The DWP’s muddled maths is sending universal credit deeper into meltdown

Last month, a seriously ill father-of-two told me he was living ‘hand to mouth’ because the DWP was withdrawing more than £90 from his allowance each month.

1_DWP “I am delighted to announce the introduction of the universal credit,” said Iain Duncan Smith at the Conservative Party conference on 5 October 2010. “[It] will, I believe, restore fairness and simplicity to a complex, outdated and wildly expensive benefits system. A real time system which will also help cut the cost of fraud and error.”

It may come as a surprise, then, that nine years on, the government’s spending watchdog has revealed that fraud and error in the welfare bill are at their highest levels since 2006 – with much of the rise down to the introduction of universal credit.

To go into the numbers, the National Audit Office (NAO) revealed on Thursday that benefit claimants and pensioners lost out on £2bn that they were entitled last year to because officials short-changed them. Another £1.1bn was overpaid to claimants because they failed to give the right details about their income – through the complex online portal system – on time.

What appears on the surface like a fairly bland report, filled with numbers and percentages, sheds light on the scale of devastation being inflicted on people across the country. Families are being denied the support they rely on to live on because of careless errors. People are finding their monthly allowance fluctuating from a liveable amount to near to nothing, with no prior notice, as the government tries to claw previous overpayments back.

And the real stories are out there. Last month, a seriously ill father-of-two told me he was living “hand to mouth” because the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) was withdrawing more than £90 from his allowance each month – half of which was deducted for previous debts and historic overpayments.

Read more

Martin Weaver, who suffers from kidney disease and heart disease, is currently surviving on beans on toast and relying on charities for basic things like a sofa and a washing machine. During the winter months, he was forced to move into an old caravan with just a small electric heater.

In another case, a mentally unwell universal credit claimant received less than £6 for the month after hundreds of pounds was withdrawn from their allowance. A letter from the DWP stated that £312 had been taken off their monthly benefit allowance, leaving them with just £5.82. I was unable to see a breakdown of why the money had been deducted, but some form of historic overpayment is likely to have been on there.


A key feature of the sweeping reform was that payments would taper off as the recipient moved into work, not suddenly stop, thus avoiding a “cliff edge” that was said to “trap” people in unemployment. If jumping from £312 one month to £5.32 the next isn’t a cliff edge, I don’t know what is.

Also at play here is the DWP’s often arbitrarily punitive sanctions regime, which penalises benefit claimants who miss job centre appointments – with often little consideration of the many variables in people’s lives. Charities have told of cases where parents have had hundreds docked after having to miss meetings with job coaches due to childcare issues.

If universal credit was designed to help people manage their own finances and make the benefits system simpler, why are we are seeing vulnerable individuals and families being swung from pillar to post, more at the mercy of the state than ever?

Nearly a decade on from Duncan Smith’s announcement of his sweeping welfare reforms, it is time to accept that they are not delivering. When the data shows that a reform designed to “simplify” the system has caused a surge in the error rate – not to mention pushing people even deeper into hardship – surely something has to give.


Benefits Underpayments Soar To £2bn As Mistakes By DWP Officials Increase

Underpayments were highest for benefits claimed by disabled people. Billions in benefits were not paid out to legitimate claimants last year amid an increase in mistakes by officials, government figures show.

DWP Admits An Extra 30,000 Sick And Disabled People Were Underpaid Thousands In

Official figures show the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) underpaid people claiming benefits by £2billion in 2018-19 – an increase of 17% compared to the previous year.

The biggest cause of underpayments was described as “departmental errors”, with the value of this estimated to be at least £560m – also an increase on previous years, according to the department’s latest accounts.

The DWP said underpayments are a small fraction of overall benefits spending, at just 1.1% of total payments in 2018-19. The overall rate of “fraud and error” has not increased since 2010, the department said. But this is unlikely to lessen fears about the impact on those who missed out on legitimate benefits payments – including for Universal Credit.

In a statement the chair of the Public Accounts Committee, Meg Hillier MP, said: ”[We have] long been warning that Universal Credit will be challenging to administer because if the many variables in life. A change of job, hours worked, childcare or housing costs can all have an impact on how much you’re owed.

“The fact that the error rate is so high underlines these concerns. The Government needs to recognise the impact on people and reduce the error rate. “The impact of an error can be devastating for individuals and families in low incomes.”

