Tens of thousands of sick and disabled people have been denied benefits they were legally entitled to because of “shoddy administration”, according to an official report.
A National Audit Office (NAO) investigation found the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) underpaid around 70,000 people who switched to employment and support allowance (ESA) from incapacity benefit during the last seven years.
On average each claimant is estimated to have been underpaid by £5,000, however some are owed much more. Around 20,000 people missed out on £11,500, while a small number are owed £20,000. The mistake resulted in disabled people who are unable to work being denied up to £75 a week to cover their basic living costs.
The DWP will pay £340m in arrears, but up to £150m extra cannot be paid due to payments only going back to 21 October 2014, the date of a tribunal ruling over the debacle. Despite knowing about the error since then, the government let the problem continue to grow until July 2017.
NAO head, Amyas Morse, said, “The facts of this case are that tens of thousands of people, most of whom have severely limiting disabilities and illnesses, have been underpaid by thousands of pounds each, while the department for several years failed to get a proper grip on the problem.
“The department has now committed to fixing this error by April 2019, but not everyone will be repaid all the money they have missed out on.”
Labour MP and chair of the work and pensions committee, Frank Field, said the report was “damning”.
“The (DWP) is quick to act in cases of overpayment, quick to sanction claimants for any breach of its rules – but when the shoe is on the other foot, has shown it will take years to recognise and get to grips with its own mistakes,” Field said.
“This must have caused even more hardship for people many of whom have struggled through an assessment process that we heard from thousands of accounts is, for some, gruelling and humiliating, and riddled with errors and wrong decisions.”
Head of Unite Community Liane Groves said the report was “yet more evidence of the truly appalling way sick and disabled people are treated in this country”.
“It’s bad enough that the fitness for work assessments people have to go through to receive ESA is, for all intents and purposes, set up to stop people getting the help they’re entitled to, without further administrative obstacles preventing those who do get through from receiving benefits,” Groves said.
“This is what happens to the social safety net after years of neglect and cuts by the government. As a matter of urgency the fitness for work assessments must be overhauled and anyone who was wrongfully denied their ESA must receive payment from the DWP as quickly as possible.”
She added, “The Tories need to take a long hard look in the mirror, because it is their policies that have led to a culture where people suffering from sickness or injury are punished instead of assisted.”