12 November 2009
Many hundreds of claimants are unjustly imprisoned every year because overpayment amounts are being ‘wildly exaggerated’ by the DWP, welfare benefits expert witness Neil Bateman has told MPs . In one case he assisted with, a woman prosecuted for a £47,000 overpayment had in reality under-claimed benefits.
The shocking revelations were made in written evidence to a House of Commons committee currently examining the standard of DWP decision making.
According to Bateman, criminal judges and defending solicitors do not understand benefits law and it is very rare for a welfare rights specialist to be involved in defending claimants. As a result, the DWP get away with massively inflating the amount of benefit a claimant has been overpaid. Where this is more than £20,000 a prison sentence is the likely outcome, with the DWP getting positive press coverage for exposing the criminal.
At the time of writing Bateman had been asked for assistance by criminal defence solicitors in 66 cases in the last two years. In no fewer than 59 of these he proved that the DWP had overstated the overpayment by up to twenty times the true figure. The DWP almost always accept Bateman’s findings without argument and only two claimants had been imprisoned where Bateman was involved.
Most overpayment cases that Bateman assist with arise not from someone deliberately plotting to defraud the system, but from foolishly failing to declare a change of circumstances.
For example, a single parent starts seeing a man who gradually moves in with her. But she still isn’t certain that the relationship is secure and does not want to become financially dependent upon him, so she decides to wait a while before declaring his presence. Weeks turn into months and sometimes even years.
Or a claimant has a serious health condition and gets DLA as a result. Their condition very slowly and gradually improves and they realise that it’s probably time they told the DWP. But they feel sure that no-one will employ them with their health history and they are certain they can’t manage on basic benefits. So they put it off and put it off.
Or a claimant with huge debts finds work, but it’s insecure and low paid. So they decide not to declare it until they’re sure it’s going to last and they’ve paid off some of their bills.
Whilst all these are criminal offences, the claimants still have a right to be treated lawfully and to have the amount they have stolen from the public purse correctly calculated both for sentencing purposes (where notional tax credits may be relevant) and for the actual overpayment itself.
For example, in one case at which Neil Bateman assisted, the claimant had failed to declare that she had started living with a man who was in work. As a result she was prosecuted for dishonestly claiming over £47,000 in benefits and looked certain to receive a substantial prison sentence.
Bateman was commissioned by her solicitor to check the figures.
He first examined the alleged £19,000 housing benefit overpayment.
He discovered that the claimant’s household income was so low that if she had declared that her partner was living with her she would still have been entitled to all but £700 of the housing benefit she received. This was a basic ‘error’ on the DWP’s part that any advice volunteer would have spotted in an instant.
Bateman then looked at the alleged income support overpayment of over £28,000.
He discovered that the DWP had failed to take into account other benefits and tax credits that the claimant would have been entitled to, had she declared her real circumstances. The result was that, far from having been overpaid, the claimant had actually lost out by her dishonesty. She would actually have been paid more than £47,000 in benefits and tax credits if she had told the DWP she was living with her partner.
The Crown Court judge found the claimant guilty but, instead of a lengthy prison sentence, she was given a conditional discharge. The DWP were refused most of their costs because the judge considered they had not “done their job properly”.
Sadly few defence solicitors ever trouble to engage a welfare rights specialist in cases like these, so DWP exaggerations go undetected.
The situation is made worse by the fact that most social security tribunal judges cravenly refuse to hear an overpayment case if the claimant is also facing criminal prosecution for fraud. This is in spite of the fact that the tribunal judge has a much better understanding of benefits law and, in two thirds of cases where the claimant is represented, will find that there has been no overpayment at all.
The result of this combination of exaggeration and judicial negligence is that, in the 12 months to March 2009, a total of 8,701 claimants were tried for overpayment of benefits by judges who don’t even remotely understand benefits law . Four hundred and sixty three people were put in prison as a consequence.
If Neil Bateman’s experience is any guide, most of them should still be free.
You can read Neil Bateman’s full, shocking submission to the Work and Pensions Select Committee.
You can visit Neil Bateman’s website