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Helen takes on Goliath at the Court of Appeal

A disabled woman will soon learn if a challenge against the Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP) is upheld in the court of appeal.

Helen Timson from Leicester is aiming to stop the practice of taking money from her benefits to hand to energy and other utility firms. If successful, the challenge could affect everyone who is subject to the DWP’s Third Party Deductions (TPDs) scheme.

The scheme gives energy and water firms the right to seize a proportion of a person’s benefits directly from the Government to repay debts.

Papers lodged by the DWP with the courts showed that ​​in May 2021, there were 198,357 TPDs in relation to water debts and in February 2022 there were around 35,000 TPDs in respect of electricity and about 27,700 in respect of gas debts.

However, in September 2022, Helen Timson secured a ruling criticising the way that the DWP operates the scheme – and in particular the way that the written guidance is drafted.

The ruling would have led to the Government needing to significantly alter the guidance, making it clear that benefit claimants should be given the opportunity to make representations or provide relevant information prior to the decision to make the deduction being taken.

According to legal intelligence website Lexis Nexis, the original challenge succeeded “on the ground that the guidance unlawfully gave the impression that representations from claimants were unnecessary before a deduction order was made.”

But rather than accept the ruling, the Government appealed the decision so it could continue to take money from vulnerable energy customers and hand it to energy firms.

Helen Timson, from Leicester, commented:

“The DWP doesn’t bother to check if we are left with enough money for food or rent and firms don’t seem terribly motivated to ensure they don’t take too much or don’t take money when nothing is owed or even that they pay our money into the correct account.”

Helen told Disability News Service last summer that she had even had to cancel a cancer scan because she could not afford the taxi fare, thanks to the deductions imposed on her and, on other occasions, she has not been able to pay her rent.

According to Trussell Trust research, almost half (47%) of people using foodbanks were facing deductions from their benefits and 13% of these people faced sanctions due to action from third party groups, such as energy firms. 

Members of the End Fuel Poverty Coalition, including Fuel Poverty Action and the Warm This Winter campaign gathered to back Helen at the Court of Appeal in London.

Stuart Bretherton of Fuel Poverty Action said:

“Welfare benefits are supposed to be a bottom line – the minimum to cover our human rights to food, shelter, and health. Yet the DWP thinks it can confiscate some of this – and then pass the money to corporations that have put people in debt by charging prices many just can’t afford… Helen Timson is a hero to many.”

Members of the public can support Helen by writing to their MPs using a template letter created by Fuel Poverty Action.

simon@simonfrancis.org

Founder Member of Campaign Collective, chair of the Public Relations & Communications Association Charity and Not-For-Profit Group. Write mainly about charity, public sector and social enterprise campaigns.