Ruth Hunt talks to welfare rights expert NICK DILWORTH about the DWP’s love of maliciously prosecuting people who accidentally break complex benefit rules
DESPITE claiming to be “disability confident,” the DWP, Fraud Investigation Service (FIS) and the right-wing media are largely responsible for the hostility and suspicion that now surrounds those with disabilities.
The FIS, which started operating in 2014, has wide-ranging powers to spy on and investigate claimants. Increasingly these are people with serious disabilities and the end result can be catastrophic and include loss of life.
As welfare rights expert Nick Dilworth says: “With all the propaganda and vile rhetoric of today, it’s all too easy to wag the finger at these people and blame them for daring to venture out of their homes. The DWP throws the rule book at innocent people and neglects to question how it was all-too-often the DWP that failed to apply the benefits properly in the first place.
“Undeniably benefits were awarded without proper verification checks being carried out. Claimants would often provide details of their doctors but the DWP wouldn’t always follow through as they should’ve done, and would confirm awards without carrying out the checks.
“Then the game changed and (now it’s) is all about getting people off disability benefits. It was government policy which created the welfare wilderness, a recompense for making someone redundant after years of hard work. They were dumped on benefits with little scrutiny.”
A DWP document from 2010 signalled this change of approach, with Lord Freud committing £425 million to reduce fraud and error.
Despite the propensity of the complex benefit system to produce errors, and government figures for fraud remaining at 0.7 per cent, the focus has been on fraud. So amid a barrage of benefit cuts and reforms, the FIS was introduced alongside private-sector “bounty hunters”’ who trawl through data and are paid by result.
Dilworth illustrates how intrusive the evidence-gathering process can be: “They can go covertly to their neighbours, employers, and trawl bank statements. Using evidence from their Tesco Clubcard, they look for patterns of expenditure, how much they spend on their weekly shop and search credit reference agencies. Their social media pages are trawled and the most intimate details of their lives are splashed across evidence bundles for all to see as the case proceeds to court.
“It doesn’t surprise me people plead guilty when they’re innocent (after) having their entire life, with embarrassing factors related to their ill health, exposed in a courtroom, with often unsympathetic jurors and judges. Clients describe it as “a living hell.”
Taking video evidence as an example, it’s clear only part of a picture is portrayed during investigations, as Dilworth explains: “The DWP video surveillance only shows segments that help their case — just enough for it to be shown as a ‘compelling’ account of perceived capability. What it doesn’t show is how a claimant is when they can’t go out.
“Many are deeply affected by mental health problems and walk into a DWP investigation with fear, but in the belief they’ve done nothing wrong. The interviews, often under caution and without legal representation, are conducted with one goal in mind — to catch the claimant out. People fall into traps and end up admitting mistakes, which are entirely innocent. The interviewers use aggressive, accusatory questioning, with some interviews lasting over five hours.
Investigators rarely look at it objectively to see whether the claimant understood the award when it was first made. I’m convinced large numbers are unfairly convicted because the system itself is stacked so heavily against not believing the claimant.
“The next step is waiting to hear whether or not they’ll be prosecuted, which invariably means an appearance in the magistrates’ or Crown court. As if this isn’t enough, the person then has to go about defending the imposition of an overpayment in a civil social security appeal tribunal. It’s like being on trial twice.
“Can you imagine coping with a disability and then being publicly humiliated as essentially faking your illness to get benefits? It undermines the relationship the client has with everyone, sometimes even their doctors. If convicted they face a criminal record and may be barred from getting a job or dismissed from a job they love. It’s ironic that those who try to do a few hours work, often voluntary, have their perceived capability used against them.”
Dilworth adds: “The financial implications can be massive — thousands of pounds of overpaid benefit to repay, which in a fair system wouldn’t be repayable at all, and they can also suffer a sanction.
“The biggest cost is, sadly, life itself,” explains Dilworth. “One of my clients was acquitted on the strength of the medical evidence but the ruthless officials still pursued the overpayment. He didn’t turn up for his appointment. Instead his father phoned me and I was shocked to learn he’d died unexpectedly: ‘Hounded to his death,’ his relatives claim.”
Dilworth’s clear where the blame lies: “The media amplifies the untruths of a government hell-bent on winning the welfare argument through highly inaccurate propaganda vilifying those accused of benefit fraud. More coverage is given to them than violent offenders. If we had an honest press, we’d hear the real side. We have to press for change, government has to act.
“These legal actions are prohibitively expensive all round and proper funding for decent help should be seen as a priority whenever liberty or life is at stake.”
- Nick Dilworth is a consultant and co-founder with New Approach http://www.newapproachuk.org. Ruth F Hunt is the author of The Single Feather (Pilrig Press).
The above article is from Morning Star Online