The DWP has climbed down on an apparent climbdown, with the department seemingly at odds with one of its Ministers over the unwitting victims of organised Universal Credit fraud having to pay back sums supposedly advanced to them.
As reported by 24housing yesterday (July 10) DWP minister Justin Tomlinson told the Commons the department would “protect vulnerable people” who would not be expected to pay sums back.
Subsequently, the DWP said its position had not changed and claimants would need to repay some of the money.
To Tomlinson – already branded “flippant” by the Work and Pensions Select Committee – there had been a “a bit of a muddle”.
In keeping with present patterns, the House heard the DWP had no available figures as to the average and maximum amounts scam victims had lost.
“But we are looking at this as we work through the cases,” Tomlinson said.
The SNP’s Neil Grey – who put an Urgent Question on the fraud to the Commons – tweeted: “When ministers and the DWP know these people have been ripped off by criminals without their knowledge as they hoped to access hardship funds they desperately need to survive, UK Gov will now plunge them further into debt and destitution. Disgusting.”
During the debate, Labour’s Ruth George “welcomed” Tomlinson saying that “claimants who have made a claim in error, or not made one to their knowledge, will not have to repay the advance.”
George went on to ask Tomlinson to confirm that those claimants will be allowed to return to their legacy benefits, since they have not made a valid claim for Universal Credit that they are aware of.
Tomlinson said: “Every individual will be treated individually, and we will look at the unique circumstances.
“Where it is clear that they have been a victim of fraud through no fault of their own, no, we would not expect them to pay it back, and yes, we would consider putting them back on to the legacy benefits if they were better off under those.”
With Tomlinson’s comments taken as a climbdown, a DWP spokeswoman said after the debate that victims of the scam would have to repay any money they’d kept.
“If someone’s details are fraudulently used to claim an advance but they do not themselves receive this payment, we will not recover the money from the claimant.
“[But] if the individual receives some of the advance, we will only seek to recover this amount from them and will pursue the fraudster for any remaining payment.”
Back in the House, Labour shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Margaret Greenwood asked Tomlinson how it could be that advances have been made to claimants with names such as Lisa Simpson, Bart Simpson and Homer Simpson?
To Tomlinson, there had been “a bit of a muddle” mixing the difference between the verification process with advanced payments and the main claims for universal credit.
Greenwood’s colleague Melanie Onn riffed on the Simpson’s theme asking Tomlinson if he “seriously expected” members to believe it was acceptable for the Universal Credit system to recognise the Bank of Springfield – let alone authorise payments to it
“I think the general public will be incredulous at the level of incompetence around the Universal Credit system,” she said.
Tomlinson threw back numbers: 4.4 million universal credit claims… 42,000 referrals… since January, every month more than 110,000 requests for advance payments…
“We will continue to tighten up the procedures, using real-time information, data matching and the digital platforms, so that we are as robust as we can be,” he said.
DWP now had a “dedicated” team working on issues around advance payments, said Tomlinson.
There was a diplomatically muffled reaction from the Opposition benches when he referenced “parasites who target some of the most vulnerable people in society”
The Commons is due to debate the need for greater safeguards over the managed migration to Universal Credit.
Tomlinson said: “We are still considering how we can do this correctly. We are still on track to do the planned managed migration from the summer.
“We are aware that it needs to come back to the House and will be reporting to the House on it shortly.”