The Department for Work and Pensions has set a worrying precedent for millions of people hoping to get compensation if civil servants get their benefit and pensions payments wrong or don’t inform them correctly by refusing to pay them a penny.
The decision also shows up the weakness of complaining about maladministration to the Parliamentary Ombudsman, Robert Behrens, in cases involving the ministry as it ignores his rulings.
This particular case involved 62 year old Ms U, who lives alone in London borough of Greenwich -one of the few authorities to still have a welfare rights service – who was on incapacity benefit and was moved on to the new employment and support allowance in 2012. This is aimed to be paid to people who cannot work because of severe health problems and is paid at two levels. The lower level is based on a person’s national insurance contributions and the means tested higher level which include premiums and access to other benefits like free prescriptions in England.
Ms U should have fitted into the second category. Ms U suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, arthritis, hypertension, and Graves’ disease an autoimmune condition. But she was wrongly put in the first category. As a result she lost access to free prescriptions and missed out in getting her home insulated under the Warm Homes scheme.
Ms U couldn’t afford to heat her home
Her representative said:” She could not afford to heat her property and could not afford to buy appropriate food to keep healthy. He said Ms U had poor mental health during that period and highlighted links between paranoid beliefs and depression and economic deprivation.
As far as her physical health was concerned, her hair fell out and she lost a lot of weight. Her representative said that since 2012, Ms U’s health had declined markedly: she had recently had a bypass operation, had deep vein thrombosis and poor blood flow in her legs and was due to have a toe amputated.”
Her underpayment went on for over five years from May 2012 to August 2017 before finally her arrears which then added up to £19,832.55 were paid. But she felt she was also entitled to compensation as the error had been committed by the ministry. The Ombudsman agreed in a report she had suffered an injustice and said the Department should pay her £7,500 compensation and interest on the lost benefit of over £19,000.
NAO report forced the department to find 118,000 other cases
She was not alone. An investigation by the National Audit Office found that some 118,000 disabled people had suffered the same fate prompting anger among MPs on the Commons Works and Pensions and the Public Accounts Committee at this huge error. Some £600m has had to be paid in arrears.
The Ombudsman also recommended that the rest of the 118,000 should also get compensation for maladministration and the department should take a proactive approach to deal with this.
It has now emerged that the department has refused to do this – despite the Ombudsman’s recommendation. I am indebted to Professor Robert Thomas at Manchester University and CEDAWinLAW who spotted this in a freedom of information request two days ago. See @RobertThomas223 and his tweet thread of August 5.
He said in a series of tweets:
“This issue is important because @dwp underpaid these people their benefit entitlements and many will have suffered injustice as a result. @PHSOmbudsman recommended that @DWP proactively compensate them. It refused. Affected people must approach DWP instead.
“But many people lack the confidence, stamina and knowledge to seek redress from government. Also, this is a largely vulnerable cohort of people. The result: unremedied injustice because of @dwp
“The underlying issue is, of course, money and almost certainly HM Treasury’s refusal to fund compensation. But the DWP can present itself as being fair: “anyone can contact us” while also knowing that few affected people will actually do so in practice. “
Since seeing this I have contacted Sir Stephen Timms, Labour chair of the Commons Works and Pensions Committee, to see if, as they promised the Ombudsman, the DWP had alerted him to the decision. Initially he said he could not recall getting this and promised to investigate what has happened.
There is another big issue. This could impact on the Waspi campaign and the all party state pension inequality group of MPs to get compensation for women through a report from the Ombudsman. If after the Ombudsman says compensation is due the DWP follows this practice for the 3.8 million – six people will get compensation and the remaining 3.6 million still alive will have to write individual letters outlining their case to the ministry for any money due which will take even more time to resolve. You have been warned.
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