The policy costings of Wednesday’s Autumn Statement revealed that the UK government has failed to pay the correct amount of tax credits to thousands of families with disabled children since 2011. Due to government error around 28,000 families have lost about £3,100-£4,400 per annum since 2011.
Even though the underpayments have been caused government bungling- they will not be backdating the correct amount to entitled families – meaning that families could have missed out on nearly £20,000.
The decision stands in stark contrast to the legislation that governs claimants: if a claimant is overpaid (even if it is not their fault) then they are expected to pay back the government. This has lead to lead the widespread use of debt collection which Citizens Advice says makes the “Government worse debt collectors than private companies.”
The Families of children who qualify for Disability Living Allowance (DLA), and who also received tax credits missed out on an extra £3,100-£4,400 per annum, a payment which is calculated on the basis of impact and severity of a disability. The error occurred because of a “gap in the data-feed between DWP and HMRC during 2011-14” according to the government. This error means that 28,000 families did not receive the higher level of tax credits as they were entitled to.
The government has said that they will backdate the payments to April of this year, instead of 2011 when the error fist occurred. This means that between 2011, and now, entitled families could have missed out on nearly £20,000.
The government claims that it is correct to back pay from April this year because they say it was the responsibility of individual claimants to claim the correct amount of benefits. Yet, this error was clearly caused by the government, who failed to inform families of their eligibility.
The error occurred because the two different departments responsible for awarding payments of these benefits have not communicated with each other properly. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is responsible for the payment, and award of Disability living Allowance (DLA) and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) are responsible for payments of tax credits.
Normally when a family applies for DLA on behalf of a child, they would be asked at the same time if they were in receipt of tax credits, and that information would be shared with HMRC, which is intended to make sure that families receive the correct amount of benefit entitlement. However, this appears to have not happened in this case.
The fact that the government is failing to backdate properly due to an error that they have caused, lies in stark contrast to the way that claimants are expected to behave by the government.
If a benefit claimant receives any payments that they are not entitled to, then the claimant is considered responsible for paying back any money that is due to the government – whether or not they are actually responsible for the error that has caused the overpayment.
As is illustrated by the government website, nidirect.gov.uk which says:
If the overpayment was your fault – perhaps you didn’t report a change in your circumstances or gave wrong information – you’ll have to pay it all back. If it was caused by an administrative error you may be asked to pay it back, particularly if you could reasonably be expected to realize you were being overpaid.
Is it reasonable to expect that the government should’ve known that they weren’t paying the correct amount of tax credits to families with disabled children since 2011? If the answer is yes, then surely they should be expected to pay it back – just as they instruct claimants to do.
The government has the power to reclaim money they have overpaid by deducting future benefit payments, and through private debt collection agencies.
This has lead to the ruthless chasing of overpayments by the government.
Of this practice the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) says that:
Government departments are treating people worse than private companies when chasing debts.
Citizens Advice says the number of issues people have sought help for on local and national government debts has doubled from just under 200,000 a year to around 400,000 in the last decade.
The charity found evidence of poor practice, including a lack of consideration given to whether people can afford repayments and people forced to pay a debt when it is under dispute.
Therefore it seems quite clear that when an error happens due to the government they do not have to pay it back – even though it affects thousands of low-income families with disabled children. Yet, when an error is committed by a benefit claimant then it is quite likely that they will be forced to pay it back (whether or not they can afford it.)
Under the government’s own logic – they are responsible for this error, and so, therefore they should pay for it.