Over 118,000 people with disabilities and health problems are facing injustice by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) after being denied the right to compensation following a government blunder over benefit payments, the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO) has said today.
Ombudsman Rob Behrens is calling on the Government to urgently rectify the injustice, something which it is so far refusing to do.
The call comes after a PHSO investigation revealed a seriously ill woman had her benefits payments severely cut by around £80 a week due to a government blunder, leaving her unable to heat her home and buy food. The same error has affected over 118,000 people with disabilities and health problems but they are being denied the opportunity to claim compensation for the same mistake.
62-year-old Ms U, who lives alone, should have received her Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) payments in full when she was moved from Incapacity Benefit. But like thousands of others her benefits payments were mistakenly cut.
As someone recovering from heart bypass surgery and managing multiple health problems including an autoimmune disease, severe mental health problems and hypertension, this had a devastating impact on Ms U’s health, wellbeing and finances. For five years she received only around half the amount the government says is the minimum requirement for a person with severe disability needs.
Ms U could not afford to heat her property or buy the food she needed to stay healthy. Her mental and physical health declined drastically – her hair fell out, she lost weight and her mental health deteriorated.
The error also prevented Ms U from getting other benefits she was eligible for, including free medical prescriptions to manage her many health issues, funding to buy a washing machine and urgently needed dental care. She was at risk of hypothermia and her arthritis got worse because she lost out on £700 in Warm Home discounts.
This shocking case was brought to the Ombudsman’s attention by Ms U’s local welfare rights adviser. He explained that she had suffered extreme financial and personal hardship because the DWP made an error when it changed the benefits she was receiving. DWP moved her to ESA, a benefit paid to people who are unable or struggle to work because of health problems and disabilities. The Department started transferring people who were receiving certain benefits onto ESA in 2011.
Ms U, along with thousands of other eligible people, only received payments based on her national insurance contributions when she should also have received payments based on her income. A National Audit Office report into the ESA error found that it likely affected people with ‘the most limiting illnesses or disabilities’. It also means that thousands of people may have missed out on related benefits and experienced extreme hardship because of it, like Ms U.
DWP has since corrected the ESA error and set about paying arrears to those affected. But it still will not allow them to claim compensation for the life-changing impact this error may have had.
Ombudsman Rob Behrens is calling on DWP to remedy this injustice:
“Ms U’s case is deeply distressing and a stark reminder of why accountability and independent Ombudsman schemes matter. It is human to make mistakes but not acting to right wrongs is a matter of policy choice. In this case, that choice has been made by the very organisation that is responsible for supporting those most in need.
“That those affected are unable to claim compensation for this error is poor public policy in practice, and the situation is made worse given that they have already waited years to receive the benefits to which they are entitled.
“We don’t know how many more Ms Us there are out there. That is why I urge the DWP to allow people affected to claim for compensation in recognition of its error and the potentially devastating impact it has had on people’s lives.”
Despite its refusal to comply, DWP’s own policies state that people should be offered compensation if they suffer injustice and hardship because of administrative errors.
Cllr Mariam Lolavar, Cabinet Member for Business & Economic Growth, Royal Borough of Greenwich said:
“Our welfare rights team has been campaigning to get Ms U’s benefits reinstated by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) since 2017. It has been a very long process and put a disabled resident through extreme and unnecessary hardship. Following the tireless work by council officers the benefits owed have been backdated however, the DWP still refused to pay compensation for its error.
“I am delighted that the Ombudsman has ruled that Ms U is entitled to compensation from the DWP. We stand in solidarity with the Ombudsman’s recommendations to Parliament calling the DWP to award compensation automatically to everyone else who has been affected by its mistake too.
“We are one of the few boroughs that continue to fund a welfare rights team but Ms U’s callous treatment by the DWP just goes to show what an invaluable support the team provides to our most vulnerable residents.”
The Ombudsman urges anyone affected by this issue to contact their welfare rights service at their local council or speak to an advice agency such as Citizens Advice for help and support.