People stripped of benefits could be charged for challenging decisionPosted: April 8, 2014
Critics argue that proposal in leaked document from Department for Work and Pensions would hit poorest people in the country
People who have been stripped of benefits could be charged by the government for trying to appeal against the decision to an independent judge.
Critics said the proposal, contained in an internal Department for Work and Pensions document leaked to the Guardian, would hit some of the poorest people in Britain, who have been left with little or no income.
In the document about the department’s internal finances, officials say the “introduction of a charge for people making appeals against [DWP] decisions to social security tribunals” would raise money.
Other ideas include selling off child support debt to “the private sector to collect”, though civil servants remark that the government would be unlikely to raise more than 5-7p in the pound from the £1.4bn currently owed to the DWP. The department currently collects arrears.
Earlier this week figures showed that in the past year nearly 900,000 people have had their benefits stopped, the highest figure for any 12-month period since jobseeker’s allowance was introduced in 1996. In recent months, however, 58% of those who wanted to overturn DWP sanction decisions in independent tribunals have been successful. Before 2010, the success rate of appeals was 20% or less.
One welfare legal adviser said the number of appeals being lodged at independent tribunals would be decimated if the government introduced a charge.
Last year the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) which sets policy in the area,brought in charges for employment tribunals of up to £250 to lodge a claim, depending on the kind of case being brought. The union Unisonasked judges to review the policy, saying the number of claims had dropped by more than half after fees were introduced. High court judges declared the policy lawful this month.
In the DWP Efficiency Review, which is marked “restricted”, it says the proposal for charging for social security tribunals is already “under investigation” by the MoJ and officials “intend to revisit it” in the wake of the Unison court challenge decision.
However, the 80-page document points out, the policy will “entail no revenue generation nor efficiency for the [DWP] per se” but will however generate income for the justice department.
The policy proposal leak comes as the prime minister and senior religious leaders clash over the benefits system. In a letter to the Daily Mirror, 27 Anglican bishops blamed David Cameron for creating a “national crisis” in which hundreds of thousands of people have been forced to survive on the charity of food banks because of “punitive sanctions” and other DWP failures. It followed similar criticisms from Vincent Nichols, the highest ranking Catholic in England and Wales, that the government was stripping away the welfare safety net – a charge dismissed as “an exaggeration” by Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister.
The justice minister Shailesh Vara said: “The government has made clear that reducing the deficit is our top priority. It is right that the Ministry of Justice looks at all opportunities to bring down the cost of our services to the taxpayer.
“We believe that it is right to consider whether those who use tribunals should make a greater contribution to their costs, where they can afford to do so, which is why we introduced fees for employment tribunals last year.
“We will continue to keep the position under review, but we have no current plans to extend fee charging into other tribunals.”
Rachel Reeves, shadow work and pensions secretary, said: “When government’s own figures show a staggering 58% of appeals against Department for Work and Pensions decisions to dock jobseeker’s allowance are upheld, it’s clear the system is broken. Rather than penalising thousands of people by charging them to appeal, ministers need to ask why they are presiding over a broken system which is making so many bad decisions, which are overturned on appeal.”
Steve Winyard, head of policy and campaigns at the Royal National Institute of Blind People, which is threatening the DWP with legal action over sanction failures, said: “Every week RNIB receives complaints about DWP failing to provide correspondence and other benefits information in Braille or other accessible formats.
“As a result, these people are at direct risk of sanction and a number have had the benefits they rely on to live withdrawn. To now say that these individuals will not even be able to appeal the inaccurate DWP decision without paying for it is a disgrace, It’s a ‘computer says no’ approach that locks people out and leaves some with no help whatsoever, many becoming reliant on food banks as a result.”
Neil Bateman, a long-serving welfare rights lawyer, also described the policy idea as a disgrace. He said: “Stopping people from challenging bad decisions actually strikes at the heart of our democratic arrangement.” He said many of the people he had successfully represented over the years at tribunals would not have got justice if they had been made to pay a fee and that even £5 would be too high a charge for them.
Bateman said that from his experience, a very high proportion of appeals were caused by mistakes and poor-quality decision-making by the DWP. He said this had risen in recent years because the department had got rid of experienced DWP decision-makers, social security law had become more complex and attitudes had changed.
“Under this government there is an attitudinal issue in terms of evidence of increased DWP staff antipathy towards clients and that all results in decisions which are wrong which eventually get turned over at appeal,” Bateman said.