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Honest appraisal: The national opinion of DWP service is reflected in this comment, delivered direct to Iain Duncan Smith by 'pigeon post'.

Honest appraisal: The national opinion of DWP service is reflected in this comment, delivered direct to Iain Duncan Smith by ‘pigeon post’. (Picture: Kevin Marman)

How many times have we all heard of someone being sanctioned by the Job Centre for failing to turn up at an interview, when they were never even notified that it was taking place?

How many stories have we heard of benefit claims being delayed, causing needless hardship to people who had no other means of support by putting them into debt and under threat of eviction?

How many people have died because the pressure they suffered as a result of mistaken decisions to cut off their benefit, made by DWP officials?

I think we all know the answer to that: MANY.

But the overriding feeling seems to be that there’s nothing to be done about it and the Department for Work and Pensions is a law unto itself.

As it happens, this is not true.

The new ‘Claimant Commitment’, announced by the Department recently, places more stringent requirements on jobseekers, that must be met before they can claim their meagre pittance. The announcement made no mention of any reciprocal commitments on the part of the administrators – but they do exist, and they cover every service the DWP is supposed to provide.

Officials offered up the following after Vox Political submitted a Freedom of Information request:

“In general terms, there is one overriding responsibility: to ensure that the claim is received into an environment where a decision can be made which will be correct from the outset… Parliament and Ministers set the policy; the officers and employees create the administrative processes all claims must go through; decision makers bring the process to a close. Ministerial responsibilities are listed on the Department’s page on the gov.uk website: https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/department-for-workpensions.

“At individual level, these responsibilities are translated into objectives and personal performance is measured against their effective delivery. There are a range of consequences for individuals failing to deliver, from informal performance improvement plans to dismissal. You then have reputational damage. Whether it is benefit specific or across-the-board under performance, be it perceived or real, this will be picked up by the press and Parliament, with Ministers and senior officials having to defend and explain themselves.

“Ultimately there will be a cost to all this because of the re-work involved in correcting decisions; in overpaying claimants because of official error; in retraining decision makers; in improving processes. That is not good for the department or the country.”

That last sentence is absolutely true. One has to wonder if the offical writing those words was aware that DWP decisions that, for example, cost the country £66 million in a single year in Employment and Support Allowance appeals, have sullied the Department’s reputation to a point where it may never recover.

The letter then points to a document detailing the ways in which people may be recompensed for loss of income as a result of such failure by the DWP, its ministers, officers and employees. It’s at http://www.dwp.gov.uk/docs/financial-redress-for-maladministration.pdf

This document is 17 pages in length, but you don’t get to the good stuff until page five. This starts by saying: “The Department and its operational businesses aim to provide its customers with a service which is easy to access; treats them well; delivers on time and provides them with the right results.”

Does anybody reading this believe any part of that statement accurately describes the DWP’s service? Is it easy to access, or is the preferred method – telephone – run by a private company that puts claimants on hold for long periods of time unnecessarily, racking up their telephone bill in the knowledge that they have little spare cash to spend on the call, and this will put them out-of-pocket?

Does it treat them well, or do Job Centre staff abuse people terribly – like, for example, the ‘advisor’ who told a woman she had to attend an interview in a town many miles from her home, to take place two days after she had undergone surgery on her leg that meant she could not walk, and refused to reschedule it to accommodate her health?

Or what about the claimant who was told he had failed to attend an appointment and must reclaim his benefit? He had never received notification of any appointment, either by mail or telephone, and therefore had no idea what the ‘advisor’ was banging on about.

Does it deliver on time? I can answer that with Mrs Mike’s experience of her appeal against the Department’s decision to put her in the work-related activity group for ESA. The appeal was submitted in March, after she had received expert advice telling her she had been put in the wrong group. A decision was made, wrongly supposing that she was claiming a deterioration in her condition and that a second work capability assessment was required. She was never notified of the decision and no appointment was ever made for the WCA; in the meantime, the benefit – which only lasts 12 months – expired. She was not contacted to prepare her for this, nor was she told what she could do about it.

This example also answers the final question that arises – does it provide the right results? No, it doesn’t. The decision maker was wrong to say she was claiming deterioration since her original assessment. She was saying the assessment had resulted in the wrong decision at the time it was made. Another assessment can only ascertain her condition on the day it takes place and will be useless in determining her appeal. The correct decision was for the matter to go to a tribunal, and it is likely that, had this happened (and this depends on the DWP telling her when it was happening), the matter might have been resolved, long before the money dried up.

All of these examples serve to support the next part of ‘Financial Redress for Maladministration’: “Unfortunately, we don’t always get things right first time. The term “maladministration” is not defined, but is sometimes used to describe when our actions or inactions result in a customer experiencing a service which does not match our aims or the commitments we have given. It applies to situations in which we have not acted properly or provided a poor service. For example: wrong advice, discourtesy, mistakes and delays.”

Wrong advice, discourtesy, mistakes and delays.

Have you fallen foul of a DWP sanction? Was it due to any of these four reasons? If so, then you could be entitled to compensation. The Department describes this as redress, which usually comes in four forms: a “sincere and meaningful apology”, which is nice but doesn’t pay the rent; an explanation of what happened and/or went wrong – ditto; putting things right, “for example a change of procedure/revising published material”, which will help others in the future but does not solve any financial problems suffered by the claimant; and a special payment, known as financial redress.

You can make them pay.

Here’s where it gets tricky, though – there is no statutory framework for making such payments; they are discretionary, a matter of judgement – and the judgement is made by a DWP decision maker.

The difficulty with this should be clear to everyone – if they can’t make a correct decision on a simple benefit claim, they certainly shouldn’t be trusted to administer compensation payments for their own wrong decisions!

Still, there are guiding principles that can help with a case. The very first of these states that “Individuals should not be disadvantaged as a result of maladministration” – so, if you have lost benefit and this has put you into dire straits financially, you have a strong case.

“The purpose of the Special Payment Scheme is, wherever possible, to return the individual to the position they would have been in but for the maladministration”, the document says. In other words, anyone wrongly sanctioned should be able to get back all the benefits they have not been paid, plus any payment to cover, say, overdraft fees incurred as a result of the wrong decision.

It’s a really interesting document. I strongly advise you to look it up.

And, if you have suffered at the hands of these people, I strongly advise you to make a claim.

That goes for relatives of claimants who have died after adverse benefit decisions by the DWP. In fact – especially for them. If their relatives are unaware of this, tell them about it.

The only measure this government and its ministers understand is money.

Make them pay.

*If you have found this article useful, you may wish to consider picking up the book, Vox Political: Strong Words and Hard Times. The site is not professional and receipts from the book are its only means of support. Its 350 pages contain a great deal of information that should be just as useful as this article, and it may be bought here, here, here, here and here – depending on the format in which you wish to receive it.