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Charging for benefit tribunals
shows ‘contempt for people in poverty’, say law centres
The proposal, contained in an internal Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) document leaked to the Guardian, says the ‘introduction of a charge for people making appeals against [DWP] decisions to social security tribunals’ would raise money.
The 80-page DWP Efficiency Review - which is marked ‘restricted’, according to the Guardian – says the proposal for charging for social security tribunals will ‘entail no revenue generation nor efficiency for the [DWP] per se’ but will however generate income for the Ministry of Justice (MoJ).
Figures cited by the Guardian show that in the past year nearly 900,000 people have had their benefits stopped – the highest figure for any 12-month period since jobseeker’s allowance was introduced in 1996. The figures also demonstrate that 58% of appeals against DWP sanction decisions in independent tribunals have been successful.
The justice minister Shailesh Vara said: ‘We believe that it is right to consider whether those who use tribunals should make a greater contribution to their costs, where they can afford to do so, which is why we introduced fees for employment tribunals last year.’
‘The government has
made it clear that reducing the deficit is our top priority. It is right
that the Ministry of Justice looks at all opportunities to bring down
the cost of our services to the taxpayer.
The justice minister added that the government has no current plans to start fee-charging in other tribunals but that they will ‘continue to keep the position under review’.
But critics have suggested that the proposal would punish the poorest and most vulnerable – and enable bad decisions of public bodies to go unchallenged.
Nimrod Ben-Cnaan, head of policy at Law Centres Network, said: ‘Charging for benefit appeals exploits people who rely on benefits but who would not be able to afford tribunal fees. At the same time, it does nothing to address the real problem of a high error rate by DWP, which is the reason that currently over one in three appeals is successful.
‘The success rate is
even higher when claimants are represented or get help in preparing
their case. The government repeatedly says that its priority is to reduce
the deficit; we are concerned that to this end it is willing to create
a deficit of accountability by effectively removing people’s ability
to challenge errors.’
Pamela Fitzpatrick, director of London’s Harrow Law Centre, said: ‘Harrow Law Centre has a 99.9 % success rate at welfare benefits tribunals. The majority of people we represent have severe disability or illness yet have often been left without benefit for many months.
‘Poor decision-making and the culture of targets to sanction claimants mean that many vulnerable people are left without any support. Charging for benefit tribunals shows a frightening degree of contempt for people in poverty – matched only by the government’s determination to deny access to justice to ordinary people.’