Disabled claimants and those unable to work were among those who have lost out on financial support they would otherwise have been entitled to. In fact the figures show underpayments were highest for the disability benefit Personal Independence Payment (PIP), at 3.8% of its budget.

Emma Williams, who lives with multiple sclerosis and receives PIP, was given a back-payment worth several hundred pounds after a delay in assessing her change of circumstances last year.

Williams, 52, was moved onto PIP from the previous Disability Living Allowance (DLA) in 2016. In the move, an assessment ruled that she no longer qualified for an “enhanced” rate of benefits, a decision she challenged, unsuccessfully, on several occasions.

Williams, from Ashford, Kent, said that once she became too unwell to work last year, it took the DWP four months to process her change in circumstances once she contacted them.

“[Multiple scelorsis] is a progressive illness,” she said. “Things you can do one day, you can’t do the next. But the system did not seem to understand this. “After I could no longer work, I went to see someone to help me fill in the change in circumstances forms that I’d previously just done myself. “It was the first time I’d done that and [as a result] the DWP decided that I was due the enhanced rate of PIP and backdated the payment to my last day at work.”

In an assessment of the DWP accounts, the watchdog body the National Audit Office (NAO) said benefits payments were susceptible to “unintended” errors by both claimants and the department, and that the complex benefits system “can cause confusion and genuine error”.

It comes after ministers conceded that the DWP would need to spend close to £1bn correcting historic underpayments to Employment Support Allowance – an out-of-work benefit – claimants over two years.

The DWP said in a statement: “Since 2010 there has been no increase in the rate of fraud and error overall. “We rely on accurate information and updates from claimants to ensure we provide the right benefits, and are continuously improving this system. “A minority of people abuse the system and we continue to challenge them using the full range of penalties at our disposal.”



Apology to disabled woman left with just 47p after benefits stopped

Melanie Forrest (56) of Station Park, Lower Largo.

Melanie Forrest (56) of Station Park, Lower Largo.
The Department for Work and Pensions has apologised to a Fife woman who claims she was left “penniless” after her benefit was stopped. Melanie Forrest, 56, of Lower Largo, said she was left with just 47 pence in her bank account after her personal independence payment (PIP) was suspended for two months.

The DWP has since admitted they made an error with her claim and said she will be paid arrears. “They have admitted a mistake with the dates and that they owe me about £600 or £700, which is probably £800 now,” she said. “It’s just appalling.”

Ms Forrest went into hospital for a hip replacement at the end of April and was discharged after four days. If someone has been in hospital for 28 days, PIP is stopped.

She claims there was a mix-up about the amount of time she spent in hospital. Because the payment had not gone into her account, she said she was not able to pay bills on time.

“Apparently they thought I was in for 28 days,” said Ms Forrest. “The payment just suddenly stopped. They don’t realise that people rely on that money.” She added: “I used to work for the NHS before I got osteoarthritis. I would love to go back to work in the hospital but I physically can’t do it.

“The money should have been through on Monday and if I hadn’t rung the bank I wouldn’t have known. Now, I’m going to have to pay bank charges.” She also claims she spent many hours on the phone trying to sort out her payment.

“There was a lack of communication,” she said. “You can’t speak to the same person, they won’t transfer you to a supervisor or a manager and they’re not noting things down.”

A DWP spokesman said: “Ms Forrest has continued to receive her ESA benefit, which is designed to offer a regular income, without interruption.

“Unfortunately there has been an error with her PIP claim covering additional costs, and we apologise to her for that and will be making a full payment of all arrears due to her.”

In April 2013, the UK Government introduced PIP as a replacement for disability living allowance.


Brexit: Government admits not considering impact of no-deal on disabled people

The Government admits not considering impact of no-deal Brexit on people with a disability. Ministers accused of ‘disgraceful’ failure to assess potential risks, including shortage of medical supplies and health workers.

Image result for DISABLED

Ministers have been condemned after admitting that they have not carried out any assessment of the impact that a no-deal Brexit would have on the lives of people with disabilities.

The government was accused of having “ignored” people with a disability after admitting that “no formal assessment” had been conducted, despite fears over a possible lack of medical supplies and health workers if Britain leaves the EU without a deal.

