DWP in 2021: Record fraud, record management bonuses and record pension underpayments

Department for Work and Pensions

The latest annual report for the Department for Work and Pensions was published last week and reveals yet another litany of failures in this ministry. After a drubbing last year from Parliament’s watchdog, the National Audit Office, its accounts were qualified again making it the 34th year in succession it has failed to balance the books accurately.

This finding may also be a Whitehall record – there can hardly be another ministry in Whitehall that has so spectacularly failed to produce accounts with a clean audit sheet.

The big benefit fraud failure is again the government’s flagship Universal Credit. In 2020 it the rate of overpayments increased from 4.4% in 2019-20 to 7.5% in 2020-21. Nearly all of the increase in fraud and error was on Universal Credit. DWP estimates it overpaid £5.5 billion of Universal Credit (14.5%) and underpaid £540 million (1.4%).

In 2021  it overpaid £8.5 billion of benefits – the highest level recorded. Fraudulent Universal Credit claims account for £5.2 billion of the £8.5 billion overpaid. DWP estimates that it overpaid 14.7% of all Universal Credit payments in 2021-22, compared to 9.4% in 2019-20 (the year preceding the pandemic). DWP paused fraud and error prevention measures due to COVID-19 disruption, some of which have not yet been reinstated.

As at 31 March 2022, DWP is owed £7.6 billion of benefit overpayments, Tax Credits, and advances by around five million claimants, an increase of over £1 billion from 2020-21. DWP expects this pattern to continue until it has fully embedded new prevention measures. It recovered £2.0 billion of this debt in 2021-22, with 90% of debt recovered through benefit deductions. DWP can only recover overpayments it identifies – most overpayments are not identified and will not be recovered.

Disabled people are also suffering mainly from underpayment of attendance allowance. The NAO report says: “The estimated rate of overpayment in Attendance Allowance is 2.2% (£120 million), and the underpayment rate is 4.3%(£230 million).

” These estimates suggest that Attendance Allowance has the lowest rate of overpayment (excluding State Pension), but the highest rate of underpayment of the benefits sampled this year. Almost all the underpayment of Attendance Allowance is classified as claimant error. In previous years the Department has used Disability Living Allowance (DLA) as a proxy rate for Attendance Allowance.”

Turning to pension payment once again women are being singled out to receive the worst treatment after being underpaid for years.

Widowed pensioners left to wait 18 months to 2 years

The report says DWP now estimates that it has underpaid £1.46 billion to 237,000 state pensioners. This is an increase of £429 million and an increase of 105,000 pensioners on its best estimate at the end of 2020-21. DWP has carried out additional reviews of its records to understand the pensioners that may be affected, but the full extent of the underpayments will not be known until every case has been reviewed. DWP aims to complete its review of State Pension underpayments by the end of 2023 for two of the three affected groups2 but this deadline will not be met for the largest group, widowed pensioners, which may take until late 2024 to complete. DWP will need to significantly increase the rate at which it reviews cases.

This means if you have been widowed civil servants will not even look at what you are owed for another 18 months  and you will be lucky to get the money by the end of 2024.

However while pensioners and the disabled wait for their legally entitled payments it has been a bonanza year for the top management of the DWP. This year a record 7 of the 11 ( it was 5 the previous year) top management walked away with extra bonuses for their work. This may be due to how the department had to handle extra Universal Credit payments during the pandemic but it is startling given the abysmal report by the NAO on its control of fraud and failure to pay people the right pensions.

You will have to remember some civil servants can retire at 60 depending on what civil service pensions scheme they belong to – 6 years before the public get their state pension – with both high pensions and a generous one off payment.

This is the roll call of the beneficiaries.

From top left: John-Paul Marks, Jonathan Mills, Neil Couling, Peter Schofield, Kate Farrington, Debbie Alder and Nick Joicey. Pic credits: gov.uk

Peter Schofield, permanent secretary and accounting officer, is already on £185-£190,000 a year. He gets a bonus of up to £20,000 plus £33,000 into his pension. He has accrued enough money to retire on £75-£80,000 a year plus a one off payment of up to £170.000 and his pension pot is worth £1.394 million.

Debbie Alder, director general, People, Capability and Place,£145-£150,000 a year. She gets a bonus of up £15,000 plus £57,000 into her pension. She has accrued enough money to retire on £35-£40,000 a year. She has a pension pot of £543,000.

Neil Couling, director of change and resilience (responsible for Universal Credit).£165-£170,000 a year. He gets a bonus of up to £15,000 and £16,000 into his pension. He has accrued enough money to retire on £75-£80,000 a year plus a one off payment of up to £190,000 and a pension pot worth £1.654 million.

