DWP Risk Review Team

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:21 pm on 26 January 2022.

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Photo of Kate Osamor Kate Osamor Labour/Co-operative, Edmonton 4:21, 26 January 2022

The hon. Gentleman makes a valuable point, which I will come to later. I back everything that he has said, because the claimants need much more support. For many claimants, English is their second language, so the more support the Department can give them, the better.

We have seen few claims disallowed for reasons of constituents failing a habitual residency test, and none that we have seen have had their claims closed for fraud. All that raises a series of questions for the Minister. How many fraudulent claims have been discovered by the risk review team? What justification is being used for the original investigation and suspension of claims? Has the Department undertaken an equality impact assessment to ensure that the process is not resulting in direct or indirect discrimination? I ask those questions because, sadly, there did not appear to be much information publicly available about the risk review team, and the Department appears reluctant to enlighten me further. I wrote to the Minister about these issues on 26 November 2021, and I received a response only yesterday evening. I am very grateful for that response, despite having to chase the Department nearly four times.

I have also asked a series of written questions. In response to one of them, the Minister for welfare delivery stated that as of 24 December last year, 149,000 cases—approximately 3.74% of universal credit claims—had been suspended under the risk review process. We have found out that 3% of claimants in those cases had their benefits reinstated. However, using the argument that to do so would mean incurring disproportionate costs, the Department has so far declined to confirm what has happened to the other 97% of cases.

Let me ask the Minister some more questions. How many claims have been deemed to be fraudulent and subsequently closed? How many claims remain suspended? How many people who we have not yet heard about are suffering in silence, not just in Edmonton but across the country? This issue is especially concerning because the cases I have seen predominantly concern claimants for whom English is a second language. Many face real difficulties accessing services, and that can create barriers to communicating with the Department directly and to accessing outside advice and assistance.

Some appear to have had their claims referred to the risk review team after being unable to answer security questions over the phone. I am unsure how much assistance they are given in the process if there are language barriers. In response to written questions, the Department has stated that there is a “high risk of fraud” in these cases, and that all claims are “suspended pending contact” with the claimant and them providing the requested information. It has also insinuated that the cases are related to organised crime, and yet in our experience the majority of those who are impacted appear to be vulnerable single mums who have done nothing wrong.

I can speak only for my constituency, but the brunt of the policy appears to have fallen overwhelming on Bulgarian nationals. Charities working in the local area, such as Citizens Advice Enfield and the Edmonton Community Partnership, concur with that assessment. From the many organisations I have spoken to that have similar cases, I have heard of Romanian and Polish nationals being affected, but no British citizens or those of other nationalities. Tellingly, those affected are all EU citizens.

Thus far, the Department has said that it does not keep demographic data on nationality, making it impossible to produce conclusive proof, but I understand that the Department does hold data on claimants’ nationality at the point of national insurance number registration. While we remain in the dark about how this opaque team conducts its business, and with the cases that I know about being so overwhelmingly concentrated among Bulgarian nationals and other EU nationals, it is impossible not to suspect that potentially discriminatory practices are being carried out.

Considering the issues that I have raised, I have a series of recommendations for the Minister. First, I urge the Department to change its “guilty until proven innocent” approach. The Department clearly does not have the resources to process the cases in a timely manner. I understand that there are roughly 165 full-time equivalent staff on the team. It seems likely that thousands of people are left languishing for many months, effectively under no recourse to public funds conditions, even if they are entitled to claim benefits and have committed no wrongdoing. Claims should be suspended only if evidence of fraud is found, with the review and an initial decision made prior to that course of action.

Secondly, the team must provide proper assistance to those whose cases are being investigated. It must appreciate the barriers that may exist to providing evidence. The whole process has appeared opaque and complex to my caseworkers and me, let alone someone for whom English is not their first language.

The DWP must also appreciate the barriers to providing documents—learning lessons, for example, from the Windrush scandal—as there may be deeper reasons why claimants are unable to provide certain pieces of evidence. The Independent reported on a Bulgarian national who was subject to the risk review process and was asked to provide every page of their old passport. However, that was impossible, as the Bulgarian embassy in London reportedly takes expired passports when citizens apply for a new one. That should be urgently be looked into, and an equalities impact assessment should be carried out.

Thirdly, the DWP should provide adequate compensation to those who have had their claims wrongly suspended. I know of constituents who have had their lives turned completely upside down, in some cases losing homes and acquiring significant debt, not to mention the stress and anxiety caused by the months of waiting.

Backdating payments does not make up for the impact of the process. Of all the cases my office has dealt with, only one constituent has received any compensation. They were granted a consolatory special payment of £200 because of delays in a mandatory reconsideration decision and the outcome of the risk review action. That sum is nowhere near enough to make amends for the seven months in which they waited for more than £10,000, which they were entitled to receive during that time. We need a proper compensation scheme for those who have been seriously affected by the way that the risk review team has conducted its business.

Lastly, and crucially, the DWP must be more transparent. More than 140,000 claimants have been affected by the risk review team. There must be greater awareness of the way in which it operates. Currently, it appears to be operating with impunity. Guidance should be published on how the team works in identifying and investigating cases. The DWP should also make public how many cases remain suspended, and what percentage of those have been closed after the Department came to the decision that it believed the claim was indeed fraudulent.

Transparency and scrutiny are essential for good governance. Any new policy that may cause negative consequences must be identified and then, ideally, addressed quickly. The hardship being caused to my constituents, which I have spoken about today, may not be an intentional effect of this policy but, for one reason or another, they are getting trapped in this net. It is imperative that we understand why. I urge the Minister to take on board the stories that I have relayed today and to urgently review the operations of the risk review team, with the seriousness that the situation deserves, before many more lives are torn apart.