Good morning

One of my landlord clients started the New Year, with something of a damp squib when they received a £15,000 demand from DWP, for an alleged overpayment of “housing costs” relating to an ex-tenant. The demand provided details of the property, the overpayment period, and, the fact the Decision Maker had decided to recover the sum from my client, on the basis they “could reasonably have been expected to notify DWP of the tenant’s change in circumstances”. No other explanation was offered, leaving my clients dumbfounded.

My clients immediately contacted DWP’s Debt Management team, whose contact details appeared on the correspondence. Beggars belief, but no one could explain how the overpayment arose nor why the landlord, rather than the tenant, was being pursued. Instead, my clients were referred to the Complaints Resolution Team (CRT) for the area, even though they were just trying to establish the rationale for the overpayment & their culpability. As CRT, could offer no assistance, my clients were referred to the area’s Service Centre.

On their 3rd attempt, my clients spoke to a manager in the Service Centre who agreed to investigate and report back. A few days later she emailed my clients –

“I have checked this claim to see what the situation is, the claimant called Universal Credit and stated that he has not lived at the property (Flat 2, Brown Street, Anytown) since the Universal Credit claim started…………………..Due to this declaration by the claimant the housing costs have been ended from the above date. Hope this is of assistance to you.”

In other words, the ex-tenant claimed to have never occupied the property, and, although this is most unusual, it was seemingly accepted by DWP, without any consideration or contact with the landlord to establish their view. Unsurprsingly, my clients were less than impressed, completely dissatisfied, and so invited me to assist.

After examining the landlord’s records, I wrote to DWP’s District Manager for the area, requesting a Mandatory Reconsideration, pointing to the following factors:

  1. A tenancy agreement signed by the tenant in April 2018 agreeing to a 12 month contractual agreement.
  2. A statement made to DWP, by the tenant, where he asked for his housing costs to be paid direct to his landlordfrom the off.
  3. Copy of a letter, from the local Job Centre, addressed to the tenant, at his new address, 2 months after he took over the tenancy.
  4. Photographs taken within the property, clearly dated February & June 2019 during repair & gas inspections, which show, in the background, the tenant’s personal belongings such as: bed, bedding, table, cups, kettle, radio, plus foodstuffs, demonstrating he was in occupation at this time.
  5. Copy of an extract from his tenancy agrement showing he commited to advising his landlord, in writing, 1 month in advance of leaving the property permanently.
  6. At the point of taking over the tenancy he had clearly notified Universal Credit of his new address, it had changed its records accordingly and continued paying my clients “housing costs” assuming he was still in residence.
  7. When he made his claim for Universal Credit he made a commitment to notify DWP of any change in his circumstances and clearly had failed to report this.

When an overpayment occurs, one of the the first things DWP must establish is – has there been an overpayment; what period does this cover; who and what caused the overpayment, as this determines culpability. As both tenant & landlord are potential targets for recovery, each has to be formally notified and given the right to a Mandatory Reconsideration and Appeal.

The cause indicated in DWP’s letter is “change in circumstances”. However, as the claim was effectively being “revised” back to the start of claim, the cause should have been stated as – “misrepresetation of a material fact” as it appears the tenant did, in fact, occupy for the majority of the overpayment period and later, when he did move out, failed to notify both his landlord and DWP of his move. In contrast, my client had not, in any way, contributed to the overpayment. So, as the law, including Upper-tier caselaw, prescribes, an overpayment arising from misrepresentation or failure to disclose, should be recovered from the person who caused this – the ex-tenant – instead of the payee!

I have suggested to the District Manager that he should refer the case back to a Decision Maker (DM), not Debt Management. The DM should then reconsider the situation, with the landlord’s account of the facts and evidence in mind. I have also recommended the tenant’s Work Coach or Account Manager should have a conversation with him about his unsupported claim that he never occupied the property, when there’s overwhelming evidence pointing to the contrary.

Meantime, I’ve asked DWP to suppress any further follow-up of this alleged overpayment, until the DM has the chance to review & revise the flawed decision. Contrastingly, if the DM confirms his/her decision, I’ve asked that he/she provide a detailed response to my earlier email & evidence, so that I can prepare an appeal, for my clients. To date every appeal we’ve submitted, on behalf of clients, have been succesful, partly because DWP has failed to respond to our Manadatory Reconsideration and/or appear at First-tier Tribunal hearings.

Three weeks later and despite me prompting DWP with a reminder, we’re still awaiting its response. I also know from our other experiences this type of maladministration is happening on an increasing scale. So, alert your colleagues to this malpractice, remain vigilant and make sure you challenge any attempts at recovery.

If you encounter difficulties with this or any other welfare reform topic, please email bill@ucadvice.co.uk or call me on 07733 080 389.

Bill Irvine

UC Advice & Advocacy Ltd

www.ucadvice.co.uk