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DWP Risk Review Team

Volume 707: debated on Wednesday 26 January 2022

Before I call Kate Osamor to move the motion, I inform Members that this debate will conclude no later than 4.55 pm.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the Department for Work and Pensions’ Risk Review Team.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. Today, I will talk about the Department for Work and Pensions risk review team, which was set up in May 2020. The DWP states that the team’s role is to

“review and take action on cases identified”

by the integrated risk and intelligence service as being “a high fraud risk.”

I was first alerted to the team’s existence in October 2021, when my constituency office began to receive contact from what would become a total of 29 constituents who had had their universal credit payments suspended indefinitely under almost identical circumstances. Those constituents are all Bulgarian nationals and tend to have either settled status or pre-settled status. Time and again, my office was told that the cases were under the management of the risk review team, with little to no further explanation of the reason, apart from some claims of suspicion of fraud. Constituents told me that their claims were suspended for months on end—as long as 11 months, in the worst case. Although that particular constituent’s claim has now been restored, they have received no compensation for the hardship caused.

The DWP provides no timeframe for the completion of the reviews, nor a right of appeal. A significant number of those constituents are single mothers who work part time. This situation has left them in a completely crippling financial position and pushed many into serious destitution—relying on food banks, facing eviction from their homes and racking up serious amounts of debt. One constituent, whom I will call Maria, is a constituent of mine only after she lost her home in Liverpool as a result of having her benefits suspended, and subsequently moved to Edmonton.

From the cases my office has been handling, a number of constituents have since had their universal credit payments restored and backdated, as there was no evidence of any wrongdoing.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. I have constituents coming regularly into my office—you probably do as well, Mr Twigg—asking for help on this matter, although they may not be Bulgarian. Those constituents say that the DWP has asked them for information. I always ask, “Well, have you got that information?” to which they reply, “We are not quite sure.” Does the hon. Lady think that when an application is refused, whatever the reasons may be, the Department should make officers and staff available to help that person to get the right information and respond? The people she mentioned had their benefits restored, but they would not have had to wait had it been done right the first time around.

The hon. Gentleman makes a valuable point, which I will come to later. I back everything that he has said, because the claimants need much more support. For many claimants, English is their second language, so the more support the Department can give them, the better.

We have seen few claims disallowed for reasons of constituents failing a habitual residency test, and none that we have seen have had their claims closed for fraud. All that raises a series of questions for the Minister. How many fraudulent claims have been discovered by the risk review team? What justification is being used for the original investigation and suspension of claims? Has the Department undertaken an equality impact assessment to ensure that the process is not resulting in direct or indirect discrimination? I ask those questions because, sadly, there did not appear to be much information publicly available about the risk review team, and the Department appears reluctant to enlighten me further. I wrote to the Minister about these issues on 26 November 2021, and I received a response only yesterday evening. I am very grateful for that response, despite having to chase the Department nearly four times.

I have also asked a series of written questions. In response to one of them, the Minister for welfare delivery stated that as of 24 December last year, 149,000 cases—approximately 3.74% of universal credit claims—had been suspended under the risk review process. We have found out that 3% of claimants in those cases had their benefits reinstated. However, using the argument that to do so would mean incurring disproportionate costs, the Department has so far declined to confirm what has happened to the other 97% of cases.

Let me ask the Minister some more questions. How many claims have been deemed to be fraudulent and subsequently closed? How many claims remain suspended? How many people who we have not yet heard about are suffering in silence, not just in Edmonton but across the country? This issue is especially concerning because the cases I have seen predominantly concern claimants for whom English is a second language. Many face real difficulties accessing services, and that can create barriers to communicating with the Department directly and to accessing outside advice and assistance.

Some appear to have had their claims referred to the risk review team after being unable to answer security questions over the phone. I am unsure how much assistance they are given in the process if there are language barriers. In response to written questions, the Department has stated that there is a “high risk of fraud” in these cases, and that all claims are “suspended pending contact” with the claimant and them providing the requested information. It has also insinuated that the cases are related to organised crime, and yet in our experience the majority of those who are impacted appear to be vulnerable single mums who have done nothing wrong.

I can speak only for my constituency, but the brunt of the policy appears to have fallen overwhelming on Bulgarian nationals. Charities working in the local area, such as Citizens Advice Enfield and the Edmonton Community Partnership, concur with that assessment. From the many organisations I have spoken to that have similar cases, I have heard of Romanian and Polish nationals being affected, but no British citizens or those of other nationalities. Tellingly, those affected are all EU citizens.

