Kate Bradley and Leyya Kitmitto outline the problems with the category ‘fraud and error’, and highlight four cases that disturb the usual narratives about benefit fraud.
Recently, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) published its accounts for 2020-21, revealing a spike in ‘fraud and error’. Parliament’s report stated:
Excluding State Pension benefits, the Department estimates that it overpaid benefits of £8.3 billion equivalent to 7.5% and underpaid benefits of £2.2 billion equivalent to 2% across the £111.4 billion expenditure for all the other benefits, representing the highest levels of benefit fraud and error ever recorded since records began in 2005.
This resulted in a rash of reporting in the media focusing on individual claimant fraud, including the Mirror reporting on a “benefit fraud mum” who allegedly scammed £100,000 out of the benefits system by claiming she was a single parent.
Focusing on sensationalist cases like this one hides the reality of what’s going on in the benefit system. ‘Fraud and error’ is conveniently grouped together into a category that includes identity theft, mistakes and official error by the DWP under the same heading as deliberate fraud by individual claimants. Playing up cases where a claimant was knowingly lying to get more benefits helps the DWP and the government whip up support for benefit cuts and sanctions, giving the impression that claimants are devious, selfish and criminal.
At the same time, the DWP has begun to scale up on its sanctions and attempts to claim back large sums from claimants who have unknowingly received overpayments. The complex rules for benefits entitlement can be too complicated for claimants to fully understand, leading to a heavy reliance on the DWP getting it right when calculating entitlement – which they often don’t. Under the Universal Credit regime, the DWP can chase claimants for overpayments even when it wasn’t the claimant’s fault. GMLC frequently sees cases where DWP errors and system changes lead to claimants having their benefits reduced to poverty levels. Recently, we saw a group of destitute claimants have their incomes stopped entirely due to a retrospective rules change.
As if this weren’t bad enough, the DWP have been chasing repayments from people whose identities were stolen during Covid. To deal with a surge in applications at the start of the pandemic, the DWP introduced ‘easements’ to relax or adapt many of the controls it normally had in place to reduce the likelihood of fraud and error. These easements allowed identity thieves to exploit the lack of checks and claim in other people’s names. Those affected have found this hard to rectify due to the DWP’s unwieldy and bureaucratic systems.
It’s not just claimants being chased for overpayments who are the victims of the DWP’s disproportionate focus on individual fraud. A high focus on individual claimant fraud can lead to discriminatory and punitive practices by the DWP, such as disabled people being targeted for intrusive anti-fraud investigations without good reason to suspect them. This week, Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People has begun legal action against the DWP for targeting disabled people for fraud investigations – an issue they argue is made worse by the DWP’s use of algorithms that repeat existing biases in the system.
Below, we have collected together stories of people who fall into the ‘fraud and error’ category but don’t fit the usual narrative. Next time ‘fraud and error’ is plastered all over the press as a reason to crack down on people on benefits, it’s worth thinking of them.
Employee has ‘overpayments’ deducted from her salary – despite never claiming benefits
Jo Darby found herself the victim of benefit fraud when she received a letter from the DWP demanding a repayment of £1475.52 despite never having claimed benefits. A fraudster stole Jo’s details in order to claim a benefit advance, leaving Jo with a bill to pay and very little control over the situation. Upon contacting the DWP about the fraud, Jo received no reply on the helpline. Eventually, when the fraud team called back, they refused to discuss the matter with her as she was unable to verify the security questions on the fraudulent Universal Credit account. Jo’s employer then informed her that they had been instructed to deduct money from her salary. Without investigating the situation, the DWP started to recover the debt, leaving Jo extremely concerned and lacking of control. The fraudulent account had been opened in June and it wasn’t until November that Jo received the bill demanding repayment – now having accrued months of ‘debt’ for money she had never received.
There is little to no support for innocent people whose identities have been stolen
Similarly, Jane Davies had never claimed benefits other than child benefit, when she received a letter from the DWP demanding a large portion of her £1,334 advance from her November payment. Jane realised that the money had been paid to someone claiming in her name, and the DWP had commenced the recovery of the money by warning of a 20% deduction of her next month’s salary. Jane spent an excessive amount of time trying to resolve the matter, only to be sent round in circles with no solution. The DWP told Jane that there are thousands of similar cases, as the system is not well equipped to stop fraudulent claims. There is little to no support for innocent people trying to navigate through the process of resolving such a situation.
A widowed single mother is left below the poverty line due to ‘official error’
At other times, it is error rather than fraud which leads to what the DWP call ‘overpayments’, sometimes the fault of the DWP itself, which is labelled ‘official error’. This is what happened to Vikki Reid, who was told that she owes more than £17,000 in overpaid benefits due to mistakes made by the DWP when assessing her claim for Universal Credit. When commencing her PhD, Vikki had applied for the benefit. Despite Vikki giving full details of her course and allowance granted by the university, the DWP mistakenly overpaid her, accumulating in a bill for £17,233. This left Vikki below the poverty line and facing severe stress. To make matters worse, upon appealing against the decision that she owed several months’ overpayments, a new assessor told Vikki that the second assessment was incorrect, also an “administrative error” by the DWP. The reduction in her benefit money had a devastating effect on Vikki, leaving her worried and unable to cover childcare costs. Through no fault of her own, Vikki feared she would have to leave her PhD. Already facing struggles as a widowed parent, Vikki was left to handle the emotional burden of the DWP’s mistakes.
A claimant tragically takes her own life after massive mistaken reduction in benefits
Official errors can have devastating consequences. One tragic example is Philippa Day, for whom difficulties with the benefits system were part of the reason for her suicide in 2019. Philippa had long term mental health issues exacerbated by the reduction in her income from £228 per week to £60 as a result of a mishandled benefits application. This directly impacted her mental health and was described as a significant ‘stress factor’ in her decision to take an overdose. After making calls expressing her inability to survive on the reduction of money, ‘the wall of bureaucracy’ in the DWP’s handling of Phillipa’s claim was described by her family as the last straw. This demonstrates the disastrous effects DWP errors can have on people’s lives and how due to no fault of their own people can be in extremely difficult and stressful circumstances, struggling to survive off insufficient benefits.
Header photo credit: Karen Bryan, Flickr, 2013.