John-Paul Marks, who left on 31 December last year, received £105-£110,000 for nine months ,a bonus worth up to £15,000 and £31,000 towards his pension. He left with enough money to retire on £40-£45,000 a year and a pension pot worth £532,000. He is now permanent secretary to the Scottish government.

Katie Farrington, director general, disability, health and pensions ,£120-£125,000. She gets a bonus of up to £10,000 and £87,000 paid into her pension pot. She has accrued enough money to retire on £30-£35,000 a year plus a lump sum of £50-£55,000 and pension pot worth £531,000.

Jonathan Mills, director general, Labour Market Policy and Implementation,£135-£140,000 . He gets a bonus of up to £5000 and £35,000 paid into his pension. He has accrued enough money to retire on £45-£50,000 a year plus a lump sum of £80-85,000. His pension pot is worth £690,000.

Nick Joicey, director general, Finance, £150-£155,000 . He gets a bonus of up to £5000 and £36,000 paid into his pension pot. He is also the husband of Rachel Reeves, the shadow Chancellor.

He has accrued enough money to retire on £55-£60,000 a year plus a lump sum of £90-£95,000 and a pension pot worth £967,000.

I don’t think I have to say anything more and leave the reader to make his or her judgement on the state of the DWP

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Revealed: 32 years of benefit payment failure by the Department of Work and Pensions

DWP celebrating 32 years of inaccurate accounting

Yesterday while all eyes were on Boris Johnson’s ” Build,Build, Build ” speech the Department for Work and Pensions slipped out their annual accounts for the last financial year.

In what looks like a classic “cover up ” job to bury bad news, the ministry probably did not want the world to know that their accounts had been censured for material inaccuracy for the 32nd year in a row.

The reason is the failure of the ministry to be able to account for unacceptable levels of fraud and error in the huge number of benefit payments. Billions of pounds have been overpaid to claimants through fraud and mistakes by claimants and errors by officials. And billions of pounds have been underpaid by officials to claimants because they have made mistakes in calculating people’s benefits.

The latest figures are a record for every year since John Moore, was social security secretary under Lady Thatcher in 1988.

It shows that ” Excluding State Pension, the estimated rate of overpayments has increased again to 4.8% (£4.5 billion) of estimated benefit expenditure, from a restated rate of 4.4% (£3.8 billion).

“The estimated rate of underpayments, excluding State Pension, has decreased to 2.0% (£1.9 billion), from its estimated rate of 2.2% (£1.9 billion) in 2018-19. The rate of overpayments in 2019-20 is the
highest estimate to date.”

The worst benefit is the new hated Universal Credit which has suffered from both overpayments and underpayments and claimants have to wait five weeks before they can get it. Since the payment depends on claimants’ monthly varying income the scope for inaccurate reporting of the money is large.

The report says: “For Universal Credit, the estimated rate of overpayments increased from 8.7% to 9.4%. This is the highest recorded overpayment rate for any benefit other than Tax Credits (administered by HMRC), which peaked at 9.7% in 2003-04.”

“Underpayments rates have fallen for Universal Credit, Employment and Support Allowance and Pension Credit, and the estimated rate for Housing Benefit has increased. Personal Independence Payment has the highest rate of underpayments at 3.8% of expenditure in 2019-20. This rate has not changed from 2018-19.”

But the small print of the report also reveals how the Department calculates this. It takes samples of benefit payments to arrive at these figures but the National Audit Office reveals that 61 per cent of the benefits paid out to claimants are based on recalculated estimates for the previous year.

Some other omissions are staggering. The Department has never checked whether payments are accurate for claimants on Disability Living Allowance for 16 years – last done in 2004-05.

More extraordinary the Department has never checked whether money paid out to 12 million pensioners is accurate or not since 2005 – that is 15 years ago.

Instead the department maintains there is no serious fraud or underpayments in pensions – calculating it as just £300 million out of an annual payment of £98.6 billion.

Given this year we had a case this year of a 94 year old pensioner being owed a staggering £117,000 because of 34 years of underpayments, I find this complacency mind blowing.

I also think the National Audit Office, as their auditors, is remiss in not asking for an update.

Next year’s estimate of benefit fraud and error is likely to even more out of kilter thanks to Covid 19 as the ministry have got rid of staff monitoring fraud to be able to pay out the 2.6 million claims for universal credit.

And although the department is said to be investigating 143,000 suspicious claims under Covid 19, it can’t follow them up because it can’t visit them at home.

Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO, said :

“I am concerned that fraud and error in benefit payments have risen again. Fraud and error have a real cost, both for those who face deductions from their income due to overpayments and because it reduces the public funds available for other purposes.

“As the Department takes on a set of unprecedented challenges arising from COVID-19 it is more important than ever that my qualification is not seen as business as usual and the Department responds in a cost-effective way to minimise risks of fraud and error.”

Next year I am certain will be the 33rd year the ministry accounts are questioned and found wanting.