Back in October I wrote about a scandal building inside DWP – the systematic underpayment of the state pension amounting to over £1bn. 134,000 pensioners were underpaid, in some cases for decades:
My blog was in response to a scathing National Audit Office report that revealed the scale of the problem. On average pensioners affected had been underpaid by £8900 each. About a third of those affected are now dead. People lived in poverty unnecessarily.
The Public Accounts Committee and the mainstream press have caught up with the story. The PAC report was published last week:
The story is the same. Outdated IT and administrative systems that could only function with manual workarounds, rules and regulations that were unnecessarily complex, and which led inevitably to very high error rates. Quality assurance systems were designed to pick up overpayments not underpayments.
While this story is shocking there is nothing to suggest that this scale of underpayment isn’t happening right across the benefits system. Compared to Universal Credits or disability payments pensions are actually relatively straight forward – once you are eligible for a pension your eligibility doesn’t change.
If I am honest 134,000 pensioners living (and in some cases dying) in poverty actually bothers me more than Boris’s booze ups. I confidently predict that this won’t be the last case of vulnerable people suffering hardship due to bad government and indifferent Ministers. And sadly these stories will continue to be buried far away from the front page headlines.
This week, in an attempt to distract from Boris’s cake problems the Government has announced another crackdown on benefit claimants:
It is true that there are a small number of people claiming benefits who are swinging the lead, and the benefits system needs sanctions to deal with that. The great problem with the benefits system is that Governments (particularly Conservative ones) have come to believe that if sanctions work then more sanctions will work better. The response to any problem is the same – more rules, more sanctions.
In reality additional rules and tougher sanctions if you break them does nothing to help people back into work. Eventually the rules become so complex that accessing benefits legitimately becomes near on impossible, and the only way to navigate the system is to bend the rules.
I experienced that years ago when I tried to join New Enterprise Allowance Scheme to access their mentoring support when setting up the Distillery.
In order to join NEAS you have to first sign on to Jobseekers Allowance so the Government can claim the job outcome. To be eligible for JSA you have to be looking for work, not setting up a business, but to join NEAS you have to be setting up a business not looking for work. The only way through the system is to lie: even for the honest person the system is so complex and baroque that dishonesty is the only way to navigate it.
Those who set out to bilk the system have an advantage – they start by lying and breaking the rules to get money. Those genuinely in need of help and who want to do the right thing are reluctant to lie and so are disadvantaged.
Beyond a certain point making the rules more complex, the penalties tougher, gives the cheats an advantage, and only penalises the honest. It creates an incentive to cheat. We past that point a very long time ago, and new rules and stiffer penalties are designed to help politicians stay in a job not the unemployed.
Not only that but the more complex the rules the greater the chance of mistakes and underpayments. We know that billions were illegally withheld from pensioners due to rules that were too complex and systems that didn’t work. I have no doubt that the same is true for Universal Credits.
This is the inevitable consequence of 12 years of Governments which do not value public services. They see anything the state does as an impediment on the private sector, which in practice means anything which gets in the way of the rich and powerful becoming richer and more powerful.
One upon a time the failures of the Child Support Agency were a public scandal. Now we have come to accept that DWP and HMRC are just as shambolic.
We just no longer expect better.