Thus far, the Department has said that it does not keep demographic data on nationality, making it impossible to produce conclusive proof, but I understand that the Department does hold data on claimants’ nationality at the point of national insurance number registration. While we remain in the dark about how this opaque team conducts its business, and with the cases that I know about being so overwhelmingly concentrated among Bulgarian nationals and other EU nationals, it is impossible not to suspect that potentially discriminatory practices are being carried out.

Considering the issues that I have raised, I have a series of recommendations for the Minister. First, I urge the Department to change its “guilty until proven innocent” approach. The Department clearly does not have the resources to process the cases in a timely manner. I understand that there are roughly 165 full-time equivalent staff on the team. It seems likely that thousands of people are left languishing for many months, effectively under no recourse to public funds conditions, even if they are entitled to claim benefits and have committed no wrongdoing. Claims should be suspended only if evidence of fraud is found, with the review and an initial decision made prior to that course of action.

Secondly, the team must provide proper assistance to those whose cases are being investigated. It must appreciate the barriers that may exist to providing evidence. The whole process has appeared opaque and complex to my caseworkers and me, let alone someone for whom English is not their first language.

The DWP must also appreciate the barriers to providing documents—learning lessons, for example, from the Windrush scandal—as there may be deeper reasons why claimants are unable to provide certain pieces of evidence. The Independent reported on a Bulgarian national who was subject to the risk review process and was asked to provide every page of their old passport. However, that was impossible, as the Bulgarian embassy in London reportedly takes expired passports when citizens apply for a new one. That should be urgently be looked into, and an equalities impact assessment should be carried out.

Thirdly, the DWP should provide adequate compensation to those who have had their claims wrongly suspended. I know of constituents who have had their lives turned completely upside down, in some cases losing homes and acquiring significant debt, not to mention the stress and anxiety caused by the months of waiting.

Backdating payments does not make up for the impact of the process. Of all the cases my office has dealt with, only one constituent has received any compensation. They were granted a consolatory special payment of £200 because of delays in a mandatory reconsideration decision and the outcome of the risk review action. That sum is nowhere near enough to make amends for the seven months in which they waited for more than £10,000, which they were entitled to receive during that time. We need a proper compensation scheme for those who have been seriously affected by the way that the risk review team has conducted its business.

Lastly, and crucially, the DWP must be more transparent. More than 140,000 claimants have been affected by the risk review team. There must be greater awareness of the way in which it operates. Currently, it appears to be operating with impunity. Guidance should be published on how the team works in identifying and investigating cases. The DWP should also make public how many cases remain suspended, and what percentage of those have been closed after the Department came to the decision that it believed the claim was indeed fraudulent.

Transparency and scrutiny are essential for good governance. Any new policy that may cause negative consequences must be identified and then, ideally, addressed quickly. The hardship being caused to my constituents, which I have spoken about today, may not be an intentional effect of this policy but, for one reason or another, they are getting trapped in this net. It is imperative that we understand why. I urge the Minister to take on board the stories that I have relayed today and to urgently review the operations of the risk review team, with the seriousness that the situation deserves, before many more lives are torn apart.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. I have had an opportunity to work with you in the House, but also on various hills—with mixed results, but it is always a pleasure to be in your company.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) on securing this important debate. My Department faces a huge responsibility, day in and day out, to pay benefits to millions of households, ensuring they have the help and support they need and wherever possible helping them into sustainable employment. We do everything we can to make sure that happens in a timely way. That was proven when covid-19 hit. We paid out to over 3 million more households at a time of global crisis. Universal credit in particular is a very resilient system, because it has been stress-tested in such an environment. Our latest public statistics show that around 90% of new universal credit claims are paid in full and on time.

Alongside that, we have another responsibility: to ensure that we are using taxpayer money properly and that funding is going to those who need it. Unfortunately, there are those who think it is acceptable to commit fraud against the welfare system. Those people cost the taxpayer—in fact, stole from them—an estimated £6.3 billion last year. That is £6.3 billion of taxpayer’s money—an absolutely staggering sum. I can just imagine what any Member in this House would want to do with that money to help not only their constituents but thousands of others. It is money that could be going to fund other vital Government services. Those who fraudulently claim that money clearly have no right to it.

I believe it is right that my Department makes every effort to find and crack down on fraud, and to ensure that we have the fullest range of tools at our disposal to achieve that. Those committing fraud are clever, committed and constantly thinking of new ways to get around the systems that we have in place, and to turn new technological advances to their advantage. The job of the DWP is not just to keep up with that, but to try and get ahead of it. It is our job to keep innovating and finding new ways to identify fraud where it happens and to put a stop to it. It is our job to keep fraudsters guessing at how we might find them, so that they do not find new ways to evade us. The risk review team is one of those innovations, established as a direct response to new threats. Its role is to provide an operational response to threats that have been identified. It does this by suspending suspect cases, where specific intelligence provides evidence of fraud.

