A disabled woman who refused to return her Motability car after she lost her eligibility for disability benefits was threatened with arrest by police officers after the company reported the vehicle as stolen.
Mary Jenkins* was approached by two police officers in the middle of a supermarket carpark on the Isle of Wight on Tuesday and told she faced arrest if she did not agree to release the car.
Jenkins and her son, Paul, have been engaged in a long-running dispute with Motability Operations – the company that runs the disabled people’s car scheme – and have lodged a complaint with the Financial Ombudsman about its behaviour.
The company finally lost patience and contacted the police to report the car as stolen.
And Motability Operations has admitted to Disability News Service (DNS) that it has taken similar steps before with other customers when they refuse to return their cars after losing their benefits.
The apparent admission is likely to create fresh controversy for Motability Operations, less than a month after MPs published a highly-critical report into the salary paid to its chief executive, Mike Betts, and the £2.4 billion it holds in financial reserves.
Jenkins, who has been a user of the scheme for more than 18 years, refused to return her Motability** vehicle after she lost her eligibility for the higher rate of the mobility part of disability living allowance (DLA) last August.
She had previously been given a lifetime DLA award, and was denied the new personal independence payment (PIP) when the government said she failed to attend a PIP assessment, when she claims she was told she did not have to attend.
She says Motability Operations has no right to reclaim the vehicle because she signed a three-year contract, which still has a year to run.
She says she has been asked twice by Motability Operations to arrange for the car to be returned but refused to do so.
She said: “I kept saying that I want an investigation and a judge to decide on the contract.”
Jenkins said the company told her she had “defaulted” on the contract, without explaining how she had defaulted on it.
Instead she has complained to Motability Operations and to the Financial Ombudsman, and has asked the Commons work and pensions select committee to investigate.
But without informing her, Motability Operations told Hampshire police to treat the car as stolen.
Jenkins and her son were then approached by two uniformed police officers who arrived in an unmarked vehicle as they were about to buy some groceries in the East Cowes branch of Waitrose on Tuesday afternoon.
She was warned that if she refused to return the car, she would be arrested. She agreed to hand over the keys and was forced to watch as the vehicle was towed away.
Then she and her son had to pay £21 for a taxi home to West Cowes.
Mary Jenkins told Disability News Service (DNS): “This was not a criminal offence.
“Why are they taking these extreme measures when we have fair questions we want answers to?”
Her son said he had spoken to a Motability Operations adviser after the police seized the car and was told the company was entitled to register it as stolen.
He said Motability had always been kept updated about where they were living.
What concerned him most, he said, was that Motability Operations failed to notify his mother that they had reported the vehicle as stolen.
Paul Jenkins said: “The police said, ‘This is on the system as a stolen car. We are obliged to immediately seize it, but we know you’re not car thieves.’
“They said, ‘If you don’t comply now, you will be arrested.’”
He said the actions of Motability Operations were “quite shocking” and “very aggressive”, had “serious ethical implications” and were a breach of its “very clear obligations and responsibilities” to users of the scheme.
A Hampshire police spokesman confirmed the incident had taken place and that the vehicle had been reported stolen.
He said: “We received a stolen vehicle report at 1.29pm on Monday 11 June from a credit management company relating to a mobility vehicle on the Isle of Wight.
“The company were informed that there were no lines of enquiry to pursue a police investigation and the incident would be filed pending any further information coming to light.
“The following day, officers came across a vehicle in the car park at Waitrose in East Cowes, Isle of Wight, which had a marker for being reported stolen.
“As such, officers acting in good faith seized the vehicle and arranged its recovery.
“Officers at the scene spoke with the vehicle owners to establish the full circumstances, and an officer spoke with the credit management company.
“Following an assessment of all information provided to us it became clear that this was a civil, not a criminal, matter.
“The vehicle owner was also advised to speak with the credit management company and to consider legal advice.
“No arrests have been made and no criminal investigation is taking place.”
Motability originally declined to discuss the case of Mary Jenkins.
But she said in a statement: “DWP assess who is eligible for qualifying allowances for the Motability scheme.
“We are only able to provide cars to someone who is in receipt of a qualifying allowance.
“If the DWP ends the award for the allowance, this means an automatic termination of the lease. We then make arrangements with the customer for the car to be returned.
“In cases where a DLA customer fails to qualify for the enhanced rate of PIP, Motability will provide transitional support of up to £2,000, and enable the customer to stay in the car for up to eight weeks to make other arrangements.
“Alternatively, the customer can choose to keep their car for 26 weeks, and receive a reduced payment, which generally allows the customer to go through the appeals process.
“Unfortunately, once these steps are exhausted, it is not possible for a customer to keep the car indefinitely with no qualifying award and we will then make arrangements with the customer for the vehicle’s return.
“The vast majority of customers are fully understanding of this process and work with us to make a mutually satisfactory arrangement.
“Occasionally, if we are repeatedly unable to recover the car, we will need to take steps to recover it through more formal processes.”
A Motability Operations spokesperson added today (Thursday) that under the terms of the lease agreement it retained ownership of the vehicle, “which is made clear to the customer within the contractual documentation”.
The spokesperson added: “Where a customer on proper notice fails to return the vehicle, which is owned by Motability Operations, we are entitled to deem the vehicle as being stolen and take appropriate steps to recover the same.
“Mrs [Jenkins’] persistent refusal to return the vehicle despite the fact that she is no longer eligible to receive a qualifying allowance, left Motability Operations with no option but to report the vehicle stolen and recover possession of the vehicle which is owned by Motability Operations.”
A spokeswoman for the Financial Ombudsman Service said: “We’re looking into this complaint against Motability.
“We review all complaints on a case by case basis, weighing up the facts, evidence and circumstances, before making a decision on [whether]a business has treated its customer fairly.”
*Not their real names
**The charity Motability, which oversees the work of Motability Operations, is a DNS subscriber