According to the report from Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG), universal credit (UC) claimants who suspect a mistake in their award and ask for a review are ‘too often’ blocked by error and failures in the Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP) system.
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CPAG’s research draws on its Early Warning System (EWS), which, to date, has gathered and analysed 1,600 benefit cases from welfare rights advisers across the UK to date.
When UC claimants disagree with a DWP decision, they must ask the Government department to conduct an internal review, called a mandatory reconsideration (MR), before they can appeal to an independent tribunal.
A decision on an award could relate to how much they should get or whether they are entitled to UC in the first place.
However, CPAG’s research finds that claimants are sometimes wrongly advised that decisions can’t be appealed, that they must take a different route to try to resolve the issue, or that they need to provide evidence to challenge a decision when they do not, delaying or blocking their efforts to have mistakes corrected.
It also reveals that when people have their claim refused when they first try to claim, their online account is often closed, which makes it even harder to get a decision reviewed because letters explaining why it was refused cannot be accessed any more.
The report highlights the following issues experienced by UC claimants:
- UC claims being refused part-way through the claim process. The refusal cannot be reconsidered online as the account becomes inactive. As soon as they start a new claim however, they can no longer access their previous account to see letters explaining why their first claim was refused.
- Inappropriate requirements for phone calls or additional evidence, which is contrary to the DWP’s own guidance.
- Dissuading people from making MR requests. Examples including people being told the request won’t be successful, being wrongly told that a decision cannot be appealed, or being encouraged to have an online chat with their work coach instead of trying to resolve the issue via formal channels – again, contrary to DWP guidance.
- Refusing an MR request and directing claimants to report a change of circumstances instead. CPAG has received cases in which the DWP has prevented claimants from requesting an MR by advising them to report a change in their circumstances (sometimes falsely) instead of seeking to change the original award revised. This can mean claimants miss out on back-payments. CPAG says DWP staff may be advising this route, because it is a quicker process for both them and claimants.
A single mum of two started her universal credit claim when her partner left the family home. There were no housing costs included in her first payment over a month later, so she couldn’t pay anything towards her rent. She had put her rent into her online claim and taken her tenancy agreement into the job centre, but when she asked why there were no housing costs included, she was told that the DWP had no evidence of her rent liability.
She asked the DWP to change their decision but was wrongly told that the non-inclusion of a housing element cannot be appealed. Increasing rent arrears put her family at ‘substantial’ risk of homelessness.
Another single mother, who works part-time for McDonalds and has variable hours received less per month than she should have.
The earnings figure that was used for her UC entitlement was £1,500 more than she actually earned, resulting in her earning about £560 per month less than she should have. She took payslips and bank statements to the job centre showing the amount she earned, but they refused to change her entitlement unless and until the RTI (real time information) dispute process had been exhausted. The claimant was expected to make do on substantially less than she needed to live on for around three months.
Commenting on the findings, chief executive of Child Poverty Action Group Alison Garnham said, ‘The failure to ensure universal credit operates in a way that upholds basic legal duties is cause for serious concern. UC staff dealing with claimants do not always seem to understand the rules as to how decisions can be challenged, and efforts to make the system more user-friendly by encouraging informal online chats can mean claimants are prevented from exercising their rights and ultimately cannot make sure their awards are corrected. The system throws up so many obstacles to getting a decision reviewed that some claimants – often the most vulnerable – are likely to give up and lose out.
‘One hundred and thirty thousand individuals and families are moving on to universal credit each month. If it isn’t accountable, and if appeal routes are not crystal clear and readily available to claimants, then universal credit isn’t fit for purpose. We know that DWP officials are aware of our concerns about the problems we highlight in the report and we hope ministers will act on the evidence and implement our recommendations to help restore confidence in universal credit. Improving training so that all staff are aware of the legal framework for universal credit must be a priority.’
A Department for Work and Pensions spokesperson said, 'We continue to work closely with CPAG and welcome the opportunity to do so. We have already improved guidance online and advice to staff about Mandatory Reconsiderations.
'Anyone who disagrees with a benefits decision is able to request a Mandatory Reconsideration either online, by phone, in person or in writing.'