The revelation came in a reply to a parliamentary question from Labour MP Jo Stevens. Responding, Caroline Dinenage, the care minister, said: “No formal impact assessment has been conducted by the department of the effect on people with disabilities of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union without a deal.”

Last year, Matt Hancock, the health secretary, said he could not guarantee that no one would die if there is a no-deal Brexit. Fears have also been raised that restrictions on freedom of movement after Brexit could prevent the UK recruiting enough carers and health workers from abroad.

And MPs have previously warned that the loss of the European Social Fund could be “disastrous” for disadvantaged groups, including people with a disability. The fund currently gives £500m a year to organisations in the UK that provide employment and training support for people who are often neglected by mainstream providers.

Ms Stevens told PoliticsHome that the response to her question “shows just how unprepared the Tory government is for leaving the EU without a deal, and how reckless the Tory leadership candidates have been in advocating one”.

She added: “People with disabilities will be deeply concerned about their futures and will properly ask why the government and the candidates to be prime minister have ignored them.”

Marsha de Cordova, the shadow minister for disabled people, said: “Many disabled people face the prospect of losing out on vital medicines, funding and support as the result of a catastrophic no-deal Brexit. “But the government is shamefully treating disabled people as collateral damage to the chaos it has created. It is disgraceful that the government continues to ignore the effect of crashing out of the EU on millions of disabled people in this country, some of whom already face destitution as a result of brutal austerity measures.”

A government spokesperson said: “The government is committed to protecting the rights of disabled people and those with health conditions, supporting them into work and to live independently. OF COURSE THEY ARE “COMMITTED” TO PROTECTING THE “RIGHTS” OF DISABLED PEOPLE, THEIR HENCHMEN AT THE DWP DO AN “EXCELLENT” JOB CARING FOR DISABLED “RIGHTS”!

“We are preparing for all eventualities to ensure claimants continue to get the right support.”


Gig economy in Britain doubles, accounting for 4.7 million workers

The other day, I got talking to a young man serving in in Poundstretcher and he told me he only had four hours guaranteed hours work a week, the rest are zero hours, he said although he works in a shop he can’t afford anything and is fortunate to be living with his parents.

TUC finds worker rights fading as gig platforms proliferate to employ one in 10 adults

A courier with Deliveroo. Digital platforms can offer workers flexibility but also stressful insecurity, the TUC warns.

 A courier with Deliveroo. Digital platforms can offer workers flexibility but also stressful insecurity, the TUC warns.

Britain’s booming gig economy has more than doubled in size over the past three years and now accounts for 4.7 million workers, according to a report laying bare the increasingly precarious nature of employment.

In a sign of the rapid shift in the modern jobs market as many as one in 10 working-age adults now work on gig economy platforms, up from one in 20 as recently as 2016, finds the study from the TUC and academics at the University of Hertfordshire.

Revealing how a boom in digital platforms, such as Uber and Deliveroo, has sparked a revolution in the world of work, the report warns that workers’ rights have failed to keep pace with the dismantling of the traditional nine-to-five working week for growing numbers of people.

Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, said the explosion of the gig economy showed that working people ran the risk of battling to make ends meet. “The world of work is changing fast and working people don’t have the protection they need. Huge numbers are being forced to take on casual and insecure platform work – often on top of other jobs. But as we’ve seen with Uber too often these workers are denied their rights and are treated like disposable labour.”

This latest snapshot of the gig economy in Britain, part of a broader study spanning 13 European economies including Italy, Spain and Sweden, comes from a poll of 2,235 UK residents, aged 16 to 75, by the University of Hertfordshire, with fieldwork and data collection from Ipsos Mori.

Based on the responses, it was found the number of working-age adults who had worked for an online platform at least once a week had more than doubled, from 4.7% (2.3 million workers) three years ago, to 9.6%, (4.7 million) today.

The survey found, that amid the proliferation of high-tech startups and Silicon valley firms, even greater numbers of people had worked using a digital platform at some point in their lives.

Up to one in seven working-age adults – about 7.5 million people – have worked via a gig economy platform at some point.

Overall employment in Britain has reached a record high of 32.75 million, following a boom in job creation since the 2008 financial crisis. However, economists believe the jobs market has become increasingly precarious for some people, putting pressure on living standards. Poverty while in work has increased, alongside the the use of food banks.

In a sign of the intense pressure facing households across the UK, average wages after inflation remain below the level recorded before the financial crisis.

