Benefit Claimants (Automatic Transfer to Alternative Benefits)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:38 pm on 5th November 2013.

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Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley 12:38 pm, 5th November 2013

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to ensure that individuals claiming state benefits are automatically enrolled onto alternative benefits to which they are entitled when a benefit ceases to be applicable;
and for connected purposes.

The Bill is needed because worrying and growing numbers of people find themselves without income, stuck in a bureaucratic benefits-bungling muddle or benefits limbo for extended periods for technical reasons.

I have become aware of the problem through a number of constituency cases. Mrs N lost her entitlement to employment and support allowance on 15 March but, owing to a wholly official error, the benefit continued to be paid until 1 August, causing an overpayment of £1,431. Having approached me for help in early September, Mrs N was left with the option of appealing the appeal without any income during that time or of making a new claim for ESA from 16 September, which she did—it was once again granted. My constituent was left without income for almost six weeks, from 8 August to 16 September, and was not advised to apply for an alternative benefit at any point between March and September. She managed to keep debt collectors at bay only by borrowing money from family and friends, and was barely able to avoid the debt trap that is payday lending after she found herself in benefit limbo.

There is the case of Mrs A, whom I saw at my surgery on 12 October. When her benefit entitlement was stopped in July, she did not receive a decision assurance phone call or written notification informing her of her entitlement to claim jobseeker’s allowance. She has not received any income since July. She, too, has been stuck in benefit limbo. Her doctor advised her that she is not fit for work and provided documents to that effect, but the Government say she is fit for work, and, because of an error in the system, she was not informed what she should do. Had she been automatically enrolled on to jobseeker’s allowance at the moment her previous entitlement ended, she would not have been left without income. She would have been entered into the system to either find work or be enrolled anew on appropriate state support. What is important about this case is that I have previously asked the Department for Work and Pensions what it does when ESA entitlement ceases, and was told that it tells people to claim JSA. That, however, clearly does not happen in all cases.

We then encounter the passporting problem. The system is efficient when it comes to people automatically qualifying for housing benefit. However, it also efficiently knocks people off housing benefit when they wrongly fall out of the support system. That means that when they finally ask for help, they are probably also facing an eviction notice. That is unnecessary. The Department could simply start them on the new benefit, which it already knows they qualify for. I have been told that the law does not allow that for data protection or other reasons. The Bill would cut the Gordian knot.

There is significant delay in the system. I am aware of one constituent who, having been referred by the jobcentre to a local food bank, missed an appointment at the jobcentre. As a result, he was sanctioned. An appeal would take up to 10 weeks—three times longer than the sanction itself.

We should not overlook the effect on the health of those left in benefits limbo. The uncertainty, stress and choices for those without income experience do nothing to help their mental or physical health. They do not face a choice to heat or eat; they are left reliant on handouts and charity—a lack of dignity no one in this House would wish to impose on anyone.

There is the case in Westminster of child EG, who died of starvation after his mother, Mrs G, referred to in the serious case review, suffered a serious illness and died shortly afterwards. She was a survivor of domestic violence and, with her children, successfully sought asylum. After many months, however, she had still not been placed on mainstream state support. The serious case review reflected on the effect on her health, and that of her children, of ad hoc sources of income from charities and the local authority, the failure of the UK Border Agency to hand over necessary papers, the absurd requirement that she become homeless for the local authority or benefits agency to assist her, and the insecurity of her housing situation. The case review concluded that the situation was

“worrying for anyone; it must have been extremely difficult and contributed to her difficulty in managing her children and their collective health needs”.

This young mother found herself in a desperate situation. The failure of the authorities to get into gear and provide the support she needed contributed to a tragic outcome, yet in the months leading up to her death she was relatively well. I have examples of people left in similar situations—unable to pay the rent, in fear of debt collection and forced to rely on charity and food banks—because of the same bureaucratic delay and befuddlement that contributed to those deaths.

My office is authorised to hand out food vouchers for the local food bank. However, I have a case of someone who refused food vouchers, because he could not pay for the cost of cooking the food as he was destitute. Aside from the stress and anxiety an appeal causes to a person who is, in many cases—if not the majority—not fit for work and really rather ill, the Government announced in February that they were introducing a mandatory reconsideration pending appeal during which benefits were to be stopped. A freedom of information request issued in April this year revealed:

“If the claimant wishes to dispute this decision they must request that the decision maker looks at it again (mandatory reconsideration). Whilst the decision maker is reconsidering the decision, ESA cannot be paid as there is no legal basis to do so.”

ESA may not be paid, but at least the Department for Work and Pensions could ensure that people are not destitute by paying them JSA. The principle is the same when it comes to transfers from disability living allowance to personal independence payment, or indeed the payment of discretionary housing payments or other situations, such as the case of EG. At times, the Department clearly has evidence that people qualify for benefits, but does not manage to pay them and they end up destitute. I do not think that is the Government’s objective; however, the Bill is one way of resolving the issue. Another would be to introduce a legislative and regulatory reform order to remove the burden of a formal application.

It would be preferable to ensure that a claimant continued to receive regular payments and had any overpayment recovered over time, rather than leaving people at the mercy of the debt traps of payday loans or to be forced to rely on charity, food banks or emergency support. As the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend Esther McVey, told me in a letter dated 23 October, there are stigmas and confusions associated with the system at present. As she told me, many claimants of ESA, having been found fit for work, fear making a claim for JSA because they think it might prejudice an appeal.

Although the Minister assures me that this fear is misplaced, I think it would be far better for the user if we removed that fear. Such a move should have no impact on the benefits budget, because it would be money someone is entitled to and a replacement for a benefit they would be getting otherwise. It would allow decision makers to make informed decisions in the time they need without leaving a claimant without income. Indeed, it would create a bureaucratic saving, because not having to process a backdated claim for housing benefit and council tax support would reduce the amount of effort for the state.

We need to remember that although some people have abused the benefits system in the past, there are also people who are confused about what is going on. As I have explained, that confusion can lead to tragedy, and the Government should support my Bill in order to avoid such tragedies. As I said, there are various routes towards this objective: the DWP might be able to manage it under current legislation and rules—although this is not clear—but a legislative and regulatory reform order would achieve the same outcome, and would also be quite a rapid process. As a member of the Regulatory Reform Committee, I am sure the Committee would welcome the work. Alternatively, I would be happy for the Government to take over the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That John Hemming and Jim Shannon present the Bill.

John Hemming accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 22 November, and to be printed (Bill 125).