A disabled woman has won permission from the high court to challenge the legality of a Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) scheme that allows utility companies to “help themselves” from claimants’ benefits to pay off debts.
Helen Timson said she “cried like a baby” when deputy high court judge Peter Marquand granted her permission for a judicial review of DWP’s “third party deductions” scheme, which she described as a “gravy train”.
He had told a court hearing that the case was in the public interest, particularly in the light of rising fuel prices.
Timson said she hoped the court’s decision showed other disabled people and benefit claimants “that when we are walked over and treated like second-class citizens we don’t have to sit and take it”.
She has previously described the scheme as “immoral”.
The long-standing scheme allows DWP to take significant sums from a claimant’s means-tested benefits to pay off their gas, electricity, water and rent debts and current bills.
For those, like Timson, claiming employment and support allowance, DWP can deduct up to 25 per cent of their benefits without their agreement.
Timson says claimants are typically not given the opportunity to challenge the payments or discuss the financial problems they might cause with DWP before such deductions begin.
She said that as arrears can be deducted for different utilities, on top of their continuing usage charges, claimants can face significant and unmanageable deductions.
On one occasion, she had to pay a deduction of £80.80 a month after being charged too much because of a faulty electric meter.
Even though the electricity company knew the meter was faulty, it continued to take the same amount through the deductions scheme, even after she had changed supplier and no longer owed them anything.
She told Disability News Service (DNS): “This scheme is a gravy train for utility companies, who are allowed to help themselves from our frugal benefits without our consent.
“They and the DWP don’t bother to check if we are left with enough money for food or rent, as a county court would.
“Also, from my experience, utility companies also don’t seem terribly motivated to ensure they don’t take too much or don’t take money when nothing is owed or even that they pay our money into the correct account.”
Timson, from Leicester, believes the DWP deductions scheme means she is treated worse than those with utility debts who are not benefit claimants.
If she was not a benefit claimant, a court would have to decide whether she was liable for the debt and how much she should repay.
She told DNS last summer that she had even had to cancel a cancer scan because she could not afford the taxi fare, thanks to the deductions.
On other occasions, she has not been able to pay her rent.
She first had to ask DWP to stop making deductions for her water, electricity and gas debts in December 2014, because they were making it difficult for her to pay her rent.
But the department said the only way it would do so was if she secured permission from her creditors to stop the deductions.
Now she is again being faced with deductions from her employment and support allowance, this time amounting to more than £20 a week, to pay off fuel and water debts.
Even without the deductions, her total income is below the point which the benefit system says is an appropriate minimum level for someone in her circumstances.
She believes the deductions scheme is “immoral”, and that the scheme is putting thousands of disabled and non-disabled claimants under financial pressure.
She is receiving support from law firm Bindmans, including solicitor Emma Varley, and social security barristers Tom Royston and Jenni Richards, for the case against work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey.
She praised their work on the case and said: “I can’t thank my awesome legal team enough.”
Her lawyers argue that the DWP deductions scheme is a breach of two articles of the European Convention on Human Rights – on discrimination, and the right to “peaceful enjoyment of possessions” – and that the scheme means that DWP is acting beyond its legal powers (“ultra vires”).
A date has not yet been set for the hearing.
A DWP spokesperson said: “We cannot comment on active legal proceedings.”
However, DWP claims that its deductions policy strikes a fair balance between a claimant’s need to meet their financial obligations and their ability to ensure they can meet their day-to-day needs.
It also claims that its policy allows it to enforce the payment of court fines, ensure government debt is recovered and safeguard claimants from the potential impact of not repaying debts, such as homelessness or having utilities cut off.
DWP says there are safeguards to ensure deductions are manageable and claimants can contact the department to discuss a possible reduction in their rate of repayment if they are in financial hardship.
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