David Blanchflower, a former member of the Bank of England’s rate-setting monetary policy committee, who recently published a book on the rise of precarious work, said: “The gig economy isn’t necessarily bad but it does show the changing nature of work – you also have to look at rising self employment and short-term contracts in traditional jobs.

“The fear of unemployment has picked up in the UK. People got scared senseless by what happened in the great recession. Real wages have been held down and [people are] concerned that their jobs will be replaced.”

John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, said: “While the Tory leadership hopefuls slug it out over tax cuts for the wealthy this is the reality of insecure and casualised work for so many in the country.”

The Office for National Statistics estimated the size of the gig economy workforce in 2017 to be 4.4% of the population.

The work from the TUC and Hertfordshire University takes a slightly broader definition of platform work, taking account of paid tasks found via a website or app. It does not include letting property on platforms such as Airbnb, or buying and selling goods online.

According to the study, younger workers are most likely to work via platforms, with nearly two-thirds of those working once a week being aged between 16 and 34. Men are more likely than women to undertake such work, while most people use more than one platform to earn a living.

The findings follow growing numbers of legal battles fought between gig economy companies and trades unions over workers’ rights. The courier company Hermes this year agreed to offer drivers guaranteed minimum wages and holiday pay following a case brought by the GMB union.

The government also promised to boost workers rights after a landmark review of the gig economy, ordered by Theresa May, called for greater protection, including the right for workers to request full-time contracts. Unions and Labour warned the measures did not go far enough.

Progress implementing the reforms has however been slow with the government bogged down by Brexit. Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the RSA thinktank, said the labour market had changed cmore quickly than the reaction of policymakers since his review in 2017.

He said that the government had already made a clear commitment to improving the work quality and rights of all workers, now the challenge for the next prime minister was “to take this agenda and run faster with it”.

Rachel Reeves, the Labour chair of the Commons business committee, said: “The government has been far to slow in tackling the fallout from the gig economy, which too often leaves workers exploited and victim to low pay and insecure work.”


Schoolboy can’t get to school because his mobility vehicle is taken away

A dad claims his disabled son couldn’t get to school after the DWP cut his benefits. Reece Cameron, 10, struggles to walk even a few feet without being in pain.

A distraught Coventry dad claims his disabled son was left unable to get to school after their benefits were cut.

Reece Cameron, aged 10, had his Disability Living Allowance (DLA) stopped when the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) was wrongly informed that he was taking part in PE lessons, his dad claims.

Mark Russell, Reece’s dad, told CoventryLive that Reece has never taken part in PE and struggles to walk even a few feet without being in discomfort. Mr Russell, from Alderman’s Green, had his mobility vehicle taken away as a result of the benefits being stopped, and could do longer get his son to school, or even get to the supermarket.

“From my house to the school is too far for him to walk, that’s why we’ve got the vehicle. We need the mobility car to get him to school and now I’ve got no transport at all,” Mr Russell said. “How do they have the right to take this away from my son?”

Reece, a pupil at Alderman’s Green Primary School, has a condition which affects his legs and feet. His dad says he has one foot larger than the other, and one leg longer than the other, and walking causes him great pain.

Reece has also been recovering from a major operation earlier this year, which his dad says left him with four-inch scars on his feet.


Kept at home
Mr Russell said he was forced to keep Reece at home for a week after his benefits were cut by the DWP and he lost his transport. He claims Reece’s school mistakingly told the DWP that Reece was now regularly doing PE, despite doctors confirming there had been no change in his condition.

Mr Russell was then given a letter from the school stating this is not the case, which was sent to the DWP as part of an appeal against their decision.

The DWP has since told CoventryLive that Reece’s benefits will be reinstated following a reassessment. The school has also been providing taxis to take Reece to and from school while the appeal goes through.

However Mr Russell, who has three other children, says he has been left stranded without the use of a car. “I can’t even get from A to B,” he said. “How am I supposed to get Reece to his hospital appointments without a car? The bus stop is too far from our house for him to walk to.

“It’s been the same all his life, he can’t walk without being in discomfort straight away. “He looks like a normal kid, but people don’t see what it’s actually like for him. “It hurts as a parent – as his dad.”

A spokesperson for the DWP said: “We’re committed to ensuring that disabled people get the support they’re entitled to and we are continuing to support Reece with Disability Living Allowance payments.

