Wales

ESA underpayment: Volunteers 'help hundreds' reclaim benefits

left to right - Alan, Sue and Kay behind a table advertising help with ESA claim problems Image copyright Sue Leader
Image caption Alan Short, Sue Leader and Kay Harris are among those helping people claim ESA benefit owed to them

A group of volunteers say they have helped hundreds of people reclaim more than £100,000 in unpaid benefits.

Alan Short and Kay Harris say they feared people struggling to get by would die before receiving unpaid Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), the main sickness benefit.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) estimates it will pay a total of £610m due to past underpayments.

The DWP said it has 700 members of staff reassessing 600,000 cases.

"We started this when we realised the scale of the problem and it struck us that some people might die before receiving the money they are owed," said Mrs Harris, from Bettws, Bridgend county.

The group, who are members of the Unite union's Cardiff and area community branch, previously helped people appeal so-called bedroom tax decisions.

Image caption Mrs Harris and Mr Short started helping people in February 2018

Most underpayments occurred between 2011 and 2014, affecting those who were not considered for income-related ESA when they were switched to contributory ESA.

These people may have missed out on other payments, such as the enhanced disability premium.

The BBC first learned of the error in November 2017, but since then the full scale of the problem has come to light.

In its latest assessment, the DWP said it had paid back £552m in historical arrears to date, with its next update due in January. The average reimbursement amount is £6,000.

Mr Short, from Bridgend, said he had been approached by people who had received about £10,000 from the DWP after seeking the group's help - money which would have been used to pay the bills.

Mrs Harris said: "People had had a guts full. They had no money for electric or gas. Some people told us they felt suicidal - they were at their wits' end and that's what kept us going."

Image caption People who think they were underpaid ESA were given a template letter to fill in and send off to the DWP

The group said some people they helped did not even know they were entitled to money until a large sum appeared in their account.

Mrs Harris added: "It's disgusting. They haven't even let a lot of people know they are owed money and suddenly it appears in their account."

Processing on 85% of cases and 65% of cases where the claimant had died had been completed by October, the DWP said.

A DWP spokeswoman said: "We are taking this very seriously - with over 700 people continuing to work hard to put cases right as the exercise nears an end."

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