Universal credit claimants told to pay back thousands of pounds to DWP after failing to take a selfie

Government accused of breaching law by cutting people’s benefit based on ‘blanket presumption’ that claimants who do not provide evidence within specific timeframe are not entitled

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Saturday 13 November 2021 14:47
Universal credit claimants to gain £1,000 a year as ‘taper rate’ cut by 8%

Benefit claimants have had their support stopped and been ordered to pay back thousands of pounds after failing to provide specific forms of ID evidence such as a selfie or a photo of themselves outside their front door.

The government has been accused of breaching the law by cutting people’s universal credit and demanding back payments based on a “blanket presumption” that claimants who have not responded to a request for evidence within a set timeframe are not entitled to the benefit.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has said this is part of a process to “go back and check” that claimants who did not undergo the face-to-face verification checks due to jobcentres temporarily closing because of Covid have not “abused” the system.

But Charity Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) has highlighted cases where people have struggled to fulfil certain ID checks, due to legitimate reasons such as having technical problems with the government website or being unable to take a selfie because they don’t have a smartphone – but have still been told to pay back thousands.

In one case, a claimant uploaded all of the ID documents the DWP had requested by the deadline, but she had also been requested to provide a selfie, which she was unable to provide because she didn’t own a smartphone with a camera, according to CPAG.

She explained this to the DWP via her online journal, but her universal credit award was terminated. By this time, she was working again and was not receiving universal credit, but was shocked when she was informed that she had to pay back £4,650.

In another case, a claimant had not responded to the DWP’s three attempts to contact him via his journal and missed a telephone appointment because within the space of a fortnight he suffered a close family bereavement and he himself contracted Covid, CPAG said.

He phoned the DWP to offer the requested ID evidence within two hours of receiving notice of an overpayment of over £13,000, but was told his award had been stopped and he would have to go through an internal review process.

After waiting over two months for the outcome of the internal review, and with debt recovery letters being sent in the meantime, CPAG sent judicial review pre-action correspondence to the department.

Within two days of this, the DWP revised the overpayment notice – in effect confirming his entitlement to the £13,000 – and reopened the universal credit claim.

CPAG says the government’s conduct is unlawful because it falls below the legal requirement that individual decisions can only be retrospectively changed such a long time after they were made if there is evidence that the original decision was based on a factual mistake.

Claire Hall, solicitor at the charity, said: “Despite making legitimate claims for universal credit over 18 months ago, people have now received financially devastating debt notices simply because they haven’t been able to comply with requests to verify their details quickly.

“Families will only be able to rest easy if DWP urgently reviews all the cases where they have issued an overpayment notice for not providing evidence, and suspends collection of these supposed debts until they have done so.”

It comes after The Independent reported last month that the DWP had adopted the “dystopian” policy of requiring universal credit claimants to send in photographs of themselves in front of their homes and hold local newspapers in order to continue receiving benefits.

The DWP has said it has retrospectively checked 900,000 “at risk” claims made early in the pandemic, of which it has found 11 per cent to be incorrect. It is not known how many of those incorrect awards have been deemed overpayments.

But CPAG says evidence from welfare rights advisers suggests a significant number of claimants are likely to be receiving overpayment decisions and recovery demands for money they are properly entitled to.

A DWP spokesperson said: “At the onset of the pandemic we suspended certain verification processes as we could no longer see customers face to face, making customers aware that we may return to seek this verification in the future.

“Those who can prove entitlement in a reasonable timeframe will not be asked to repay any money. We have a responsibility to the taxpayer to ensure public money is properly spent. Therefore it is right and lawful that we seek to recover payments that claimants were not entitled to.”

They said they had been unable to verify the details of the cases mentioned in this article as they had not been provided with the required information.

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