Senior MPs challenge DWP on “shambles” after leaked internal documents and screenshots on Westminster Confidential reveal pension claims are being dumped

Dame Meg Hillier and Stephen Timms, chairs of the influential Public Accounts Committee and Work and Pensions Committee, have written to Peter Schofield, permanent secretary at the DWP, seeking an explanation why thousands of pensioners are being discouraged from claiming money they may be owed by the ministry.

The letter -published on the Work and Pensions Committee website – follows a high critical report by the Public Accounts Committee on the handling of pension back payments- and an articles on this website revealing internal advice given to ministry staff by senior management at the DWP.

It refers to my blog on February 10 which you can read here. This included an internal memo to people handling telephone callers seeking claims and a management training exercise aimed at speeding up the number of cases settled by staff by ignoring complicated claims, nearly all from women.

The most controversial was the ” drop and go” approach which urged staff ” if a case is complex or take a long time to resolve, move on to the next one in order to maximise the number of customers we can help today.”

Peter Schofield

The letter asks Peter Schofield to explain. It says:

“A report in Westminster Confidential on 10 February included screen shots, apparently of DWP internal documents, indicating that guidance to staff on handling calls about underpayments is to ‘close the call’ and only take details if the customer insists, unless the case is from or about someone who falls into one of the following four groups:
• A married woman whose husband claimed his State Pension before 17/03/2008
• An individual aged 80 or over who does not get any State Pension or only Graduated Retirement Benefit
• Someone who has died and may have been underpaid
• Someone who is divorced and wants to know how it impacts their State Pension.
It also refers to a message on the helpline which starts by telling callers that, if they are calling as a result of media coverage, “please be aware you do not need to contact us.” It goes on to tell people to stay on the line if they fall into one of the above groups.
Written in bold the MPs ask:

• What is the status of the documents quoted in the Westminster Confidential report? Do they represent current policy? If not, what changed and when?
• How will you evaluate the effectiveness of the revised information on Gov.UK in helping those who may be affected to understand their position and to take appropriate action?
Do you have plans to review your communication strategy and take further action if, for example, only a small number of those affected contact you to report a change of circumstances or make a claim?

The MPs say : “People in the four specified groups appear to be those who need to take action to receive an increase in their entitlement and, when they do claim, will generally only get twelve months’ backdating. Unlike those covered by the LEAP exercise,[This where the government has been mandated to pay back money such as the 135,000 pensioners who have been underpaid] there is no legal obligation on the Department to seek them out or pay them arrears.

The Department told the PAC that it could not publish guidance for those who may have been underpaid – such as an online assessment tool – because it believed it could not accurately cover all possible underpayment scenarios.

We remain extremely concerned – MPs

The letter goes on : “The Government’s response to the PAC report refers to revised information on Gov.UK which emphasises further that some individuals must make a claim and how they can do this. It is also working to provide a more direct route for those enquiring about underpaid State Pension in respect of a deceased customer. While this is welcome, we remain extremely concerned that the limited information on Gov.UK, together with the guidance and telephone message may discourage some from taking action that could increase their entitlement.”

The letter also discloses that a third of the way through the exercise to pay back the 135,000 pensioners owed money only 10 per cent of the cash has been paid out. This suggests that it may take much longer to pay the money to older pensioners who may not have long to live.

The MPs ask the permanent secretary to explain “The average and the longest amounts of time that pensioners who have contacted you about a potential underpayment can expect to wait for a full response.”

It is excellent that MPs are pursuing this story. The full letter is here. The DWP have until May 12 to respond. The ministry better have a good explanation.

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MPs demand full restitution for all pensioners hit by “shambles” of underpayments to over 134,000 people

A truly damning report by MPs on the Commons Public Accounts Committee today castigates the Department for Work and Pensions for running an “unfit for purpose” system to pay pensions to more than 12 million people.

The scandal of 134,000 pensioners being underpaid by around £1 billion dates back over 37 years and a number have already died before they could receive the money. The MPs say: “The errors happened because of the Department’s use of outdated systems and heavily manual processing, coupled with complacency in monitoring errors and a quality assurance framework that is not fit for purpose.”

The report says: “Managing Public Money requires Departments who make mistakes to put them right and restore people as far as possible to the situation they would have been in had the error not occurred. However, the Department is seeking only to pay people their legal entitlement in arrears, in some cases many years after the event, and has treated people inconsistently in paying interest on their arrears.”

The APPG report sent to Rob Behrens, the Parliamentary Ombudsman

Meanwhile another report from the All Party Parliamentary Group On State Pension Equality for Women submitted to Rob Behrens, the Parliamentary Ombudsman, on behalf of 3.8 million women who have faced delays of up to six years before receiving their pension falls short of asking for full restitution for the women.

Instead it is asking the Parliamentary Ombudsman to recommend that the women should receive a minimum of £10,000 each because of heartrending stories of poverty and hardship.

“Women have had their emotional, physical, and mental circumstances totally obliterated by a lack of reasonable notice. These impacts must be addressed, if we are to reach any kind of conclusion regarding this injustice”, it says.

The proposal is far better than the unspecified figure by the same committee prior to the 2019 election but falls substantially short for people who have lost £40,000 to £50,000 by the DWP refusing to entertain any payment at all.

The Public Accounts Committee report on the pensions underpayments is unflinching in its criticism of the DWP. It points out that 40,000 of those owed money are now dead adding:”94,000 pensioners are estimated to be alive, which represents approximately 0.9% of those currently claiming the pre-2016 basic State Pension.

These official errors affect pensioners who first claimed State Pension before April 2016 and who do not have a full National Insurance record or who should have inherited additional entitlement from their deceased partner.

90 per cent of the people hit by underpayments are women

Around 90% of the pensioners underpaid are women because of the types of State Pension claim affected. The Department does not expect to trace over 15,000 of the affected pensioners or their next of kin where the pensioner is deceased. On average, the Department estimates that the approximately 118,000 pensioners it can trace could receive payments averaging around £8,900 by the time the payments are made. So far, the Department has found underpayments of between £0.01 and £128,448.37.”

The report goes on:” The Department has not given people who are worried they have been underpaid enough information to find out what they should do, with the risk that many may still miss out on money they should receive.

” The Department’s communications strategy is to only contact those who it finds have been underpaid under the State Pension regulations. Other groups of pensioners can receive arrears if they make
a claim for additional entitlements to the Department, but the Department has provided very little information on which pensioners should do so.”

The report also points out that by repaying the money as a lump sum people means it could affect other benefits – such as entitlement to pension credit and social care payments. The DWP ignores doing anything about this.

Dame Meg Hillier, chair of the PAC, said: “In reality DWP can never make up what people have actually lost, over decades, and in many cases it’s not even trying.

Both the latest reports are damning for the Department and show up the disdain the ministry has for elderly people. The Public Accounts Committee report is the most damning as it suggests that the ministry is breaking Treasury guidelines on managing public money correctly by not taking comprehensive action to restore the rights of people – nearly all women – to get cash they are entitled to receive.

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