I would like to stress that we are talking about a relatively small number of claims. Of the 3.7 million claims made to universal credit since May 2020, less than 4%, approximately 149,000, have been suspended under the risk review process. Those are not run-of-the-mill cases, but ones where, based on our analysis, we believe there is a high level of risk. It is because of that level of risk that claims have been legitimately suspended. It is an approach that provides much needed capability to disrupt and respond to new and emerging threats at pace.

To give an example of one of the challenges that the DWP has faced, in May 2020 the cyber-resilience centre, working as part of the integrated risk and intelligence service—we are pretty good at coming up with snappy titles for teams—prevented an attack by organised criminals. That led to the suspension of thousands of universal credit claims and prevented £1.9 billion in benefits from being paid to people trying to scam the system in 2020 and 2021. That is just one example; those attacks continued and more cases had to be suspended to safeguard public funds.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) on securing this debate. I agree with the points that the Minister is making about the importance of tackling fraud, particularly as universal credit has the highest level of fraud of any DWP benefit in history. Does he agree that it is not acceptable to take somebody’s benefits away for 11 months, as in one of the cases that my hon. Friend mentioned, with no support available? That potentially completely ruins someone’s life.

I understand the point that the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee makes, but the key thing is that claimants need to prove eligibility. We want to help them to prove eligibility for a benefit. The challenge, and the reason these cases take time, is often that claimants are not able or willing to provide that evidence. I will come on to that later.

I think the hon. Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) hinted at this, and I did in my intervention: there are occasions when people do not understand the process, and need a wee bit of help. I think the hon. Lady asked about that. Is there an opportunity to make extra officials available to pursue those necessary evidential bases when claimants may themselves not understand what has been asked for?

The hon. Member makes a good point. We stand ready to help and assist. One of the points made by the hon. Member for Edmonton was that, in some of the cases that she highlighted, there are challenges around the ability to speak English. Of course, interpreters are made available. In the Chamber today, we have three of the most well-recognised campaigners in the House, along with others who have not spoken yet. Hon. Members should bring cases about which they have concerns to my attention directly, with the usual information that they think is appropriate and that needs to be processed. If there are any outstanding concerns, I will take a personal interest in them and move cases forward. The issue is that often—I will talk about the statistics in due course—the information is not provided, and of course we cannot provide benefits without that evidence, because of all of the fraudulent cases we have spoken about. I will carry on with my speech, which I hope will answer more questions. We will take a close look at each and every one of those 29 cases if that information can be provided—I give hon. Members that undertaking.

First, I need to emphasise that the overwhelming majority of claims for universal credit are legitimate. We know that most people are not trying to defraud the Department. The hon. Member for Edmonton raised—I would not say “a couple”—a lot of pertinent issues via parliamentary questions. That was one of the reasons why we were delayed in providing full answers to all her questions: we wanted to make sure that they matched up with the parliamentary questions. In the letter that I sent her, I apologised for that. As I say, it was mainly because we wanted to ensure that we had all the right information in response to all the questions. I hope that underlines the approach that we want to take, which is all based on due process.

However, I take this opportunity to stress, as I already have, that we are trying to get the balance right between getting money to those who need it and tackling those who are actively seeking to commit fraud. I will follow up on those individual cases in due course once the information is provided. Benefit claims should be verified and paid as quickly as possible, which is why we always make it clear to claimants exactly what information they need to provide. We do that via the claimant’s universal credit journal, and the messages also let the claimant know exactly how they can contact the Department and speak to the staff members responsible for their case. That is an important dimension; in our casework, we can do better at highlighting that to constituents. I also take the feedback that maybe we can do a better job at communicating that to MPs and their offices—a point well made.

Where there is a problem in providing information, we always encourage the individual to get in touch, so that we can discuss and resolve the matter as quickly as possible. As the hon. Member for Edmonton would expect, when we suspend a claim, we do not do it lightly. Suspension is always a last resort, for the reasons that the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms), has highlighted. Suspension is based on an initial assessment that a person would not be entitled to the benefit that they have claimed—an assessment that is based on intelligence and not on the specific characteristics of claimants, such as nationality. I know that that was a concern of the hon. Member for Edmonton, but I can confirm that a person’s nationality is not a factor in determining whether a claim is referred to the risk review team.

