Benefit fraud team ‘unfairly targeting’ Bulgarian Roma people in Edmonton

Government’s risk review team accused of singling out specific community, reports James Cracknell

Department for Work and Pensions
Department for Work and Pensions

The government has been accused of unfairly cutting benefit payments to EU nationals in Edmonton.

Hundreds of families from the Bulgarian Roma community in Edmonton are understood to have been targeted by a new team at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) set up to review benefit claims and investigate fraud.

The UK’s departure from the European Union has meant EU nationals granted ‘pre-settled status’ need to provide more evidence of their claims for Universal Credit, but language barriers and other communication problems have made this difficult for certain groups of people.

Edmonton is thought to have the the country’s highest concentration of Bulgarian Roma residents. Last month, Edmonton MP Kate Osamor led a debate in parliament. She said the DWP’s risk review team had suspended more than 149,000 benefit claims, with almost all of them appearing to be EU nationals, despite no evidence of fraud being found in the “vast majority” of cases.

Kate said: “For the last six months, my office has been inundated with constituents, almost all Bulgarian nationals, who have had their benefit suspended without explanation. Despite providing evidence when it is requested, many have not had their benefits reinstated. Having been left without any income, many have faced homelessness and hunger.

“The DWP refuses to explain why it has started this benefit witch-hunt against EU nationals, but we need answers now. Thousands of lives are being ruined and, like the Windrush scandal, many are being left in limbo indefinitely. We need answers now.”

Nishan Dzhingozyan founded the Bulgarian Centre for Social Integration and Culture and has been working with Edmonton Community Partnership on helping Bulgarian Roma people in the area navigate the bureaucracy around Brexit. He believes thousands of people in Edmonton are now affected by suspended benefit claims.

Nishan told the Dispatch: “It seems that they [the government] are targeting a specific community – Bulgarian GRT [Gypsy, Roma and Traveller]. When their benefits were suspended they weren’t told about the reasons for it and what they needed to provide to get them back.”

Nishan said he had alerted the Independent Monitoring Authority, set up to protect the rights of EU nationals in the UK, and that the body was now investigating.

EU nationals living in the UK should now have either ‘settled’ or ‘pre-settled’ status, depending on how long they have lived in the country. Nishan said: “When you have pre-settled status, you have to provide more evidence to access benefits. The GRT community has a lot of barriers to access; they have language barriers, they have IT barriers, they lack education.

“It is a big problem in Edmonton – the DWP is targeting this community.”

A DWP spokesman said: “No-one has their Universal Credit benefit suspended without being notified. 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.”

Both Nishan and Kate have disputed the DWP’s claims. Nishan said: “We have spoken to ten families from a GRT background and what they have all said is they were not informed in advance that their benefits would be suspended.”

Kate added: “The story being told by the DWP doesn’t match the reality on the ground. The DWP tells us that they are targeting organised crime and that legitimate claims are reinstated ‘urgently’ and yet in Edmonton, they have suspended the claims of dozens of innocent individuals for months on end.

“How do they explain that discrepancy? Until the DWP come clean and open the risk review process up to scrutiny, they will face accusations of conducting a witch-hunt against EU nationals.”

A spokesman for IMA said: “This is something which has been raised with us and we are currently looking into. The IMA encourages EU citizens experiencing issues to report a complaint to us via our portal. While we can’t assist with individual circumstances, complaints help us gain an understanding of issues in order to inform our response.”