The Department for Work and Pensions has cut off a benefit claimant’s employment and support allowance (Esa) because she accidentally stated she worked one second over the maximum allotted time.
Esa is a benefit paid to people who cannot work full-time because of illness, disability or a health condition. Claimants are permitted to work for less than 16 hours a week and still claim Esa.
The Guardian Heat or Eat diarist Liz (a pseudonym) is paid Esa because of a number of health conditions including diverticulitis, fibromyalgia and osteoarthritis. She is a single mother with two teenage children.
After her employer changed the way she paid her from pay packet to pay as you earn, Liz had to fill in a form for HM Revenue and Customs. When asked how many hours a week she worked, she wrote 16 hours, not realising that took her over the permitted time by one second.
Liz only realised that her Esa had been cut off when she went shopping and discovered she did not have sufficient money because her benefits had not been paid.
A few days later she received a letter from the DWP stating: “We have looked at your circumstances and decided you will no longer get employment and support allowance from 03/08/2023.”
Under the heading “The reason for our decision”, the letter said: “We now know you work an average of 16 hours a week.” The letter was sent out one week after her Esa was cut off.
She then received a letter from Somerset council informing her that her housing benefit and council tax reduction had been suspended because “the Department for Work and Pensions tell us your income has changed”.
Liz said she had lost about £1,200 a month in benefits, including £717.84 in Esa and £495 in housing benefit.
In Friday’s column, Liz writes that she has £30 in the bank and does not know how she will make it through the month. “Now I know you can call me an idiot but if I’ve made this mistake, there must be tens of thousands out there just like me,” she writes. “The DWP has been waiting to pounce on our ignorance, on a technical error, to break us. And I’m lucky. Other people can’t tell their story through the Guardian like I can. It’s pure vindictiveness.”
The irony was, she said, when she recounted her hours she realised she was working only 15 and a half hours a week.
The disability equality charity Scope told the Guardian that its helpline had recently dealt with a case where a claimant who worked 15 hours a week had her Esa cut off after attending paid-for training courses at the request of their employer. At the time, the person did not even know they had been paid to attend the courses.
Louise Rubin, the head of policy at Scope, said: “Situations like these are why disabled people have so little trust in our welfare system. The system is cold, harsh and uncaring. Our helpline often hears from disabled people who have had their benefits stopped but don’t know why, or haven’t been told. In a cost of living crisis it’s more important than ever that we have a system that works with disabled people rather than against them.”
Helen Barnard, the director of policy, research and impact at the Trussell Trust, the UK’s biggest food bank network, said: “The social security system should be there for all of us when we need it, and it should be administered in a compassionate and just manner. The DWP has a duty of care to claimants, many of whom are already facing hunger and debt and have no buffer to enable them to weather unexpected shocks to their income.”
Wendy Chamberlain, the Lib-Dem spokesperson for work and pensions said: “This clearly shows that employment support under the Conservatives is neither effective nor compassionate. The Government must correct this arbitrary rule, and ensure that it learns from its failures when making its proposed reforms to work capability assessments.”
The Guardian asked the DWP if it automatically cut off Esa without consulting claimants when they had obviously erred in thinking that 16 hours was the cut-off, rather than just beyond. The department declined to answer.
A DWP spokesperson said: “Anyone working 16 hours or more a week is not eligible for employment and support allowance – which helps those unable to work, or taking steps to return to work. Claimants who have made a mistake on their claim can ask for the decision to be reconsidered, while those not entitled to Esa may be able to claim universal credit – which is designed so that working always pays more.”