“Decisions for DLA are made following consideration of all the information provided, including supporting evidence from a GP or medical specialist. “Following his reassessment, we updated Reece’s payments based on new evidence supplied.

“If a parent or guardian disagrees with the decision made, they can appeal to an independent tribunal which is entirely separate from the DWP.”

What did the school say?
A spokesperson for Alderman’s Green Primary School said: “Whilst we don’t comment on individual pupils, our priority as a school is to provide all the support we can to enable all our pupils to access and thrive at school, which we are doing here.

“This includes doing what we can to help parents in difficult circumstances and, where appropriate, supporting applications and appeals and assisting with transport to ensure our children can attend school.”


I am not a ‘scrounger’ because I claim benefits

My Label and Me: I am not a ‘scrounger’ because I claim benefits

Picture: Jerry Syder for Labels: Scrounger / Nina Grant
The impression that disability benefit fraud is rife not only makes it very difficult for people to be open about claiming benefits, it’s incorrect

At 18, after six months in a psychiatric unit, I first claimed disability benefits. A social worker helped me apply for supported housing, as well as for the benefits needed to cover my rent and cost of living.

Because I was so young, I didn’t know much about the stigma that claimants faced. I knew about ‘the dole’ and state pensions, but the vitriol I faced about claiming disability benefit was shocking. Someone even reported me to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) for ‘benefit fraud’, enraged that I didn’t have to work.

People would call me a ‘sponger’ or ‘scrounger’ when I was open about receiving benefits. I became ashamed of telling anyone, even though I knew I was entitled to them. It got to the stage that I cancelled them. I was about to go to university and I was worried people would see me as a fraud applying to study full-time while claiming.

I felt like asking all those who wrongly labelled me whether they would willingly live with severe mental health problems in exchange for ‘free money.’ Because that’s what I had to do.

After graduating I was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a rare genetic disorder, which forced me back onto benefits. It’s five years on and I’m now too ill to work due to debilitating pain and fatigue. I knew I needed the benefits, but having to re-apply was a bitter pill swallow. I so wanted to be rid of the label that tormented me.

People assume, especially when your illnesses are invisible, that you are scamming the system. When I read articles reporting on benefit fraud, the comments on them are full of people saying that their neighbour ‘gets a free car and there’s nothing wrong with him.‘ The joke is that the motability scheme doesn’t give out ‘free cars’, but leases them in exchange for a large portion of a claimant’s Personal Independence Payment (PIP) allowance.

The impression that disability benefit fraud is rife not only makes it very difficult for people to be open about claiming benefits, it’s incorrect: disability benefit fraud makes up only 1.4 per cent of overpaid benefits.

Younger people who have to claim disability benefits are particularly unfairly judged. Older people say, ‘I’m not a scrounger, I’ve paid in’ to justify claiming them. Just because we haven’t all had the chance to ‘pay in’ to the tax system before needing to claim benefits doesn’t make us scroungers or cheats.

It also implies that people who are disabled from birth aren’t as deserving of disability benefits as those who claim later in life.This just isn’t fair. It took me a while, but I’m not ashamed of claiming benefits any more. In the last four years benefits have kept my heating on in cold weather, and helped me to pay for necessary items such as joint supports and mobility aids so I can be in less pain and participate more in society.

I wish that the people who label me as a scrounger could see things from my perspective; that they could know the anguish that comes from not being able to work. I wish they would educate themselves about what it is like to be disabled. On average, disabled people face extra costs of £583 a month. We need to change the narrative around benefits, because even I, as a disabled person, have bought into the lies. It’s got to the point where I now feel guilty when I buy myself something nice.

Benefit claimants are expected live a basic, austere existence, so where do I get off treating myself to the occasional luxury? There should be no stigma attached to being a benefits claimant, just as there never used to be such attitudes about living in a council house. I still feel a sting when I see the word ‘scrounger’ used for someone who claims benefits, not just because I have been called it, but because it devalues the human being behind the label.

Even if we are unable to work, we still have a lot to offer to society and deserve your respect.



DWP figures show PIP complaints against Atos and Capita continue to rise

The performance of the two companies carrying out disability benefit assessments on behalf of the government is continuing to deteriorate, according to new figures released by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

Four executives from Capita and Atos sit behind a table, with other people sat behind them

The DWP figures, released to Disability News Service (DNS) under the Freedom of Information Act, show that the proportion of personal independence payment (PIP) assessments carried out by outsourcing giant Capita that lead to a complaint has risen significantly in the last three years.

