The PCS union and Citizens Advice yesterday slammed government plans to claw back £60m from hundreds of thousands of benefit claimants who are expected to face fines of at least £50 for ‘preventable’ errors in their claims.
The government expects to levy civil penalties of between £50 and £300 in the next four years as a result of the ‘claimant contract’ contained in the Welfare Reform Bill.
Errors could include failure to inform the authorities of a change of address or a partner moving into their home.
The Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), which represents staff in Jobcentre Plus offices, called the plans ‘shameful’ and ‘unnecessarily punitive’, warning its members could bear the brunt of people’s ‘understandable frustration’ if they were fined.
Citizen’s Advice called for simplification of the benefits system to reduce errors, rather than fines.
A spokeswoman for the charity said: ‘If the government intends to impose a hefty financial penalty on claimants who make mistakes, it must put the same effort into getting its own house in order, and reduce the unacceptably high level of official error that can cause immense problems, and often hardship, for claimants.
‘Many errors are genuine mistakes resulting from the complexity of the system and misunderstanding the rules.
‘There is a risk that vulnerable people could be hit particularly hard by this plan.’
Chancellor Osborne announced plans to introduce a civil penalty around the time of last October’s Comprehensive Spending Review.
But details of the plans are to be found in Welfare Reform Bill proposals that, from 2012, the government plans to deduct at least £50 from benefits if errors are made that ‘could have reasonably been prevented’.
‘(The) £50 rate was determined as an appropriate starting point for the majority of benefit customers to encourage better care of their claim, with the option of increasing the civil penalty to up to £300,’ the Bill states.
It is predicted that these fines, which will be paid in addition to refunding any overpayments, will total £9m in 2012-13, and increase to £30.5m in 2014-15, which is the equivalent of fines at £50 for 610,000 people.
The proposals also reveal that the government assumes there will be very few appeals against these fines.