The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is back in court. This time it’s because it is appealing a previous legal case which it lost. The case affects around 250,000 claimants – many of them on Universal Credit, but also other benefits.
If the department has taken money off you for debt, then this case will be of interest.
Universal Credit deductions
Energy and water companies (i.e. “utility” companies), as well as landlords, can get the DWP to take money from people’s benefits. They can ask for this if the claimant is in arrears. As the department wrote on its website:
Other methods to recover the debt must have been tried, for example negotiating different ways of paying and managing bills. There must be a real possibility of enforcement action before consideration is given to applying for a deduction.
The DWP can deduct up to 25% of people’s benefits (like Universal Credit) in total to pay off arrears. This figure is if people have multiple debts being deducted. However, more concerningly, it doesn’t even have to get the claimant’s consent.
As the Mirror reported, the DWP had frozen the practice to new claimants, and also stopped increases in repayments, until April. Now, it’s started it again – and it’s changed the criteria, too. Utility companies can now ask the department to take even more money off people. Previous figures showed that over 250,000 people had utility companies taking money off their benefits alone.
But the DWP’s policy has not gone unchallenged – and a court actually ruled part of it was illegal.
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DWP court case
Helen Timson is a disabled woman. Her water company was taking money from her via her benefits without her consent. She challenged the DWP on this – but the department said it couldn’t do anything, which was not actually true. So, as the Guardian reported, Timson took the department to court over the policy. She said she took on the DWP because:
I found it outrageous that the DWP did not check if we could afford to pay the amount taken, if other debt options were better for us or if the debt was even owed. We certainly weren’t asked if we consented. With a keyboard click a random… employee was allowed to decide what was in our ‘best interests’ without even contacting us.
The Guardian noted that in court, Timson:
argued it was unlawful and immoral that the DWP enabled water and energy firms to draw down up to 25% of a claimant’s monthly benefit income at source without undertaking any form of check with the claimant.
The High Court agreed, with the judge ruling the DWP’s “operation” of the scheme was illegal for Universal Credit and other benefits. This should have meant that the DWP would have to change how it operated the scheme. However, this hasn’t happened – because the department is appealing the verdict. So, Timson is back in court.
‘Absolute misery’ for benefits claimants, win-win for private companies
The Court of Appeal is hearing the DWP’s challenge on 25-26 April. Timson is being supported by Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) and Fuel Poverty Action. She told the Canary:
This scheme can cause absolute misery for the benefits claimants affected by it – but my High Court win finally gave us some protection.
The government could even just change policy and legislation to “with written consent of the benefit claimant only for all utilities” – so it’s a win/win.
But instead, the DWP is fighting me at the Court of Appeal for what? To keep acting as publicly-funded debt collectors for utility companies? To make sure 250,000 people a year remain without the same rights to control their money, as everyone else in the UK?
Timson wants people to write to their MPs about the case. You can do that here.
Sadly, the DWP fighting this case is not unsurprising. Like much of the UK government’s operations, the department is acting in the interests of private companies – here, serving as energy and water firms’ personal debt collector.
Moreover, the implication from the DWP’s scheme is that poor people are too stupid to manage their money, including paying their bills. So the department has to do it on their behalf. Of course, the reality is that the department doesn’t provide people on benefits with enough money to live on – therefore, they have to make choices about what bills not to pay.
Ultimately, the way the DWP operates this policy is both degrading and unfair on claimants. However, what’s worse is that the department takes money on behalf of private companies in the first place.Support us and go ad-free
- Join DPAC and Fuel Poverty Action’s vigil outside the court on 25-26 April.
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