And the proportion of PIP assessments carried out by fellow outsourcing company Atos that lead to a complaint has increased sharply in the last two years.

The figures suggest that the likelihood of claimants experiencing sub-standard PIP assessments at the hands of the two companies has dramatically increased, despite public expressions of regret to MPs by Capita and Atos in February 2016 and December 2017 (pictured) about their performance.

DWP chiefs get millions in bonuses, whilst making the poorest suffer

The figures also show that Capita is continuing to attract a much higher rate of complaints than Atos, while Capita is also about twice as likely to uphold a complaint as Atos.

In 2015, there were more than 1,800 complaints about Capita, with 1.1 per cent of assessments leading to a complaint.

But that rose to 1.42 per cent in 2016, to 1.44 per cent in 2017 and 1.57 per cent last year, with 3,490 complaints about Capita assessments in 2018.

In 2015, 0.52 per cent of Atos assessments led to a complaint, falling slightly to 0.49 per cent in 2016, before rising to 0.69 per cent in 2017 and 0.8 per cent in 2018.

Last year, Capita upheld 34 per cent of all PIP complaints, while Atos upheld only three per cent of “admin” complaints and 15 per cent of “clinical” PIP complaints.

DWP refused to say if it was concerned by the rise in complaints, by Capita attracting more complaints than Atos, and by Capita upholding more of those complaints.

It also refused to say if the figures showed that the performance of Atos and Capita was worsening year by year, and it refused to say what action it would take to address these concerns.

Instead, a DWP spokesperson said in a statement: “We want the PIP assessment process to work well for everyone and have made significant improvements, including testing the video recording of assessments.

“The number of complaints about PIP assessments represents less than one per cent of the total number of individuals assessed.” Capita refused to say why it appeared to be attracting so many more complaints than Atos; why it was drawing more complaints every year; why it was upholding so many of those complaints; and whether it believed the figures showed its performance was worsening year by year.

A Capita spokesperson said: “We are committed to delivering a high quality and empathetic service for people applying for PIP. RTFLMAO

DWP quietly hands private firms £600m extra to test disabled people for benefits

“All our people are focused on delivering the best service to individuals coming through the PIP assessment process – their passion is evidenced in our monthly independent customer satisfaction results, which in 2018 was over 95 per cent.”

Atos refused to say why it thought it was attracting more complaints every year, and whether the figures showed that its performance was worsening year by year. It also refused to say why it was upholding so few complaints, and fewer than Capita.

But an Atos spokesperson said: “While complaints represent on average less than one per cent of all assessments, we strive to ensure every claimant experience is positive, which is why our focus has consistently been on providing a professional and compassionate assessment service.”

Last year, the then minister for disabled people, Sarah Newton, announced that the government was extending the Atos and Capita PIP contracts by a further two years, to 2021.

Since the introduction of PIP in 2013, the two companies have earned hundreds of millions of pounds from their assessment contracts.

DNS spent months investigating allegations of dishonesty by PIP assessors in late 2016 and throughout 2017, hearing eventually from more than 250 disabled people in less than a year about how they had been unfairly deprived of their benefits.

It continues to receive such reports today, more than two-and-a-half years after the investigation began.


A note from the [DNS] editor:

Please consider making a voluntary financial contribution to support the work of DNS and allow it to continue producing independent, carefully-researched news stories that focus on the lives and rights of disabled people and their user-led organisations.

Please do not contribute if you cannot afford to do so, and please note that DNS is not a charity. It is run and owned by disabled journalist John Pring and has been from its launch in April 2009.

Thank you for anything you can do to support the work of DNS…[Please donate via the DNS website]

The DWP broke the law by destroying safeguarding report

The DWP broke the law by destroying safeguarding report, says information commissioner. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) broke the law by destroying a damaging internal report about its failure to ensure the safety of benefit claimants in jobcentres, the information commissioner has ruled.DWP entrance at Caxton House, Westminster

The Information Commissioner’s Office has issued a decision notice in which it concludes – following a complaint from Disability News Service (DNS) – that DWP breached the Freedom of Information Act (FoIA) by failing to release the report.

