling.
He puts it down to: “Following an unprecedented year…………fraud and error in the benefits system remains low with 95% of benefits worth more than £200bn paid correctly………………………We take any abuse of taxpayers’ money very seriously and those who claim benefits they are untitled to will face criminal prosecution………………….We also have robust plans in place to recover fraudulent claims and drive fraud and error down to the lowest feasible level.”
Most landlords who accommodate Universal Credit claimants would disagree. They know, through experience or reading landlord blogs & articles, that the “housing costs element” of Universal Credit has been the subject of abuse, on a truly scandalous level, for at least 6 years. Its Director General, however, chose to dismiss landlord pleas for changes to the way Alternative Payment Arrangements (direct payments) were being administered, which permitted, then and now, delinquent tenants to repeatedly access their HCE by persuading DWP staff to restore payment to them so they could misuse their “housing costs element”, putting their tenancies in jeopardy and causing their landlord wholly avoidable rental loss. The APA scheme was designed to prevent this from happening and Pre-action protocols assume it’s working as Parliament decreed. It’s not!
Associated with above, several of my landlord clients have received, in recent weeks, “Overpayment” invoice demands from DWP’s Debt Management team. All invoices seek repayment of “housing costs element” on the basis, as landlord, receiving an APA – “you could reasonably have known an overpayment was occurring”. No further explanation is offered. The phone numbers displayed on the invoice are non responsive. An attempt to phone Debt Management’s Customer Service number – Telephone: 0800 916 0647 results in an automatic response, suggesting a 20–30 minute delay, only to be disconnected. Not exactly what DWP claims in its Debt Management Service Standards
It claims “Debt Management’s advisors will be able to access records and update them from whichever of the sites your call is routed to. This allows you greater access to the services and advice we can offer.” In fact, I received no service at all; was completely frustrated by my inability to engage with DWP staff and sheer lack of progress.
What is clear, DWP does not wish to engage with you via email or phone. Instead, you are asked to write to DWP’s Wolverhampton Mail Opening Office. In the cases I have dealt with, I have ignored that advice and simply submitted a Mandatory Reconsideration, claiming no statutory overpayment notice has been issued; no rights of appeal have been provided; no explanation has been offered as to why my client landlords are culpable and that, in the event the Decision Maker is unwilling to review & revise, we will lodge an appeal. As I’ve started the dispute process, recovery action should be suppressed, pending the outcome of the Mandatory Reconsideration and later appeal.
If you encounter any Overpayment invoices, I recommend you take similar action as there is clearly a disconnect between Decision Makers and the Debt Management section. Do not assume the invoice is a mistake or you are likely to experience attempts by Debt Management to enforce recover 1/2 months later, via Bailiffs or Sheriff Officers (Scotland).
If you need any advice or assistance with this, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 07733 080 389.
UC Advice & Advocacy Ltd