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62-year-old woman wins compensation after benefits miscalculation meant she struggled to buy food

A disabled woman from Greenwich has won compensation after her benefits were cut by £80 a week because of an error made by a government department.

The miscalculation by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) meant that the 62-year-old woman, who was only named as Ms U, was underpaid a total of £19,382.55 between May 2012 to August 2017.

Because of this Ms U had difficulty buying food and keeping her heating on as well as having no access to free medical prescriptions and urgent dental care.

Ms U, who has multiple health problems including an autoimmune disease and arthritis, received the back payments in August 2017.

The Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman has now ruled that she is entitled to compensation for the mental and physical anguish this caused her.

The amount is still under negotiation but the Ombudsman has recommended £7,500 plus interest of the benefit arrears amount.

Ombudsman Rob Behrens said: “Ms U’s case is deeply distressing and a stark reminder of why accountability matters.

“It is human to make mistakes but not acting to right wrongs is a matter of choice. In this case, that decision has been made by the very organisation that is responsible for supporting those most in need.”

Ms U, who lives alone, should have received her Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) payments in full when she was moved from Incapacity Benefit. 

But like thousands of others her benefits payments were mistakenly cut.

As someone recovering from heart bypass surgery and managing multiple health problems including an autoimmune disease, severe mental health problems and hypertension, this had a devastating impact on Ms U’s health, wellbeing and finances.

For five years she received around half the amount the government said is the minimum requirement for a person with severe disability needs. 

Ms U could not afford to heat her property or buy the food she needed to stay healthy. 

Her mental and physical health declined drastically.

Her hair fell out, she lost weight and her mental health deteriorated. 

The error also prevented Ms U from getting other benefits she was eligible for, including free medical prescriptions to manage her many health issues, funding to buy a washing machine and urgently needed dental care. 

She was at risk of hypothermia and her arthritis got worse because she lost out on £700 in Warm Home discounts.

The same error has affected over 118,000 people with disabilities and health problems but they are being denied the opportunity to claim compensation for the same mistake.

DWP has since corrected the error and set about paying arrears to those affected, but it still will not allow them to claim compensation for the life-changing impact this has caused.

The Ombudsman has urged the DWP to allow people affected to claim for compensation in recognition of its error and the impact it has had on people’s lives.

Mr Behrens added: “That those affected are unable to claim compensation for this error is inhumane. 

“It adds insult to injury after 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.”

Councillor Mariam Lolavar, Cabinet Member for Business & Economic Growth, said: “Our welfare rights team has been campaigning to get Ms U’s benefits reinstated by the DWP since 2017.

“It has been a very long process and put a disabled resident through extreme and unnecessary hardship.

“Following the tireless work by council officers the benefits owed have been backdated. However, the DWP still refused to pay compensation for its error.

“I am delighted that the Ombudsman has ruled that Ms U is entitled to compensation from the DWP.

“We stand in solidarity with the Ombudsman’s recommendations to Parliament calling the DWP to award compensation automatically to everyone else who has been affected by its mistake too.”

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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