Issues experienced around Income Support Benefit overpayments not recognised by Minister

26th July 2023

Yesterday (25th July), the Health and Social Security Scrutiny Panel (the Panel) held a hearing with the Minister for Social Security, Deputy Elaine Millar, as part of its review into the overpayment of Income Support benefits. The review was launched to investigate the extent and causes of benefit overpayments and the effects that overpayments have on claimants of Income Support benefits.


As part of the review, the Panel has gathered evidence from individuals and charities around their experiences of receiving overpayments or helping those that have. The Panel asked several questions, informed by this evidence, about communication between those who receive overpayments of income support and the Customer and Local Services Department. The Panel noted concerns such as the difficulty of accessing face to face meetings, an inconsistency in the treatment of claimants, and, at times, a lack of empathy of individual circumstances. The Panel heard that the Minister and her officers did not recognise these issues and would investigate and address a situation of that nature if they received that feedback from a customer.


The Panel also questioned the Minister about the impact of an overpayment following evidence it has received which suggested that repayments are causing significant financial difficulty affecting people's mental health and wellbeing. The Minster insisted that repayments are arranged in a manner which should not put people into hardship and that they are set at a level that the person could afford. The Panel later asked whether discretion can be exercised in exceptional circumstances where the overpayment has not been the fault of the claimant and is causing distress. The Panel was assured that the Department would not leave anybody in a vulnerable position.


The Panel also questioned the Minister about the type of information that is sent to individuals following the identification of an overpayment and whether steps were being taken to make it more accessible and less complex. The Minister advised the Panel that work is being done to improve communication so that people can understand the information being shared with them. The Panel was also informed that a new IT system was being developed which would allow everyone to access their own data to check whether their personal information and benefit amount was correct. The Minister told the Panel that the aim was to have the new system in place in 2025.


Deputy Rob Ward, Chair of the Panel, said: "The evidence that the Panel has received from members of the public who have experienced overpayments suggests that there is a systemic issue here regarding the way in which overpayments arise and are dealt with. We have found it disappointing and concerning to see that the Minister and her officers seemed surprised when we raised issues that we have been hearing about from multiple people and charities. This review has brought in a lot of evidence pointing to people's welfare, mental health, and sense of stability being negatively impacted by their experiences when an overpayment has occurred, often for reasons outside of their control. We will continue to investigate the issues we have learned about so that we can make strong recommendations to the Minister about how this situation can be improved."


The recording of the hearing can be accessed here.

More information about the review can be found here.

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