In fact, because nationality is not a factor in that assessment process, an equality impact assessment is not needed. However, as part of the initial universal credit claim process—not the risk element, but the claims process itself—we do request information regarding a person’s nationality. That is necessary to assess the eligibility and entitlement of a claimant at the start of their claim, but it is not used as part of the risk review process.

We take good care to ensure that we understand a person’s personal circumstances, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) highlighted, and any potential vulnerability before we suspend. That means that we can engage with individuals in the right way. We have processes in place such that any contact from a claimant will be dealt with by a dedicated team. That type of one-to-one conversation with a member of staff allows the claimant to discuss the claim in detail and means that the member of staff can provide the necessary support to help to ensure that individuals can give us the documentation we need.

Once the risk review team has its information and the decision has been made that there is an entitlement to benefit, we will of course lift the suspension immediately and pay any arrears due. However, we receive no contact from the majority of suspected fraud cases—approximately 65% of those that we suspend. That is a remarkable figure: 65% of people do not get in touch with us after a suspension notice.

If a claim is suspended, we are unable to make alternative payments. However, claimants are still able to get help from work coaches to find them work. We have a record more than 1.2 million job vacancies and our work coaches are supporting thousands of people into work. There is also continued support for the most vulnerable children, regardless of a parent’s universal credit suspension. Children in receipt of free school meals will continue to receive that support. There is also the free childcare provision for three and four-year-olds and disadvantaged two-year-olds, where eligible. An individual may also be entitled to claim child benefit, assuming they meet the qualification conditions.

More broadly, local authorities have responsibility for local welfare provision. Recognising that some households will require additional help this winter, we have provided £500 million to provide support with essential household costs such as heating and food bills. That is delivered through the household support fund in England. Other help may be available via healthy start payments and the holiday activities fund. Staff in local jobcentres will be able to help to direct those in need. I should also make it clear that, while in law there is no right of appeal against the decision to suspend payment of a benefit, a claimant does have the right to appeal any outcome decision where the Department has determined that there is no entitlement.

Hon. Members will appreciate that I cannot say too much about how the risk review team works in this area of activity. As I said, it is a constant challenge to stay ahead of fraudsters and we cannot provide any clues to those looking to evade our systems. However, while a focus on disruption is a primary tactic of the team, their activity does not stop at that point. The risk review team will also gather intelligence that can be used as the basis for a formal criminal investigation, should it be warranted. It is worth noting that although the number of suspicious claims processed by the risk review team is significant, it is believed that the numbers of people responsible for those claims are actually relatively small. Our focus is on pursuing those behind the attacks in intelligence-led investigations, which is the most effective use of our resources.

Last month I went on a raid with fraud colleagues as part of a joint crackdown on fraud with West Midlands police. The raid was part of Operation Goliath, a joint national operation with police nationwide that aims to combat fraud. Numerous arrests were made and we believe that we stopped an organised crime gang alleged to be stealing from the benefits purse. Thousands of false claims, based on thousands of hijacked identities, had netted the gang approximately £4 million already—a huge amount of money, and a figure that would have likely been far higher had we not been able to intervene at the pace that we did and had the approach taken by the risk review team not been in place.

As I have said, fraudsters are constantly thinking of new ways to attack us and to evade and circumvent our systems and safeguards. Some of the frauds are so engrained and deep-set that, remarkably, even after the arrest of major criminals, we are still being contacted by individuals pursuing claims linked to those investigations. It is extraordinary.

We are continuing to build and grow our capabilities, including investing to save. At the end of last year, we had announced a total investment of £613 million, which is a huge amount of money, over the next three years, to support the Department in this challenge and enable us to drive down fraud and recover debt. The money also enables further recruitment into our counter-fraud, compliance and debt so that we can continue to respond quickly and effectively to threats. It includes the funding of around 2,000 trained specialists to stop and identify scammers. I wish that we did not have to recruit those people, but we have a challenge, which is why we have to take those steps.

I hope that hon. Members agree that we must have a co-ordinated response to the attacks on the benefits system, and take action on as many fronts as possible to drive criminals out of it. These criminals will not let up and neither will we, on which note I commend the work of the risk review team, which is clearly playing a major part in helping to stop fraud getting a foothold.

At the same time, I reiterate the point that I made earlier: I know that it can be difficult, and that there are challenges for the people involved, but we always want to work with genuine claimants. In getting the balance right, I again extend the offer to hon. Members, particularly the hon. Member for Edmonton, who has been a doughty champion for her constituents, that if they write to us on those cases we will take them up and follow them through. I hope that she will do so, and that I have given her some satisfaction on the questions that she asked. Clearly, we will follow up on the outstanding parliamentary questions that she highlighted in due course.

Question put and agreed to.