Two small-minded decisions in one week
This week two Written Ministerial Statements have announced decisions that will save next to nothing, but will make life harder for small but vulnerable groups of people.
Yesterday it was the announcement that the Job Grant is being abolished. Job Grants are small sums (£100 or £250) paid to long-term unemployed people, accounting for 0.03 per cent of the social security budget. They aren’t really meant to be ‘work incentives’ – they’re about helping people to cope with the one-off costs of starting work. Very often they’ll have used up all their savings and they may face serious hardship when they start work. I’m sad about this: I’ve always thought of Job Grants as one of the system’s little-known but pleasantly humane features, one that was designed by people who give a damn about what it’s like to be unemployed.
Today its the decision to claw back benefits from some of the most disadvantaged people in the country. In a Written Ministerial Statement, Maria Miller announced that the government has discovered that, over the past 5 years, about 1,600 people have received duplicate payments of Attendance Allowance and Disability Living Allowance. These are cases that slipped through the net after the problem was first discovered in 2007.
When the problem was first discovered the responsible Minister, James Plaskitt, said:
It is clearly right that where duplicate payments are being made the position should be corrected. However, given that the customers involved are both elderly and disabled, I have decided not to seek recovery of past overpayments, some of which go back as far as 1996, in cases where the customer clearly did not know they were being overpaid.
These claimants are old and severely disabled and Mr Plaskitt made ex gratia payments to a small number of people with terminal conditions to make sure their income did not fall and later he clarified the position:
Given the circumstances of these overpayments, it is extremely unlikely that people would have clearly known that they were being overpaid. Consequently we do not anticipate that the question of recovery will arise in many cases, if at all.
Compare and contrast today’s statement:
To rectify this, a monitoring programme has been put in place to ensure that there should be no further duplicate payments occurring in the future, and it is clearly right that these cases should now be corrected. However given the age and disability of the customers affected, we have considered carefully how we carry out recovery. Indeed 60% of cases have an appointee. Each case will be considered on an individual basis and customers will be contacted to explain our error. I will consider making ex gratia payments, in a small number of cases where we consider it inappropriate to withdraw the over provision of benefit. Based on information held by the Department the estimated cost of these payments will be no more than £500k in a full year. I will also be writing to appointees to remind them of their duties to ensure correct payment.
There you have it – one Minister accepted there would necessarily be hardly any recovery and put aside money to maintain the living standards of some claimants. For another, recovery is the key question and there will only be “a small number of cases … where we consider it inappropriate to withdraw the over provision of benefit.”
And the appointees – often people doing a difficult and unpaid job on behalf of a friend or relative – are going to be ticked off for something that was the Department’s fault!
Politics is politics and if Ms Miller had taken the opportunity to score some points off her predecessor, I don’t think anyone would have blamed her. But this is just nasty.
UPDATE: 25 JULY – I understand that DWP don’t actually expect to claw back any overpayments. DWP expect to have a ‘conversation’ with claimants about repaying the overpayment but they will make it clear they do not have to repay any overpayment. They can if they want to, but there will be no obligation to do so. Ms Miller’s rather confusing wording reflects the possibility that some claimants could choose to repay, but realistically it is unlikely that any will actually do so.