An ombudsman has heavily criticised the government for refusing to rectify the injustice caused by its treatment of more than 118,000 disabled benefit claimants who have been denied compensation following a Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) blunder.
The ombudsman’s criticism came after an investigation into how DWP treated a disabled woman with several long-term physical and mental health conditions who was left unable to heat her home or buy the food she needed to keep healthy for five years.
A report published today (Thursday) by the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman says that Ms U, who is now 62 and lives in south-east London, was left about £80-a-week worse off than she should have been between 2012 and 2017.
The ombudsman said this had had a “devastating” impact on her health, wellbeing and finances.
Because of DWP’s blunders, she was left at risk of hypothermia, which affected her arthritis, and because she could not access passported benefits she was unable to secure urgently needed dental treatment, and did not receive the free prescriptions she needed to treat her health conditions, or about £700 under the Warm Home Discount Scheme.
Her health declined drastically: her hair fell out, she lost weight and her mental health deteriorated.
But although DWP eventually paid her the arrears she was owed – more than £19,800 – it refused to pay her compensation for the five years of hardship she experienced due to its errors, even though its own policies state that people should be offered compensation if they experience injustice and hardship because of administrative errors.
Ms U was just one of more than 118,000 disabled people impacted by DWP’s botched migration of former claimants of incapacity benefit (IB) and other benefits to the new employment and support allowance (ESA) from 2011 onwards.
The department failed to realise that many of these claimants were entitled to income-related ESA – and therefore to associated disability premiums – rather than just the contributory form of ESA.
A DWP report last July said that 118,000 ESA claimants qualified for arrears payments through a so-called Legal Entitlements and Administrative Practices (LEAP) exercise, but DWP has refused to allow them also to claim compensation for the hardship caused by its mistakes.
The LEAP exercise has now ended*, with DWP making arrears payments of £613 million.
DWP has stressed that Ms U’s case was not part of LEAP and was dealt with in 2017 before the exercise began later that year.
But the ombudsman concluded this week that DWP’s failure to act in line with the relevant guidance was “maladministration” and had caused Ms U an “unremedied” and “significant injustice”.
It called on DWP to write to Ms U to apologise, to pay interest on top of the arrears it had already paid her, and to make a payment of £7,500 as compensation for the impact of its failings.
The ombudsman also called on ministers to offer the same opportunity to claim compensation to the other disabled people affected by the ESA blunder, and to take action to remedy losses caused to those not covered by the LEAP exercise.
DWP has told the ombudsman that the unfortunate handling of Ms U’s case was a simple misunderstanding and that there was no evidence that other non-LEAP exercise claimants were affected.
And it has refused to offer compensation to others affected by its bungling of the incapacity benefit migration.
The ombudsman’s report says: “We think it is extremely disappointing that having accepted the maladministration we identified, DWP has not accepted our recommendations to do something proactive about others it knows must be in the same position as Ms U.”
Ombudsman Rob Behrens said Ms U’s case was “deeply distressing”.
He said: “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.”
Marsha de Cordova, the disabled Labour MP and former shadow women and equalities secretary, said this morning (Thursday) on Twitter: “The PHSO report is yet another example of this government’s cruel and hostile environment they’ve created for disabled people.
“That 118,00 disabled people on social security are being denied compensation is unacceptable. They need to be fully compensated.”
Cllr Mariam Lolavar, a Labour councillor and Greenwich council’s cabinet member for business and economic growth, 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.
“I am delighted that the ombudsman has ruled that Ms U is entitled to compensation from the DWP.
“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.”
A DWP spokesperson said: “Our priority is that all people get the financial support to which they are entitled and we have identified those affected by this issue, making 118,000 benefit arrears payments in full.”
DWP said it would be issuing an apology and providing compensation to Ms U, as recommended by the ombudsman.
But the department does not appear to have accepted the ombudsman’s recommendation that it should offer the same opportunity to claim compensation to the other disabled people affected by the migration blunder, although it had not clarified this point by noon today (Thursday).
It also does not appear to have accepted the recommendation that it takes action to remedy the losses caused to those not covered by the LEAP exercise, but again had not clarified this point by noon today.
*Those claimants – or their next of kin – who believe they may have been missed by the LEAP exercise can ask DWP to review their case by calling freephone 0800 169 0310
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