MP raises concern over Bulgarian nationals’ UK benefit suspensions | Universal credit

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Dozens of Bulgarian nationals have been tipped into poverty after unexplained benefit suspensions following the creation of a “risk review” unit in the Department for Work and Pensions, an MP has said.

Kate Osamor, the Labour MP for Edmonton, said her constituency office had been inundated in recent weeks with requests for help from Bulgarian nationals whose universal credit had been suspended for protracted periods with no explanation.

Concern about the treatment of many Bulgarian and some Polish universal credit claimants has also been raised by a charity supporting EU nationals and an estate agency renting to Bulgarian tenants in London.

Osamor has written to Thérèse Coffey, the work and pensions secretary, to express her “grave concern that Bulgarian nationals are being unfairly targeted for benefit fraud investigation based on their nationality”.

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Most of those affected were single mothers working part-time in low-paid jobs, who relied on universal credit to supplement rent payments, she said. Many of them had been forced to use food banks, and some had been made homeless as a result of their rent arrears. Claimants were often notified by text message that their benefits had been stopped, and were not given information about how to appeal.

Osamor said her office had raised concerns from about 16 constituents through a DWP helpline for MPs, and had been disappointed with the response. “In each case the claimant has no money for food and cannot pay their rent. Many are facing eviction,” she wrote. “In the few cases I have received a response from the DWP, the response has simply stated a ‘risk review’ is being carried out with no indication of when the nebulous ‘review’ will be concluded.”

Acknowledging that the DWP was within its rights to investigate fraud, Osamor said: “What I do not consider fair, however, is the idea that an individual should be placed under suspicion because of their nationality. I am also greatly concerned about the efficiency of a system that enables a claim to be suspended for months on end with little to no explanation.”

Her concerns were echoed by an estate agent who said her north London company was dealing with 40 tenants struggling to pay the rent because their universal credit had unexpectedly been suspended, 38 of whom were Bulgarian and two Polish. The lettings agency rents to tenants of all nationalities and, overall, Bulgarian tenants are in a minority.

One tenant, a single mother, was evicted last week because she was unable to pay her rent after months of universal credit suspension. The estate agent said she was puzzled by the suggestion that the suspensions might be related to fraud allegations because the letting agency did robust checks on all tenants before signing rental contracts, to verify identities and work status.

“All these tenants are at least in part-time work,” she said, asking for the name of the letting agency not to be used. “It is absolutely fine for the DWP to do fraud checks, but they need to do that within a reasonable timescale. Most of these people have been without benefits for months with no information about why. They don’t know what has triggered it.”

Olivia Vicol, the director of the Work Rights Centre, a London-based charity supporting EU nationals in precarious employment, said her organisation was advising eight people originally from Bulgaria who were struggling to get their benefits reinstated after payments were stopped abruptly and without explanation. Attempts to get clarity about what had prompted the suspensions had not been successful, she said.

“This opaqueness makes it impossible for the claimants to challenge decisions,” she said. “People need to know why their payments are being suspended, and be given the opportunity to challenge that. By jumping to suspending payments, the DWP is effectively throwing them into destitution.”

A DWP spokesperson said: “We have a duty to the taxpayer to investigate a benefit claim where we suspect fraud, including potentially organised crime. The risk review team was set up to investigate risks of criminal activity and it’s not linked to nationality. If someone provided us with details to show their claim is genuine, we would urgently put any payment due into place.”

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