By Robert Povall.
Robert is a Campaign Volunteer with GMLC. He has just commenced the BPTC at the University of Law and is passionate about making a difference. He wants to become a Barrister, specialising in immigration, civil liberties and human rights.
Below, Robert reviews the DWP’s error which resulted in over 180,000 disability benefit claimants underpaid, the DWP’s attempt to avoid refunding over 3 years’ worth of claims, and the legal challenge that forced them to accept liability.
“Today, almost one year since the error was reported, many claimants are finally receiving what they were entitled to in the first place”
In November last year, it was revealed that an ‘extraordinary error’ made by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) had left over 180,000 disability benefit claimants underpaid.
The mistake in question caused disabled claimants, many of whom were already having to choose ‘between food and heating,’ to go without from as early as 2011.
When the government started migrating recipients of Employment Support Allowance (ESA) to Universal Credit, an error in the process meant that those eligible for ‘income-related ESA’ were not properly assessed and went without necessary enhanced or severe disability premiums they needed to get by.
A publication by the Office for National Statistics in December 2016, which found fraud and error figures in the ESA system, brought the problem to the attention of the DWP. A subsequent ruling made by the Upper Tribunal left the government with no choice but to rectify the error.
However, in doing so, the DWP relied on a statutory provision which meant that only underpayments made after 2014 would be refunded, thereby escaping liability for over 3 years’ worth of underpaid claimants.
Today, almost one year since the error was reported, many claimants are finally receiving what they were entitled to in the first place. Philip Stanton, 58, received a cheque for £2,250 in July and others have been reported to be owed up to £20,000.
The DWP has estimated that there are around 180,000 underpaid claimants in total. It aims to repay 105,000 of them during 2018-19 and the remaining 75,000 during 2019-20. The grand total owed has been estimated to around £970m. The government has claimed to be prioritising the refunds of the terminally ill. (7)
This is undoubtedly a victory for those fighting for justice. That said, it is alarming to see how over 180,000 disabled individuals were let down and short-changed by a system designed to support them.
One cannot help but wonder what would have happened without CPAG’s intervention or worse still, as Mr Stanton so rightly puts it, ‘What if they hadn’t found out [at all]’?
Hopefully, with the continued efforts of CPAG, as well as other organisations that share Greater Manchester Law Centre’s determination to fight for justice, injustices like this can, and will, be challenged.