We already knew that the Welfare Reform Bill was making some creative interpretations of standard parliamentary behaviour - such as putting a controversial bill into Grand Committee, but the nuance I found out about a couple of hours ago had me picking my jaw up from where it had hit the floor.
I was already aware that Clause 102 of the WRB was going to introduce measures to allow DWP to recover overpayments made through its own errors, which may seem obvious and reasonable, but is more of a problem than most people will realise. The problem is that errors in payments may go on for a period of years before errors are noticed (a friend of mine had underpayments stretching back a significant number of years before DWP admitted there was an error), and by the time the error is realised we may be talking about a very substantial amount of money, particularly for someone living far below the poverty line on benefits. Equally that overpayment will have led people completely innocently into expenditure that they wouldn't have made if they had been budgeting for the amount DWP should have been paying them. They may not have been entitled to the money, but in a very real sense they will be the ones punished for the DWP's error.
Lord Freud insists that the DWP will be understanding about repayment rates, but frankly their reputation for being understanding about anything isn't good. As I say, I knew about this provision, but what had my jaw bouncing off the carpet was learning that it is going to be retroactive, an ex post facto law is the technical term. Why is it going to be retroactive? Because DWP have been forcing people to pay back overpayments for a while now, and have just realised it might not actually have been legal.
Now a normal person would expect the reaction to be a bunch of red faces, and then a quiet apology and re-payment of the sums involved to people who have bullied into repayments they couldn't afford and weren't legally obliged to make. But that isn't how DWP-think works. If DWP has broken the law, then the best way to react isn't to make amends, it is to change the law retroactively so that what they did is now legal, even if it wasn't at the time they did it, and that is what clause 102 of the Welfare Reform Bill does. Many countries (such as the US, and Iran) outlaw ex post facto laws, and the UK is theoretically forbidden from ex post facto criminal law by the European Convention on Human Rights, but there's no exclusion from passing ex post facto civil law, and apparently we have something of a tradition of it. I think that's something that will shock people, I know that it is something that has shocked me, and isn't it reasonable that we should expect government to obey the laws of the land as they stood at that time, not gerrymander the law to retroactively legalise their illegal cockups?