HDC pressurising claimants into repaying money not owed
I WAS reading your article about Huntingdonshire District Council catching a benefit cheat (August 24) and felt that I had to write to you regarding my experiences with the benefits team within HDC.
I am a father of three who works full-time, and my wife stays at home looking after our autistic boys and giving any free time to charitable causes helping deaf people. We qualify for a small amount of housing benefit which in these times is of help.
Knowing that there is a big drive on benefit fraud I have sent in a payslip every six months to ensure that the local council knows what I am earning so they can adjust their records accordingly.
So, after submitting my payslip for August 2010, I was surprised to receive a letter asking me to pay back over �1,600 in overpaid benefits. After submitting all the information they asked for this figure rose to over �2,200 along with a threat of criminal proceedings.
What worries me most is that in most cases the story ends here. With the threat of criminal proceedings I’d expect most people contact the council to arrange a repayment scheme. However, the letters didn’t tell where this overpayment came from, and I decided to look into the matter further, so I asked for more information.
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The mistake was a simple one: HDC had been using the wrong figure on my wage slip since early 2009. I explained this to them and, as they didn’t explain how they used the information, I sent them in the award notices, from which there was no way to spot their mistake.
The letter I received back rejected my explanations, said that “you seem to have misunderstood the cause of the overpayments” and they started legal proceedings to recover the money.
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To cut a long story short, three letters, over 100 e-mails and four months later they agreed that they made a mistake and, because of mistakes dating back to the initial application in 2005, they had no right to recover any overpayment made since then – they still have not returned close to �2,000 I believe I am owed.
My next step was to make a Subject Access Request under the Data Protection Act. Then I managed to get a glimpse of the full scale of the problem.
Not only did they try to block the access request by requesting permission from a third party unnecessarily, but they also did not supply all the information they should have done. Upon receiving some information I found that my information was being held insecurely on multiple IT systems as well as being shared without my permission with Luminus, my landlord.
Since this time I have been subject to discrimination to the extent that information being requested which isn’t needed, my benefit being suspended two hours after complaining directly to Julia Barber [head of customer services], threats of harassment from the benefits manager, if I continued to e-mail her, and a refusal to change what I am earning even though I would have to earn over �3,000 a month to meet what they expect I would earn.
Of course, I have not tried to deal with this alone. I have contacted every councillor about this, but not one has contacted me back and, when I wrote to my MP, the letter sent by HDC suggested that I was complaining because I owed them money. Since then my MP has not responded to me.
So, nearly 12 months later, the situation continues with mistakes still happening regarding HDC’s interpretation of the benefit regulations to the extent that money I am receiving this year is being applied to the financial year two years ago and letters threatening to send bailiffs around to recover �37.
Now, I can deal with this and in the end the solution will be correct. However, I am most concerned about the single mother trying to hold down a job and bring up two children, or the family whose wage-earner has just been made redundant and feels wretched, or the grandmother living on her own.
I am a 35-year-old professional with enough self-belief to stand up and say when I think someone is wrong.
Who is going to stand up for those without the self-belief or energy to do it themselves? The council isn’t. Its method of recovering money pressurises those groups into paying back the money whether they legally owe it or not.
Editor’s note: HDC said that, if benefit claimants received bonuses backdated to earlier years, all claims for those years had to be reassessed to comply with the benefit rules, which could lead to overpayments.