One of the more insidious aspects of Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare reforms has been the huge amount of power which has been handed over to Jobcentre advisors to harass and bully benefit claimants. The power to sentence people to forced work along with the massive expansion of benefit sanctions has meant that DWP busy-bodies now have the power to plunge claimants into economic despair seemingly on a whim.
Jobcentre workers are now also able to hand out £50 fines when they decide that someone’s negligence has led to a benefit overpayment. Negligence according to DWP Decision Maker Guidelines means: “acting carelessly, not paying sufficient attention to the task in hand, or disregarding the importance of what is required to be done in relation to a claim or award”.
Already there is anecdotal evidence emerging that these fines, which can be deducted from benefits at source, are being administered in the same haphazard way as benefit sanctions. The recent report from Citizens Advice outlined how people were being sanctioned through no fault of their own due to over-zealous Jobcentre staff working (and lying) to meet unofficial targets to end as many claims as possible. It seems that this culture is also emerging in the application of Civil Penalties.
Whilst information gleaned from the internet must be treated with caution, in this thread on the Money Saving Expert forums a claimant describes how a Jobcentre error led to them receiving a Civil Penalty. The £50 fine in this case was related to an overpayment of just £71 which happened due to the claimant undertaking a few hours paid work for which they were paid £90. Because of what appears to be a mix up by the Jobcentre – the claimant appealed the fine and claims to have won – this meant that as well as losing £71 in benefits for declaring the work, the claimant also lost £50 due to the Civil Penalty. This is Iain Duncan Smith’s idea of making work pay.
There are currently no figures available on how many Civil Penalties have been handed out, although the government has said this information will be logged over time. Whilst anecdotal evidence is far from satisfying, it is currently all that is available concerning how this scheme is working in practice.
And it is hard to see how situations such as those described in the story above can be avoided, as Jobcentre staff have an interest in ensuring it is claimants who take the blame for any mistake leading to an over-payment. They get bollocked for over-payments as well, and under current conditions are always likely to be believed over claimants.
Whilst Civil Penalties are not as draconian in effect as benefit sanctions, which can now leave people with nothing at all for up to three years, the power for low paid civil servants to hand out fines on the flimsiest of evidence which are not backed up by the Courts seems unprecedented. Whilst the penalties can be appealed, there is no way for them to be avoided in favour of a trial. At present on the spot fines can be handed out for a range of offences. But you are well within your rights to refuse to pay and demand a court hearing if you believe you are not guilty of the offence.
In the case of Civil Penalties there is no such right because there is no suggestion that the people they are imposed on have committed an offence. People are being fined despite the fact they haven’t broken any law. It is state theft, from the poorest people in the country and could soon be happening on a huge scale.
Claimants who have been given a Civil Penalty should first be given a chance to offer their side of the story. The DWP Decision Maker Guidelines explain how decisions to implement the fines should be reached and can be found at: http://www.dwp.gov.uk/docs/m-33-12.pdf
If the penalty is imposed then it can be appealed in the same way as other benefit decisions. Citizen’s Advice have comprehensive guidance on their website concerning how to challenge a decision made by the DWP.
Follow me on twitter @johnnyvoid