Young mother with small baby ‘left without food for days’ by universal credit mistakes

May Bulman

Universal credit claimants are being blocked from challenging erroneous decisions by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), leaving vulnerable people without the support they need, according to a new report.

Error and failures in the benefits system, as well as poor advice by universal credit staff, means many people were “getting lost in the quagmire” of the appeals process, the research by the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) found.

Charity workers told The Independent that some vulnerable claimants had been left unable to eat and been relying on sleeping pills to curb their hunger after their benefits were refused or left unpaid.

Some had had them reinstated on appeal over a year later.

When claimants disagree with a DWP decision on their benefits claim they must ask the department to conduct an internal review, called a “mandatory reconsideration” (MR), before they can appeal to an independent tribunal.

Based on an analysis of 1,600 benefit cases from welfare rights advisers across the UK, the report found people were being wrongly advised that decisions could not be appealed.

Some were wrongly told they needed to provide evidence to challenge a decision, which delayed or prevented their efforts to have mistakes corrected.

When people are refused when they first try to claim, their online account is often closed, which the report said made it even harder to get a decision reviewed because letters explaining why it was refused can no longer be accessed.

One case cited in the report said a single mother who worked part-time for McDonalds was left £560 short of her correct monthly entitlement because the system had said she was earning more than £1,500 more than she actually did.

She took payslips and bank statements to the jobcentre showing the amount she actually earned but they refused to change her entitlement, saying she had to raise it with HMRC. CPAG said this advice was incorrect.

Another case cited was that of a young mother in Harrow was wrongly denied benefits after fleeing domestic abuse with her two young children. This meant she went “days without food”, it says.

The 21-year-old had already submitted an MR, but it had been refused. It wasn’t until eight months later, when she got support to from her local Law Centre to take her case to tribunal, that the DWP reversed the decision and reinstated her benefits.

Pamela Fitzpatrick, director of Harrow Law Centre, who supported the woman, said: “She finally got rid of the partner but he had isolated her from family and friends so she had nobody. Her six-month-old had a heart condition awaiting surgery.

“When I saw her she was relying on social services to give her a tiny amount of money and food vouchers for the food bank, but she was having to walk to the food bank and back with the baby, living in dreadful accommodation under threat of eviction because she had no money to pay her rent. She hadn’t eaten in days.”

Ms Fitzpatrick said the system was flawed because most MRs rarely lead to a change in decision, although cases are often overturned when they get to the tribunal appeal stage.

She added that DWP staff were often not trained properly, seeing MRs as just a “rubber stamping”.

“It also goes back to the issue of advice. There’s such as lack of welfare benefits advice and legal aid because there have been so many cuts over the years. People are struggling on their own. To find their way through the system is very difficult,” she said.

In the foreword to the CPAG report, Dame Laura Cox DBE, former justice of the High Court, said: “Many people are getting lost in the quagmire of the appeals process. Understandably they lose confidence in the system and give up. Erroneous decisions therefore stand, to the detriment of individual families and to society as a whole.

“If, due to complexity, inflexibility or incoherence, the appeals process in universal credit cases is almost impossible to understand and to pursue effectively, incorrect decisions go unchallenged and suffering is prolonged. Children fall through that safety net and our system of justice is undermined."

Chief executive of Cpag Alison Garnham said the universal credit system “threw up so many obstacles” to getting a decision reviewed that some claimants – often the most vulnerable – were likely to give up and lose out.

“The failure to ensure universal credit operates in a way that upholds basic legal duties is cause for serious concern. Universal credit staff dealing with claimants do not always seem to understand the rules as to how decisions can be challenged,” she added.

A DWP 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.”