For over a year now, Alex, who spoke to Novara Media under a pseudonym to protect her privacy, has been hounded by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). The department is demanding she pay them back almost £3,000 which she legitimately claimed in benefits during the pandemic.
Alex first claimed universal credit (UC) in April 2020. She had just finished a job working as a kitchen porter and couldn’t find another job because of lockdown, so turned to UC for support. At the time, the DWP had suspended identity checks due to lockdown.
At the start of 2021, she got a job as a supply teacher, so stopped receiving payments. But in February 2021 the DWP started demanding Alex prove her identity, or else pay back all the money she had received.
Since April 2021, Alex has provided the DWP with proof of identity three times – both online and in person at a jobcentre. Despite this, the DWP escalated their debt collection, hiring the private debt collection company Advantis to pursue her in writing and over the phone. Alex says she has been made to feel like a “criminal for claiming UC”.
During the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic, with the economy severely disrupted and many jobs becoming redundant, the number of people claiming UC doubled from three million to six million. Half a million more were eligible but did not claim. In the early months of the pandemic, the DWP introduced measures to make it easier for people to access benefits without going to a jobcentre. A £20 uplift was added to UC. But this rhetoric and policy soon changed. In October 2021, the £20 uplift was removed.
The DWP operation to “reverify” the details of UC claims made during the lockdowns of March and April 2020 began in January 2021. As part of the operation, the DWP has contacted people who claimed during this period, asking them to retrospectively provide proof of identity within 14 days. Those who missed this deadline – for example, because they missed the DWP’s phone calls, don’t own a smartphone to complete the request, or were unwell – have had any ongoing UC payments terminated, and been told they must pay back the entirety of their UC award.
As of July, almost 15,000 claimants had been ordered to repay UC claimed during the pandemic by ‘DWP debt management’ – an arm of DWP which recovers ‘overpaid’ benefits. Some, like Alex, have been hounded by private debt collectors.
The DWP states that it told those who claimed UC when identity checks were suspended that they would be asked to provide further evidence in future. But Alex – along with many others – does not believe this was made clear enough: “I don’t recall them ever saying that if you don’t provide your ID at a later date we’ll take the money back from you, when I first signed on.”
The charity Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG), which collects and analyses evidence about how changes to the benefits system impact people, initially raised the alarm about the DWP’s UC ‘reverification’ operation in November last year.
Claire Hall, a lawyer with CPAG, says that the DWP, “appears to have applied a blanket presumption across all claimants that a failure to respond to a request for ID evidence meant that claimants were not entitled to UC at the time they claimed.” CPAG says this is unlawful.
According to CPAG, many claimants face repayment demands whilst being unaware the DWP had requested further evidence from them at all.
For example, the DWP told claimants to check their online UC journal messages by phone or email. People may have missed those communications, or if their contact details have changed, they might not have received the requests. Those no longer receiving UC would have had no reason to update their contact details with DWP, or to be checking their journal at all.
CPAG found that others were unable to understand the DWP’s requests because they were not provided with enough information, or faced access or digital access barriers to providing the requested evidence.
In other cases, claimants did provide the DWP with evidence of their identity – sometimes multiple times – and still received repayment demands. In one case, CPAG says a man attended a telephone interview to reverify his identity with the DWP, only to have his UC terminated and repayment demanded a month later.
Alex received “a couple of phone calls” from DWP, which left messages asking her to verify her identity. Since she no longer received UC, she “figured it wasn’t relevant”. She says she was “wrapped up in working, [so] wasn’t looking out for messages from [the] DWP”.
Like others in her position, the first physical letter from DWP that Alex received – in March 2021 – was one informing her that she owed them thousands of pounds. Since then, she has provided the DWP with ID on three occasions, and yet private debt collector Advantis is still pursuing her. Alex says she feels like her ID checks have just “disappeared into the system”.
It is unclear how many people who legitimately claimed UC have actually handed money they don’t owe back to the DWP. But those who attempt to challenge the DWP’s repayment orders have faced “significant barriers and delays”, according to CPAG in a policy briefing.
CPAG argues that claimants have not been “provided with adequate information to understand why the DWP decided their UC award was an overpayment, and how they can challenge this”. CPAG says that, for those who challenge the DWP’s decision, a process that can take many months, repayment orders continue in the interim.
In some cases, the DWP has threatened to retrieve money from claimants by deducting up to 40% from their wages each month. DWP staff have told Alex that “the next step” will be to start subtracting the “debt” from her monthly salary.
For some, this threat has become a reality. CPAG reports that one woman was unable to provide the DWP with a selfie to verify her identity because she doesn’t own a smartphone. She had initiated an internal review of the DWP’s repayment orders, but nevertheless had her UC terminated and her “debt” recovered directly from her earnings.
Alex is “disturbed” that “UC payments that are supposed to help people survive are being snatched back – potentially pushing people into poverty as a result.”
Alex has officially challenged the DWP’s debt collection, but Advantis has not stopped pursuing her at any point.
“When I went into the jobcentre that didn’t do anything. When I did a mandatory reconsideration that didn’t do anything – it just kept getting passed further and further along the line until this point where it’s with the debt collectors and they’re calling me quite frequently,” she says.
Whilst she has never complied with repayment orders, she is concerned that others who didn’t challenge the DWP, “might have gone along with [repayment orders] to who knows what kind of consequences.”
The DWP’s reverification process has put claimants through, “enormous stress and hardship after being asked to repay money they were entitled to,” says Hall. For those who rely upon UC, having payments summarily halted by the DWP can be financially devastating.
CPAG is aware of cases where people have “incurred large debts because their UC was wrongly terminated,” she says. One father of two who spoke anonymously to the Independent said: “I was living on my credit card. I went from a zero credit card bill to £5,000 in the space of five or six months.”
The DWP’s “tactics of threats, arbitrary deadlines, and bureaucratic violence have been shown to be life-threatening,” says China Mills, co-founder of the Deaths by Welfare Project, which “investigates deaths linked to welfare reform and the violence of state austerity”. Last week, Margaret Tyszkow was found dead in a river after fearing she was indebted to the DWP. In fact, she owed them £4.55.
“Disabled people have been campaigning for years about the harms caused by DWP policy,” says Mills. “There’s ample evidence showing that current demands for, and threats of, benefits repayment will harm people and likely lead to deaths.”
CPAG has submitted recommendations to the DWP, including the pausing of all UC repayment demands while a decision is subject to a challenge, as is the case with other benefits. These policy recommendations, says Mills, “must be part of a wider transformation of the welfare system away from punishment, conditionality, and dehumanisation.”
Last month, the DWP announced it would train a team of 2,000 to review over two million UC claims over five years. As she continues to receive calls from a debt collection agency for money she legitimately claimed, Alex’s anger is mounting that the DWP, which “should essentially be redistributing wealth”, is “treating people with very little money like frauds when the rich get away with insane tax evasion and roll in profit from the exploitation of others.”
In response to a request for comment, the DWP said: “During the pandemic we rightly prioritised ensuring the welfare safety net reached those suddenly in difficulty. We have been contacting claimants via their preferred contact method to discuss aspects of claims we need to verify and given them two weeks to respond. If we are belatedly provided evidence proving entitlement, we will reinstate [the] benefit and cancel any debt straight away.”
Advantis has been approached for comment.