Government fraud policy paper ignores coroner’s concerns over review of disabled woman’s universal credit claim

by 24britishtvMay 16, 2024, 5 p.m. 20

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has refused to explain why its new policy paper on benefit fraud has ignored concerns raised by a coroner about a disabled woman who died following a “targeted” review of her universal credit claim.

The new policy paper, released this week, is the government’s latest version of its plan to tackle fraud across the social security system.

Among measures in the policy paper – Fighting Fraud in the Welfare System: Going Further – DWP describes its efforts to carry out “targeted case reviews” of existing universal credit claims to “tackle fraud and error”.

It says DWP has recruited more than 3,000 staff to identify “incorrect claims”, which has led to more than 200,000 claims being reviewed this year.

The policy paper insists that DWP has “robust measures and safeguards in place to support customers through a review of their claim”, and that all its staff “undergo training to ensure they can recognise signs of risk or complex needs that can impact the claimant’s ability to manage their claim or take part in a review”.

But Disability News Service is reporting this week how DWP has admitted to a coroner that it missed multiple opportunities during such a review to record the “vulnerability” of a disabled woman whose death was linked to failings at the heart of the universal credit system.

DWP has admitted that staff made crucial errors in dealing with the claim of Nazerine (known as Naz) Anderson, from Melton Mowbray, who died in June last year (see separate story).

She had been admitted to Leicester’s Bradgate Mental Health Unit in December 2022 after a decline in her mental health that a consultant psychiatrist told the coroner was triggered by a review of her universal credit claim.

Mental health professionals who then worked with her in the months leading to her death told the coroner in February that that review of her claim was the predominant cause of her increased anxiety.

Coroner Fiona Butler highlighted in a prevention of future deaths report how DWP missed six opportunities to record Anderson’s “vulnerability” on its IT system while it was reviewing her claim, and had failed to act on the mental distress she showed in phone calls to the department.

DWP also repeatedly failed to act on requests to direct its telephone calls and letters to her daughter.

But there is no mention of her case, the coroner’s concerns about the review process, or its response to the coroner’s report, in DWP’s new policy paper.

DWP says instead that it has already trialled “enhanced reviews” of claimants of personal independence payment (PIP) and has rolled this out across its PIP service centres, and will now “extend the pilots” across other DWP benefits over the next year.

It claims it will “continue to ensure the protection of vulnerable customers during their review process”.

DWP refused to say yesterday (Wednesday) why the policy paper failed to mention the death of Naz Anderson and the coroner’s concerns about its safeguards.

It also refused to say if it was confident that the same flaws that led to her death would not also apply to its targeted reviews of PIP and other benefits.

Its response to the coroner also appears to reveal a significant ongoing safeguarding flaw in the system that could continue to put many other disabled claimants at risk – which prevents some staff from alerting colleagues to a claimant’s “vulnerability” and support needs – but it refused to say if it had resolved this serious flaw.

Meanwhile, other measures laid out in the policy document could see the UK “sleepwalking into another Horizon scandal”, disabled campaigners warned this week.

The controversial measures, included in the data protection and digital information bill, would use artificial intelligence to give DWP sweeping powers to carry out financial surveillance on benefit claimants through their bank accounts.

Activists from the disabled women’s organisation WinVisible were among campaigners who supported the Downing Street handover on Tuesday of petitions signed by more than 270,000 people that call on the government to scrap the proposed bank spying powers.

They say the new powers, which would see banks forced to scan all customers’ accounts in search of fraud and error in the social security system, would be “a disaster for everyone’s privacy”.

DWP insists in its new policy paper that there are “a number of safeguards and limitations” with these new powers, and it warns that they are “a necessary first step to modernising and strengthening our powers”.

A new fraud bill in the next parliament – if the Conservatives win the next election – will also give its fraud investigators new powers to make arrests, conduct searches and seize possessions, which it says would “allow DWP to control the end-to-end investigation in the most serious criminal cases, applying for the warrants, leading the operation and searching and seizing evidence”.

That bill would also introduce a new civil penalty for benefit fraud with a “lower burden of proof”.

Mikey Erhardt, policy and campaigns officer at Disability Rights UK, said: “We know that polls report that everyone wants extra spending on benefits, not more groundless anti-fraud measures, which, if allowed to pass, will make the UK’s social security system, already one of western Europe’s least generous, even worse.

“It looks like we’re sleepwalking into another Horizon [Post Office] scandal.

“The government’s latest dalliance with untested, unscrutinised, and potentially unlimited powers for new ‘bank scanning’ algorithms will be used to tackle an issue seemingly so out of control that the fraud rate for disability benefits is only 0.2 per cent.

“Their plans are essentially a digital sledgehammer to crack the tiniest nut.

“With such widespread support for change, this should be our moment to create a system built on respect, dignity, and support that enables us to live the lives we deserve – not spend millions to create an uncontrollable digital panopticon.”

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