Universal Credit (UC) claimants are all too often prevented from challenging questionable decisions by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), because staff have been poorly trained or failures in the system stop block from seeking justice.
These are the findings of a new report from the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG), which demands improvements to the administration of Universal Credit and the over-complicated appeals process.
Researchers found the complex new benefit system has complicated the appeals system and means that some people are having to jump through hoops to get the financial support they desperately need.
CPAG analysed 1,600 benefit cases from welfare rights advisers across the UK, discovering that UC claimants are being forced to take their case to a social security tribunal because the DWP are seemingly incapable of resolving even the simplest of problems or disputes.
CPAG says this worrying issue is evident in the percentage of DWP UC decisions that are overturned at tribunal (63%), which if reviewed correctly should have been reversed at the mandatory reconsideration stage.
Benefit claimants are required to ask the DWP to review a decision they contest (mandatory reconsideration) before they can appeal their case to a tribunal.
In a foreword to the report, former Justice of the High Court Dame Laura Cox DBE said: “Many people are getting lost in the quagmire of the appeals process.
“Understandably they lose confidence in the system and give up. Erroneous decisions therefore stand, to the detriment of individual families and to society as a whole.
“If, due to complexity, inflexibility or incoherence, the appeals process in UC cases is almost impossible to understand and to pursue effectively, incorrect decisions go unchallenged and suffering is prolonged. Children fall through that safety net and our system of justice is undermined.
“Much more must now be done to enable those who wish to challenge a decision to do so effectively and without delay.
“The right to appeal against an adverse decision is an important part of respect for individual dignity, for the accuracy, predictability and consistency of decision-making and, ultimately, for the rule of law.”
Chief Executive of Child Poverty Action Group Alison Garnham said: “The failure to ensure universal credit operates in a way that upholds basic legal duties is cause for serious concern.
“UC staff dealing with claimants do not always seem to understand the rules as to how decisions can be challenged, and efforts to make the system more user-friendly by encouraging informal online chats can mean claimants are prevented from exercising their rights and ultimately cannot make sure their awards are corrected.
“The system throws up so many obstacles to getting a decision reviewed that some claimants – often the most vulnerable – are likely to give up and lose out.
“One hundred and thirty thousand individuals and families are moving on to universal credit each month.
“If it isn’t accountable, and if appeal routes are not crystal clear and readily available to claimants, then universal credit isn’t fit for purpose.
“We know that DWP officials are aware of our concerns about the problems we highlight in the report and we hope Ministers will act on the evidence and implement our recommendations to help restore confidence in universal credit.
“Improving training so that all staff are aware of the legal framework for universal credit must be a priority.”