THOUSANDS of people on benefits should get compensation following a blunder that saw their payments cut by mistake, an ombudsman has said.
An estimated 118,000 brits with disabilities and health conditions had their benefits slashed in error when moving to Employment and Support Allowance (ESA).
ESA is designed to help those who are ill or disabled and is worth up to £74.70 a week.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) discovered a system error in 2016 that meant a raft of claimants were not being paid enough.
It has since corrected the error and so far handed out backpay totalling £613 million to those affected.
The money is what they should have been paid in the first place.
Now the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO) has said those affected should also be able to get compensation on top.
Those affected are “facing injustice” and should be able to claim compensation in recognition of the error and its “potentially devastating impact” on their lives, the ombudsman said.
It follows an investigation by the ombudsman into the case of one claimant, known as Ms U.
The 62-year-old missed out on thousands of pounds because of the error and was thrown into “extreme financial and personal hardship”.
Her payments were wrongly cut by around £80 a week for five years when she was transferred onto ESA in 2012.
She only received payments based on her national insurance contributions, but should also have received payments based on her income.
She was left unable to heat her home and buy food. Her hair fell out, she lost weight and her mental and physical health deteriorated, according to the investigation by the PHSO.
The lower payments also meant she lost other help she should have got like free prescriptions and the warm home discount worth £700 over the years.
The PHSO said she was at risk of hypothermia and her arthritis got worse as a result.
She was given £19,832.55 in backpay by the DWP after the error was identified.
But the ombudsman said the DWP should also apologise and pay £7,500 in compensation because of the “maladministration”.
“Devastating impact on people’s lives”
The DWP said it will be issuing an apology and making an additional special payment as recommended by the ombudsman.
The government previously ruled out paying compensation to those affected on top of the arrears.
But the ombudsman has urged the government to change its mind and let all those affected claim compensation because of the “potentially devastating impact” the error has had on people’s lives.
Ombudsman Rob Behrens said: “It is human to make mistakes but not acting to right wrongs is a matter of policy choice.
“In this case, that choice has been made by the very organisation that is responsible for supporting those most in need.
“That those affected are unable to claim compensation for this error is poor public policy in practice, and the situation is made worse given that they have already waited years to receive the benefits to which they are entitled.
“We don’t know how many more Ms Us there are out there. That is why I urge the DWP to allow people affected to claim for compensation in recognition of its error and the potentially devastating impact it has had on people’s lives.”
Can I get compensation?
The payout to Ms H does not mean the government has to give compensation to others affected by the error.
The case was referred to the ombudsman after other avenues of complaint were exhausted.
The PHSO is an independent body which deals with complaints left unresolved by the NHS or the Government.
Before it reaches this stage, complaints must be made to the DWP directly.
If you’re unhappy with the outcome from that, there are further stages it goes through, including a complaints resolution managers and independent case examiner.
If you don’t feel your case has been justly dealt with, then you can ask your MP to send your complaint to the the PHSO.
The PHSO says that anyone affected should contact their welfare rights service at their local council or Citizens Advice.
But charities have also joined the ombudsman’s call for the government to allow compensation payouts.
Louise Rubin, head of policy at disability equality charity Scope, added: “This catastrophic error will have left many disabled people and their families struggling to make ends meet.
“Disabled people shouldn’t have to fight for support. It’s only right that the Government now ensures all those who missed out can claim compensation.”
Anastasia Berry, policy manager at the MS Society and policy Co-Chair of the Disability Benefits Consortium, said backdated payments alone do “nothing to address the devastating knock-on effects that disabled people, like Ms U, have endured as a result of the mistake”.
A DWP spokesman said: “Our priority is that all people get the financial support to which they are entitled and we have identified those affected by this issue, making 118,000 benefit arrears payments in full.”
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