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27 November 2009

Many people are treated with outrageous unfairness by the DWP.  Most just endure it, some complain and get nowhere, a tiny number get compensation of up to £10,000.  How do they do it?.

The forums at benefits and Work, like many others, are full of tales from people who have been treated appallingly badly by the DWP.  The majority don’t make a formal complaint because they believe it would be a waste of time.  Some do make a complaint and, after many moths of pursuing it, also come to the conclusion that it was a waste of time.  A few are satisfied with the way their complaint is handled, but this usually involves just receiving an apology and an admission by the DWP or Atos that they made a mistake.

Yet a recently released report reveals that a tiny number of people pursue their complaint further and end up being awarded large sums in compensation, even up to £10,000.   The report is called ‘Small mistakes, big consequences’ and is written by Ann Abrahams, the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman.

It is her office which has the power to direct agencies like the Department for Work and Pensions, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs – who administer tax credits – the Child Support Agency and the Courts Service to pay large amounts of compensation to members of the public.  The agencies are not obliged to follow the Parliamentary Ombudsman’s directions, but in virtually every case they do.

Two of the cases in the report involve the DWP.

Mr K was a chemical engineer who was made redundant.  In the course of a claim for jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) in July 2006 a disagreement rose about what should be included in Mr K’s jobseeker’s agreement.  His JSA was suspended, but on the wrong grounds.  Over the following months Jobcentre Plus made a series of errors, including:

  • On erroneous grounds, refusing to pay Mr K a hardship payment
  • Failing to clearly explain a decision to refuse him JSA
  • Failing to deal with Mr K’s complaints properly
  • Stopping Mr K’s housing benefit without warning

Mr K won his appeal against the decision not to pay him JSA in March 2007, but Jobcentre Plus took no action until 27 May.  Astonishingly, after refusing Mr K a crisis loan or an interim payment, Jobcentre Plus decided they would not implement the tribunal’s decision until Mr K provided evidence of what he had been living on whilst they had been wrongly withholding his benefits for almost a year.

Mr K finally began to receive JSA in August 2007.

Mr K pursued his complaints about the way he had been treated through the DWP’s complaints procedure and on to the Parliamentary Ombudsman’s office.  They investigated and found Jobcentre Plus guilty of maladministration.  They directed that the Chief Executive write a letter of apology and that the DWP pay Mr K £10,000 in recognition of the distress he had suffered.

The case of Mrs Q began in 1987.  Mrs Q went to what was then the DSS to find out what she could claim after her husband, who had a war disablement pension, died.  Mrs Q was told about widow’s state retirement pension but not about war widow’s pension.

It was not until 1994 that Mrs Q read a newspaper article about war widow’s pension, applied and was granted it.  Over the following five years Mrs Q repeatedly phoned asking for the awarded to be backdated to the date of her husband’s death and was repeatedly fobbed off.

Mrs Q involved her MP and continued telephoning what eventually became the War Veterans Agency.  She repeatedly asked to be allowed to appeal against the decision and was wrongly refused the right to do so.  Eventually the Agency passed Mrs Q’s papers to the Pensions Appeal Tribunal who allowed her appeal to go forward.  In April 2006 Mrs Q won her appeal and was awarded over £26,000 in backdated payments and interest.

Mrs Q then asked the Agency to consider paying her compensation for the years of distress and inconvenience they had caused her.  The Agency said they would only consider her application if she produced medical evidence to support her claim.

Outraged, Mrs Q exhausted the Agency’s complaints procedure and took her complaint to the Parliamentary Ombudsman’s office.  They agreed with Mrs Q, finding that her distress was ‘self-evident’ and required no objective evidence.  They directed that Mrs Q be paid £5,000 in compensation and receive an apology from the Chief Executive.

Complaints to the Parliamentary Ombudsman can only be considered once all other avenues have been exhausted.  In addition, your MP has to sign a form asking the Ombudsman to look into the matter.  However, what both these cases demonstrate is that, with extraordinary persistence, it may be possible to get justice for dreadful treatment by the DWP.

Given that Atos are sub-contractors to the DWP,  the behaviour of their staff and the treatment of any subsequent complaint is likely to be eligible for scrutiny by the Parliamentary Ombudsman’s office . . .

You can read the whole report, ‘Small mistakes, big consequences’.

You can find out about complaining to the Parliamentary Ombudsman’s office.