Complaint about Jobcentre Plus of the Department for Work and Pensions

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Failure to appreciate the full scope of the injustice caused by maladministration

Background to the complaint

Mr H had been working in Spain for many years until ill health forced him to give up his job and return to the UK in January 2005. In November Mr H was signed off by his doctor until March 2006. Jobcentre Plus advised him to claim disability living allowance (which he did on 11 November 2005) and income support (which he did on 5 December). Following his income support application, Jobcentre Plus told Mr H that as he was aged 61 he should claim pension credit instead. Mr H said that he then claimed pension credit twice during January 2006 and that his applications were lost in the system. He completed another application in March and was awarded pension credit, backdated to 5 December 2005. According to Mr H, he had to increase his bank overdraft because of the delay and incurred charges. (Bank statements for the period between December 2005 and March 2006 show charges totalling £123.52 in the form of interest on amounts overdrawn.)

Mr H’s financial problems and ill health were further exacerbated when his son was killed while abroad in February 2006. Mr H had to pay funeral costs of more than £4,000, and was awarded a social fund funeral payment of £989 by Jobcentre Plus. Mr H appealed, as he felt he should have been awarded the full costs of the funeral. Jobcentre Plus then realised that they should not have made a funeral payment: the funeral took place outside the UK and neither Mr H nor his late son met the other entitlement criteria.

In the meantime, Mr H’s disability living allowance application had been refused in January 2006. Jobcentre Plus advised him to claim incapacity benefit; that claim was also refused as he had not paid enough National Insurance contributions in the two years prior to his application. Mr H appealed, on the grounds that he had been paying contributions into the Spanish system. Mr H telephoned Jobcentre Plus in March to discuss the refusal of his incapacity benefit application, and agreed to send them details of his earnings in Spain. Jobcentre Plus received this information from Mr H in April and forwarded it to the International Pension Centre. They, in turn, requested further information from Mr H, which he supplied to his local job centre on 12 May.

Initial referral to the Ombudsman

In August 2006 Mr H referred his complaint to the Ombudsman. We declined to investigate at that time as he had not been through Jobcentre Plus’s complaints procedure. We referred his complaint to the Chief Executive of Jobcentre Plus, giving her an opportunity to resolve the issues. In December the Chief Operating Officer responded to Mr H’s complaint. He apologised for the poor advice Jobcentre Plus had given Mr H about income support and pension credit, confirmed that Mr H had since been paid pension credit arrears, and apologised for losing Mr H’s initial pension credit application. The Chief Operating Officer explained why the incapacity benefit claim had been refused and provided an update on the progress of this in relation to Mr H’s overseas contributions. He also apologised that the information that Mr H had provided in May 2006 had not been forwarded to the International Pension Centre until November 2006. He also provided an explanation for Mr H’s funeral payment award and confirmed that he would not be asked to repay it, as it was due to an official error.

What we investigated

Mr H felt that the response from Jobcentre Plus did not resolve his complaint and he asked the Ombudsman to look again at his grievances. We decided to investigate his complaint in July 2007.
We investigated Mr H’s complaint that Jobcentre Plus’s response to him of December 2006 was inadequate; that they were maladministrative in failing to compensate him for the bank charges and other expenses incurred as a result of the delay in paying him pension credit because of their misdirection (the costs of telephone calls and travel expenses to Jobcentre Plus and to his MP’s office to resolve his difficulties); and that the £50 compensation payment they had made to him was inadequate. Mr H said that he suffered inconvenience, financial loss, and wanted compensation for the charges and expenses he had incurred, and recognition of the stress he and his wife were under as a result of Jobcentre Plus’s maladministration.

What our investigation found

Jobcentre Plus’s response to Mr H of December 2006 gave a good explanation for the issues he had raised, and they accepted that their failings had led to some of the problems he had encountered. The clarity of their explanation and acceptance of responsibility was very much in line with the Principles of Good Administration (‘Putting things right’). However, part of putting things right is also to provide a remedy which fairly reflects the harm someone has suffered. It is here that Jobcentre Plus fell down.

Mr H raised the question of overdraft charges in his complaint. Jobcentre Plus considered this matter as part of their compensation decision, but then made no reference to it in their letter to him. This omission amounted to maladministration. Had Jobcentre Plus acted in accordance with the Principle of ‘Being open and accountable’, this would not have happened. As for the decision not to compensate Mr H for his bank charges, his bank account was already overdrawn before he applied for benefit and the charges were calculated in the form of interest on the amount by which he was overdrawn. Although Jobcentre Plus reasonably concluded that the timely payment of pension credit would not have stopped him becoming overdrawn, they did not consider whether timely payments would have reduced the charges applied to his bank account. It is reasonable to conclude that without the maladministration the charges would have been lower; Jobcentre Plus’s failure to consider that point was maladministration. We found that the other costs that Mr H wanted Jobcentre Plus to reimburse (telephone and travel costs) were not brought to their attention until after they made the compensation decision. They could not, therefore, have included these costs in their consideration.

Jobcentre Plus did not take Mr H’s individual circumstances sufficiently into account when deciding to pay him compensation of £50. He was suffering both from ill health and bereavement during the very time when Jobcentre Plus made mistakes and delayed dealing with his claims. Mr H had also made clear to Jobcentre Plus that he was under financial pressures, made worse by the late payment of pension credit. There is no evidence that Jobcentre Plus took these significant and relevant circumstances into account, and so fell short of meeting the reasonable expectations as set out in the Principles of Good Administration (‘Being customer focused’ and ‘Acting fairly and proportionately’). That was maladministrative.

In summary, Jobcentre Plus’s flawed compensation decision meant that Mr H did not receive a remedy which properly recognised the harm done to him as a result of their maladministration. We regarded £50 as insufficient to recognise the worry, inconvenience and trouble that Mr H was put to at a very difficult time. Furthermore, Jobcentre Plus’s maladministration in considering the remedy meant that Mr H was put to unnecessary time and trouble in bringing his complaint back to the Ombudsman.

We partly upheld Mr H’s complaint and concluded our investigation in March 2008.

Outcome

At our recommendation, Jobcentre Plus apologised to Mr H and paid him:

  • £200 in recognition of the worry, inconvenience, time and trouble he was put to;
  • £20 to cover his bank charges;
  • £70 towards his telephone costs; and
  • £20 towards his petrol charges.

Principles of Good Administration

The following Principles of Good Administration were referred to in this case summary:

 
  • ‘Putting things right’ (acknowledging mistakes and apologising where appropriate; operating an effective complaints procedure, which includes offering a fair and appropriate remedy when a complaint is upheld).
  • Being customer focused’ (dealing with people helpfully, promptly and sensitively, bearing in mind their individual circumstances).
  • ‘Being open and accountable’ (stating criteria for decision making and giving reasons for decisions).
  • ‘Acting fairly and proportionately’ (ensuring decisions and actions are proportionate, appropriate and fair).