In an apparent attempt to reclaim “wrongful payments”, Department for Work and Pensions have launched a controversial scheme to reclaim £500m that was handed out in pandemic benefit payments.
The DWP handed out additional sums of cash to the “most vulnerable” during the start of the pandemic. After the welfare payments were made, it is reported that the DWP made several calls and texts to recipients, asking for them to certify aspects of their claims as well as assessing evidence of identification. The DWP reportedly have given recipients 2 weeks to respond to these calls and texts before a claim for repayment is made for an alleged fraudulent.
If such evidence is provided post the two-week deadline, the DWP have claimed that they will “reinstate benefit and cancel any debt straight away”. Nevertheless, some claimants have claimed that they did not get the two-week evidence submission window period.
In an interview with the Independent, recipient of universal credit Billy Waterworth, stated that he made claims to the DWP after losing his job as a chef at the start of the pandemic. He alleged that his account was closed once he was able to find work in October 2020. Nevertheless, in just a six-week turnaround the DWP submitted a letter stating that he owed “outstanding debts of £3,347.55”.
The threats for failure for payment were clear, as DWP stated that they would contact Mr. Waterworth’s current employer about his circumstance to reclaim the money. Alternatively, Mr. Waterworth was threatened with the use of a debt collection agency if he failed to make payments.
A key issue that was identified from Mr. Waterworth’s case was that he attempted to contact DWP on several occasions to appeal the decision. Mr. Waterworth claimed that he missed the notifications for evidence. To rectify the situation, he sough to appeal the decision.
Despite Mr. Waterworth being available for further evidence elicitation he received a letter a month later, demanding that he set up a payment plan. Due to the notable communication issues between the DWP and Mr. Waterworth, he was forced to endure the pressured situation for six months before the DWP reneged on their claims.
Clawing back repayments – a good fiscal strategy?
Testimonies like Mr. Waterworth’s demonstrate a key concern that activists and Labour MPs have expressed about the universal credit policies undertaken by the DWP. Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary Jonathan Ashworth described this policy focus of DWP as “shameful” as such a policy which “could cost thousands of people for debt they do not owe, in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis”.
Further discontent with this process was expressed by Claire Hall, a lawyer at the Child Poverty Action Group, raised the alarm at the delays and the complexities over the process as Claire emphasized that the current policy strategy by the DWP was “very unfair for claimants” due to the people being given debts and being “told they owe money with no proper basis”.
The overreliance on identification to obtain basic monetary resources from the government is a notable aspect of the widened inequality gap in Britain. The inherent structure of universal credit claims seek to monitor the “usefulness” of activity claimants. Namely, claimants must prove that they are actively searching for work, conditionality of payments is based on a measurement of use of time by DWP, this being searching for jobs, signing on and attending “training”.
The extension of DWP practices to increased monitoring and data collection on claimants demonstrates an implicit social punishment or discipline by the state for daring to request monetary support.
The testimony of Mr. Waterworth not only demonstrates the desire to monitor and scrutinize claimants, but it also highlights the intentional obscure communication routes that claimants may access within the DWP. The citadels of welfare and security are meant to ensure that citizens are entitled to government assistance, namely during such an unprecedented time as the pandemic. To increase scrutiny, anxiety and penalizing of people who dare to claim, demonstrates the vicious lacuna in true assistance from the government. It bodes the question, where we truly “all in this together” when the most vulnerable are being penalized for accessing basic monetary resources?