Apology after benefit error hits an extra 30,000 ill and disabled people

A minister has apologised after it emerged an extra 30,000 ill and disabled benefit claimants could have been underpaid.

Sarah Newton told the Commons the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) now believes 210,000 people could be due arrears payments as a result of failings linked to the transfer of people from older incapacity benefits to Employment and Support Allowance (Esa), an increase from the previous estimate of 180,000.

Ms Newton (pictured) said she “wished this had never happened” but officials are “working at pace” to ensure people receive the cash they are entitled to.

Shadow work and pensions minister Marsha De Cordova, asking an urgent question in the Commons, said: “Initially the Government estimated that 70,000 ill and disabled people were underpaid.

“In October last year the number increased to 180,000 people, and now it has emerged up to 210,000 ill and disabled people were underpaid on average £6,000 in social security.

“How can we trust this number will not increase?”

The DWP has acknowledged the first phase of the review includes re-examining around 20,000 cases where the claimant has died.

Ms De Cordova, speaking about the errors as a whole, went on: “The department estimates more than £1 billion will be spent to rectify this catastrophic error and we have now learnt it’ll employ up to 1,200 staff to do so.

“How many people have been pushed into rent arrears, council tax arrears, debt and destitution?”

Labour wants compensation paid to those people “pushed into debt”, Ms De Cordova said before asking how the Government will avoid repeating the mistakes when transferring people to Universal Credit, the flagship welfare reform programme designed to simplify benefits payments.

She also said: “Will she apologise to the approximate additional 30,000 disabled people and their families who have been denied thousands of pounds of social security?”

Ms Newton, in her reply, said: “Each and every time I’ve addressed the House, I have thoroughly apologised on behalf of the department for these administrative errors.

“This should never have happened and I am very happy to apologise again today.

“While I wished this had never happened, we’re working at pace to make sure that people do receive the payment to which they are entitled.”

On Universal Credit, Ms Newton said the key lesson learnt is to make sure the claimant is involved in the decision to transfer them.

The SNP’s Brendan O’Hara (Argyll and Bute) said such “ad hoc discoveries” were “extremely concerning”, adding: “It begs the question what other errors has the DWP missed?

“The most alarming aspect of this entire scandal is that 20,000 people whose claims were due to be reviewed have since died. Is the Government undertaking any investigation to determine the circumstances surrounding those deaths and if this underpayment in any way contributed or exacerbated those circumstances?”

Ms Newton said: “Clearly we’re very anxious to make sure that we contact people as soon as possible and of course their families will be, if we can find people’s families, we’ll be making those payments to them.”

She urged MPs to be “very careful” when making “allegations about the causal link between people being on benefits and them tragically taking their lives”.

Tory Philip Hollobone (Kettering) said: “Isn’t the big lesson here that when it comes to new benefits such as Universal Credit, it’s important to get these things right before they are rolled out?”

SNP MP Patricia Gibson (North Ayrshire and Arran) spoke of the “hardship and misery these errors and payments have caused to some of the most vulnerable in our communities”.

She said: “But does she understand the complete lack of trust felt by the sick and disabled towards the entire DWP system in which there is a hostile environment towards the sick and disabled in which these administrative errors thrived?”

Ms Newton said the Government was spending “record levels” of money supporting people with disabilities and health conditions.

Independent John Woodcock (Barrow and Furness) asked where was the “sense of accountability for this terrible error which has had such a profound effect on many thousands of people’s lives”.

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