Thursday, 24 November 2011

You Couldn't Make it Up...

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?



    I was lucky, it was the DWP who owed me thousands.. but trying to get that from them was an achievement...

  2. I can't remember the precise details with my friend, but I think it ended up as a five-figure sum they were owed and it may have stretched over a decade by the time it was sorted out. If it had been the other way round then repayments would have been problematical for most people in work, never mind on benefits!

  3. Waitwaitwaitwaitwait, so all of this bullshit I've been putting up with trying to sort out them overpaying me housing benefit wasn't even legal? The extra costs and stress of this have been insane. :|

    (I was entitled to it, but it was apparently stopped when they sent me a letter requesting some information and I failed to respond as I hadn't received the letter, but they didn't actually stop it when it was meant to be stopped, just kept paying me for six months and never ever told me anything was wrong until I contacted them about something unrelated, at which point I got hit with a double whammy when they were all YOU OWE US OVER TWO GRAND WE'RE TAKING YOU TO COURT and also stopped paying me the money I was relying on to pay rent)

  4. Making it up seems to be par for the course for Lord Fraud - sorry Freud. One minute a banker (iirc), next a labour politician, now a tory peer.

    What a joke.

    The whole thing stinks rotten.

  5. FNGN: Don't know about the legality of your situation, isn't housing benefit paid via local authority, which may mean it's covered by different law. CAB may be able to advise.