Instead, the report was destroyed, but the commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, said she was unable to prove that this was done deliberately to prevent its release and so has not recommended a criminal prosecution.

The report into safeguarding failures in south London jobcentres was written by two or three disabled people recruited under its Community Partners initiative, which was set up to build bridges between jobcentres and the local community.

They had written the document soon after taking up their posts, after becoming increasingly alarmed by the failure of the 18 jobcentres they were working with to take basic actions to protect people claiming benefits such as universal credit, employment and support allowance and jobseeker’s allowance.

They recommended that urgent steps should be taken to ensure jobcentre staff were properly trained in safeguarding. One of the report’s authors said this week that she believed DWP had destroyed the “damning” document because it did not want to see it published. She said: “The fact that they destroyed it is worrying because it puts people further at risk.”

The report is believed to have been written in August or September 2017, and DNS learned of its existence the following spring, about eight months later.

To avoid identifying its source, DNS submitted a freedom of information request asking DWP to release all reports written by Community Partners while working for DWP in London in 2017 and 2018.

But DWP continually delayed answering the request.

Last August, a civil servant in DWP’s freedom of information team told DNS that she had repeatedly attempted to secure a response from the jobcentre operations team and had warned them they had breached their legal duties under the act, adding: “I have tried. I don’t know why they are digging their heels. I am sorry.”

DWP eventually answered the request by claiming that it held no such reports, but after DNS complained to the information commissioner, DWP released several documents in January this year, although they did not include the safeguarding report.

DWP later admitted the report did exist, and that the document “raised concerns about the DWP safe guarding procedures”.

It told ICO that it had only managed to speak to one of the Community Partners mentioned by DNS, and they confirmed that they had helped “pull together a document about safeguarding procedures in South London”, but could not find this document as old emails had now been deleted and could not be retrieved.

DWP said the report was destroyed 12 months after it was written because the department’s “Information Management policy only requires us to keep a corporate document of an internal briefing for a period of 12 months”.

But that 12 months period ended at least four months after DNS first asked for this and other Community Partner reports to be released, suggesting that DWP could have destroyed the safeguarding report to prevent it being released to DNS.

DWP told ICO that it made a mistake when it originally told DNS that Community Partners “were not required to write reports” and by the time it realised its mistake and carried out a reinvestigation in November/December 2018 “the document would have already been destroyed”.

The information commissioner therefore concluded that “on the balance of probabilities” the report was destroyed before DWP reconsidered the DNS request to see the report.

DWP also told ICO that it “retains only those documents and data which support business objectives”, even though the subject of the document was the safety of benefit claimants.

The ICO has now ruled, in response to DNS’s complaint: “The Commissioner’s decision is that the Department for Work and Pensions held requested information at the time of the request but one requested report was latterly routinely destroyed, in accordance with its Information Management Policy.

“The Commissioner finds that the Council breached section 10(1) of the FOIA by failing to disclose the information which was held within the statutory time for compliance.”

But although the ICO has now ruled that DWP broke the law, Denham said she had carried out “extensive enquiries” and had failed to find any evidence that the report was “intentionally destroyed” by DWP “with the intention to prevent its disclosure”.

For that reason, she will not recommend a criminal prosecution of DWP under FoIA.

A DWP spokesperson declined to comment “beyond the position DWP has outlined in the decision notice”.

But the ruling that DWP acted unlawfully still adds to mounting evidence that DWP as a department is not fit for purpose and that it needs to make urgent changes to ensure the safety of all benefit claimants is a priority, as demanded by the Justice for Jodey Whiting petition*.

For years, DNS has been reporting on the alleged failure of DWP jobcentres to safeguard disabled people left in vulnerable situations because of flaws in the benefits system.

Many of these failings have led to the deaths of benefit claimants and will have subsequently been reported on in secret DWP peer reviews (now renamed internal process reviews).

The deaths of disabled people such as Lawrence BondDavid Clapson and Alan McArdle – and many others – have been linked to alleged failings of policy or practice within jobcentres.

Many other disturbing cases have focused on safeguarding failures in other parts of DWP.

This year, DNS has reported on the Independent Case Examiner report into the death of Jodey Whiting in February 2017, which concluded that DWP failed five times to follow its own safeguarding rules in the weeks leading up to her suicide.

