Bedford Borough Council owed more than £4million in housing benefit overpayments before pandemic
Charity fears claimants often have no idea they have been overpaid housing benefit - and can suddenly find themselves in debt
Bedford Borough Council was owed more than £4million in housing benefit paid to claimants in error before the coronavirus crisis brought debt collections to a halt, new figures show.
Charity Turn2us, which helps people in financial hardship, warned recovery of benefit overpayments could be "the straw that breaks the camel's back" amid the pandemic, pushing those already struggling into financial turmoil.
People who are not entitled to benefits, or who are paid more benefit than they should get, are required to pay the money back to their local authority.
But Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) data shows housing benefit claimants owed £4.5million to Bedford Borough Council from overpayments at the start of the year. The figures exclude fraud cases.
And the council is urging anyone having difficulty paying a bill due to them - including an overpayment - to get in touch to discuss possible affordable repayment options.
In April, the DWP announced it would pause debt collections for three months to shift staff to frontline roles, with recoveries resuming in July.
Sara Wilcox, head of external affairs at Turn2us, said claimants often have no idea they have been overpaid housing benefit, and can suddenly find themselves in debt.
She said: "It risks being the straw that breaks the camel's back. It can push those who are just about managing into a financial crisis and all the mental struggles that go hand in hand."
In the year to March, Bedford Borough Council collected £1.5million from claimants who had been overpaid, the figures show.
But it also wrote off £47,000 during that time.
Ms Wilcox added: "The coronavirus pandemic has left so many people's financial resilience in tatters.
"We urge the DWP to perform affordability checks before making deductions and consider another debt collection holiday to avoid pushing any more households into poverty."
A DWP spokesman said: “We have provided £9.3billion extra welfare support to help those most in need during the pandemic, including increasing Universal Credit by up to £20 a week, as well as introducing income protection schemes, mortgage holidays and additional support for renters.”
He added claimants experiencing financial hardship can request deferral of repayments by contacting the DWP’s debt management line.
A Bedford Borough Council spokesperson said “We understand that many people’s personal finances have been badly affected by the impact of COVID-19 and encourage anyone having difficulty paying a bill due to the council, including an overpayment of housing benefit, to get in touch with us straight away.
"Council officers are sympathetic to the current situation and will be able to offer advice about affordable repayment options. It is also important that people with the means to pay do so, as the council relies on receiving regular payments so that it has the resources to provide vital local services.”