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‘DWP are the real criminals’: carer in tatters after ‘brutal’ fraud prosecution

In Europe
April 07, 2024
<span>Vivienne Groom spent several years caring for her elderly mother before she died in 2021.</span><span>Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian</span>” src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/QU5t5Vn8F1YJ6eYN5ArCWQ–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/https://media.zenfs.com/en/theguardian_763/c19ce0857e1f9f44bc7ae699ca68e3cf” data-src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/QU5t5Vn8F1YJ6eYN5ArCWQ–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/https://media.zenfs.com/en/theguardian_763/c19ce0857e1f9f44bc7ae699ca68e3cf”></div></div></div><p><figcaption class=Vivienne Groom spent several years caring for her elderly mother before she died in 2021.Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Vivienne Groom never had so much as a parking ticket before she stood in the imposing glass-panelled dock at Chester crown court last November.

She was, she was told, in the same courtroom where Myra Hindley was jailed more than half a century ago for some of the worst crimes in modern British history.

Groom, 59, was being prosecuted for failing to declare her minimum wage job in a Co-op store. She worked there while single-handedly caring for her elderly mother who had dementia and had suffered a stroke – something she drew £60 a week carer’s allowance for.

Using the Proceeds of Crime Act – legislation normally reserved for major drug dealers – the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) wanted to punish this failure to declare the job by seizing the £16,105 inheritance Groom had been left by Maud, the mother she cared for, when she died at the age of 91.

Related: Carers threatened with prosecution over minor breaches of UK benefit rules

A shy and quiet woman, she wept in the dock as she was told she faced up to seven years in prison for benefit fraud.

Groom worked 16 hours a week at the Co-op while caring for her mother when she first started received the £60-a-week carer’s allowance in 2014. She did not declare the job because she was told by a social worker that she did not need to, she said, adding that it was an honest mistake.

Groom said she phoned the DWP to tell them she no longer wanted to receive the £60-a-week carer’s allowance when the Co-op increased her hours in 2015, a year after she began caring for her mother. She said, however, that a DWP call-handler told her: “We’ll have to look into this and get back to you.”

“And that was it. I never heard anything then until last year,” she said, referring to the letter in 2022 informing Groom that she was being prosecuted for benefit fraud: “They’re horrible on the phone. One woman said to me: ‘If you hadn’t done this, you wouldn’t be in this predicament would you?’”

Related: Why are so many carers taken to court for benefit fraud?

The DWP has the technology to spot when someone is being overpaid carer’s allowance and should be able to notify them immediately. Nevertheless, many carers are left to rack up huge bills and – like Groom – face the threat of criminal prosecution.

Groom admitted her failure at the first opportunity and was paying back £30 a month to the DWP, but almost as soon as she received her inheritance from Maud after she died in 2021 – the government froze her bank account.

“I was sick to my stomach,” she said. “I rang them and said: ‘You can’t take it, it’s my mum’s inheritance’ – and she just said ‘Oh we can’ and that was it.”

In a hearing at Chester crown court in November, the judge, Steven Everett, appeared to accept Groom’s explanation that it was an honest mistake.

He said she had found the claims process difficult to understand and that there were “no aggravating factors” but “a wealth of mitigating ones”.

“You were doing the best you could for your mother,” he told Groom, handing down a 12-month community order instead of sending her to prison.

Related: Who are unpaid carers, and why have some had to repay large sums to the UK government?

The judge was scathing about the DWP’s handling of the case. He questioned why it had taken a year to come to court after Groom admitted her failings in an interview with benefits officers in November 2022.

The judge ordered the DWP to calculate how much carer’s allowance Groom would have been entitled to had she declared her part-time Co-op job, adding that he was “truly unimpressed” they had not done so.

Yet after a further two court hearings before two different judges, the DWP still refused to calculate the difference – which would have meant Groom would have to repay a lower figure – and insisted it take the full £16,105 inheritance.

Last Wednesday, another judge – the fourth in six months – finally confiscated the family bequest. In a hearing that lasted barely five minutes, Judge Berkson said he understood that Groom has a “sentimental attachment” to the inheritance but that it must still be seized.

A DWP investigator, sat at the back of the court, told the judge the inheritance would be “with the CPS this afternoon” at the stroke of a signature. And then it was gone.

“I’m just gutted,” said Groom outside court. Her husband of 34 years, Geoff Groom, said: “Viv is being punished now for looking after her mum. The DWP are the criminals here. This can’t be right.”

Groom is one of thousands of carers who have been fined huge sums after unwittingly breaching earnings rules in a scandal that has brought condemnation from a cross-party group of MPs.

Speaking to the Guardian at their home in Tarvin, near Chester, Groom said the whole episode had been “a nightmare” that had left them “in shock”. “I’ve never, never, never been in trouble with the police. Never. It’s heart-wrenching,” she said.

A second feature of this is the huge power imbalance that leaves unpaid carers, often with highly stressful caring commitments, facing the might of the state without legal help.

Groom had no legal representation during the four court hearings to decide her fate. She was told she was not entitled to legal aid because of the £16,105 inheritance, even though the government had frozen the bank account so she had no way to access it. One solicitor wanted to charge £1,700 to represent her, way beyond the couple’s means.

“It has been a nightmare,” she said last week. “I don’t know how we’ve got through actually, I really really don’t.”

The DWP said: “We are committed to fairness in the welfare system while protecting the public purse. Claimants have a responsibility to inform DWP of any changes in their circumstances that could impact their award, and it is right that we recover taxpayers’ money when this has not occurred.”

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