Benefits error by DWP leaves single mum with a bill for £24,000 | Personal Finance | Finance


A single mum has been told to pay back benefits totalling £24,000 to the DWP after she was overpaid due to an “error”.

The Government department has ruled it should never have granted her Universal Credit and says she must now pay it back.

Jane Wardle, aged 38, who lives in Darlington, County Durham with her 13-year-old daughter Ela, was told she would have to pay back the money in monthly instalments.

She took the case to an independent tribunal in December last year, but her appeal was unsuccessful.

Wardle started studying for a funded social sciences PhD at Teesside University in October 2020 and applied for Universal Credit to support her and her daughter throughout her studies.

Her main source of income was a stipend – a non-repayable grant provided to doctoral students – worth £1,270 a month.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) told Ms Wardle she was entitled to just over £800 a month in Universal Credit.

In April 2023, she was forced to reduce her PhD hours to part-time after struggling to cope with her Fibromyalgia, a long-term health condition that causes pain all over the body.

She also wanted more flexibility to support Ella, who was having difficulties transitioning to secondary school.

She passed on details of the change to the DWP, but received a letter in June last year to say her entitlement had been miscalculated and she would need to repay the full amount.

All of her payments were stopped immediately, and her stipend had also reduced to just £736 due to going part-time with her studies.

This left her with just enough to cover her rent of £490 a month and meant she barely had enough money leftover to pay for food and bills.

Ms Wardle told The Sun: “I have no idea what I’m going to do, my life has been completely turned upside down.

“If I was earning the amount I was getting from the PhD doing any other job, I would be entitled to Universal Credit – and that is where the injustice lies.

“It’s just the stress of it all. I’ve worked hard at university to get to where I am, and I want to provide a good life for my daughter and be a good example.

“But I now have an almost £25,000 debt hanging over me for the rest of my life.

“I’m just a single mum trying to better myself doing a PhD.”

She has now gone back to studying full-time and has had to take on a part-time cleaning job, which she said leaves her “exhausted” due to her Fibromyalgia.

She doesn’t know how long she’ll be paying it back for yet but the repayment periods for such large amounts can often be 10 years or more.

The charity Single Parents Rights said overpayment errors can occur because PhD funding isn’t treated as income in the same way that other earnings.

The founder of the organisation, Ruth Talbot, said: “These cases of overpayment demands are shocking.

“The first single parents usually hear about the debt is when a letter demanding thousands of pounds lands on their doorstep.

“People simply don’t have the money to pay these back and facing years of deductions from their benefits means families are left struggling indefinitely.

“The rules need to change so that single parents studying for PhDs are able to access Universal Credit support so they aren’t left penny pinching when all they are trying to do is improve things for their family.”

The DWP said Universal Credit overpayments due to official errors – including the one experienced by Wardle – are currently at 0.6 percent – its lowest ever.

A spokesperson said: “We carefully balance our duty to the taxpayer to recover overpayments and safeguards are in place to help people manage repayments.”

Ms Wardle is now working with a lawyer and hopes to challenge the result of her tribunal in the future.

What can I do if the DWP asks me to repay money paid in error?

If the DWP believes you have been overpaid for a benefit, it will write to you detailing what happened and how much you owe.

You can ask it to reassess your case if you don’t agree with its decision.

In your response, ask how it made its decision, as well as for a “mandatory reconsideration”.

You should then get another letter with the outcome of the reconsideration.

If you still don’t agree, you can appeal the decision at a tribunal.

You can also make a complaint about the customer service you receive from the department.

Say you’re making a formal complaint and ask to initiate its complaints procedure, either in writing or over the phone.

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