And only last week, the Liverpool Echo reported that work and pensions secretary Amber Rudd had admitted that an internal review into the death of Stephen Smith, from Liverpool, had found the department missed “crucial safeguarding opportunities” and had “identified areas where we need to change our policy” to protect claimants in vulnerable situations.

Smith died in April, months after he was found fit for work by DWP, despite being in hospital with such severe health problems that his weight had fallen to six stone.

The Liverpool Echo had revealed that DWP ignored two separate doctors’ letters about Smith’s serious health problems.

*Sign the Jodey Whiting petition here. If you sign the petition, please note you will need to confirm your signature by clicking on an email you will be sent automatically by the House of Commons petitions committee


A note from the [DNS] editor:

Please consider making a voluntary financial contribution to support the work of DNS and allow it to continue producing independent, carefully-researched news stories that focus on the lives and rights of disabled people and their user-led organisations.

Please do not contribute if you cannot afford to do so, and please note that DNS is not a charity. It is run and owned by disabled journalist John Pring and has been from its launch in April 2009.

Thank you for anything you can do to support the work of DNS…[Please donate via the DNS website]


I have proved that austerity destroys lives

I have proved that austerity destroys lives and all the government has done is try to discredit me. Denial, distraction and personal attacks – the architects of austerity are doing all they can to invalidate those who point out the predictable effect of their own policies

Image result for philip alston

Last year, I investigated the harsh realities of poverty in the UK. In one of the world’s richest countries, I found 14 million people living in poverty, rising infant mortality rates, falling life expectancy for some groups, foodbanks springing up everywhere, rising homelessness, and overloaded and struggling schools and police services. Most of these problems are the direct result of government policies.

Read More

But in its response to my final report as UN Special Rapporteur, published last month, the government has refused to take these findings seriously, instead preferring a defensive approach that sidesteps all the real issues. This week, the UK and other governments will have the chance to discuss the report directly when I present it to the UN Human Rights Council.

The government’s response so far has consisted of three strategies. The first is denial. The report is “barely believable”, they say. In other words, it’s a load of rubbish. A pity then that a senior official of the Department of Work and Pensions subsequently told a House of Commons committee that the report was “factually correct” and that “in terms of austerity, cuts to local government funding, in terms of the reliance that we have on the labour market and the risk we face if there is a recession” the report made “really good points that we have taken on board, and we should take on board”.

The report relies on the government’s own data and that of some of the UK’s most reputable institutions. These findings should not be controversial, and the government should be addressing them instead of trying to muddy established facts.

The second strategy is distraction. Rather than acknowledge the extent of poverty, inequality, unaffordable housing, or hunger, the government pointed to a “UN report” that supposedly shows “the UK is one of the happiest places in the world to live”. Aside from the fact that it’s not a UN report (but a report to the UN, that actually lists the UK as fifteenth in the world); acknowledging that many people in the UK are happy and that employment levels are at a record high does not refute the fact that too many are facing severe hardship.

The government claims it has “increased the generosity of benefits in recent years” and takes credit for small tweaks to its own harsh policies, but this is a blatant mischaracterisation of decisions to massively reduce public spending and systematically erode the value of benefits for those needing support.

Third, attack the messenger. The government claimed the report was insufficiently researched, “based on a tiny period of time spent here”. But it knows that my team and I spent months preparing for this visit, reviewing countless existing reports, making more than 100 advance consultations, and reviewing more than 300 submissions. And although the report is based on much more than the standard 12-day country visit, I spent that time meeting with people in poverty, prominent researchers, and frontline staff at foodbanks and advice centres, many of whom said they wished the government would do the same.

What is most puzzling to me is why the government is so defensive. Starting in 2010, it pursued a radical re-engineering of the welfare state, making poverty and its related outcomes foreseeable. If the government is being honest, it should “own” the consequences and say “yes, poverty is rising, inequality has increased, economic and social insecurity are rampant, and children are going hungry, but this is the price of trimming the budget and incentivising work.” Instead it is denying the predictable effects of its own policies.

If there is any good news, it is that these policies could still be reversed with huge savings in terms of economic and social trauma and much greater productivity in the future. This should be the time for a frank reckoning and a change of direction. All that is needed is a vision to make all Britons, not just the wealthy, better off, and to commit to minimum levels of social justice for all.

Philip Alston is the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights