A mum of two who was faced with nearly £1,200 in fines before Christmas for a ‘missed’ Universal Credit appointment said the experience was humiliating.
Anna Susnik, who is a single mum living near Ashorne, potentially faced Christmas with very little money because of the mistake but was relieved when it was overturned.
The 40 year old, who has been on Universal Credit for around two years, was sent a letter in December saying that she was being fined for missing a telephone appointment on August 2.
Anna said: “There is no log of any call. In fact, I received no communication from them (Department for Work and Pensions - DWP) between April and November. We suspect this is a generic letter being sent out to people with the same time and dates and no phone call.
“Although I have very little phone signal at home so if I’d known that I had to answer at a specific time then I would have given an alternative number or made sure I was in a place with good signal.
“I only found out months later about this sanction, by which time the fines had mounted up and up and they even imposed another seven days fine because I was a ‘first- time offender’. It was very stressful because it was leading up to Christmas and to me what they were taking was a lot of money.”
Anna attended an appointment with the Universal Credit Agency on November 22 but the sanction did not appear on her file at this stage and was not mentioned. But days later, she received the news that the money was to be deducted from subsequent benefits payments, leaving her and her children with £200 a month to live on.
Anna said: “Not only did the news of the fine come near Christmas but it was days before my 40th birthday.
“I was faced with not buying Christmas presents, not being able to buy food and it was embarrassing. More worryingly I couldn’t afford the coal I needed to keep my house heated and had to use a plug in halogen heater to keep all three of us warm.
“This will now result in an expensive electric bill as a consequence.
“I was told by the Universal Credit people that I should go to a food bank and apply for a hardship loan. It was humiliating. There was no sense in that as by the time I would have applied the offices would be closed for the holidays and I wouldn’t have got help for Christmas. I kept trying to say this to them.
“Also my daughter has food intolerances and I am vegan and it wasn’t realistic to go to a food bank as the sort of food we eat doesn’t generally get donated.”
As well as appealing the fine Anna and her neighbour Sally Jones reached out to various media outlets and to their local MP Jeremy Wright’s office for help.
On December 21 Anna received a phone call from the agency saying that the fine would be retracted,
“Part of the sanction was taken on December 20. I received the phone call just before their office was about to close for Christmas on December 21 to apologise for their error and to refund the money.
“I immediately called Hinsons coal merchants to try to arrange a delivery in time for Christmas. They had finished their Christmas deliveries but after having hearing my story, very kindly came out in their time off to ensure that we’d be warm for Christmas.
“I think people putting pressure on them helped as they had journalists and Jeremy Wright’s office getting in touch.
“I felt so relieved but I also feel sad for other people because I know others have received the same letter all over the UK and some with the same date.
“Universal Credit needs totally overhauling – it was introduced before it was ready. This is not the first problem I have had – when I was first moved onto it I faced eight weeks without any money as well as having to pay back an overpayment from the old system which was deducted from my Universal Credit payments.
“I would urge anyone in the same situation to contact their MP and the media.”