Government appeal process condemned as ‘traumatic’ and a ‘waste of time and money’
Ministers have spent almost £40m in an “appalling” attempt to stop sick and disabled people receiving the financial help they are entitled to, The Independent can reveal.
Freedom of Information requests have exposed how taxpayers’ money has been spent on futile legal battles to prevent vulnerable people receiving help. The hit to the public purse could also be far higher than the new data suggests because it is still unclear how much more the state spends running courts where sanctions are challenged.
The vast majority of appeals were lost by the Government last year, making the expense appear unnecessary. Early indications now show the problem is becoming even worse in 2017, with a 77 per cent rise in money spent trying to stop people from getting Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) payments.
Critics claim the situation has arisen because fitness to work assessments are deeply flawed, leading to incorrect decisions which need to be fought.
Senior Labour MP Frank Field, who worked as David Cameron’s poverty tsar, said: “What’s appalling is that the [Government] is prepared to spend £39m of taxpayers’ money against people who are desperately fighting off destitution.
New figures show that in 2016 the Government spent £22m processing claimants’ initial appeals against sanctions – a stage most people must pass through before they reach a tribunal.
It emerged earlier this year that government officials are given targets to reject four out of five initial appeals – known as mandatory reconsiderations – for some disability benefits.
Further data obtained by The Independentunder Freedom of Information law shows the Government then spent a further £17m fighting cases in the courts that were not settled at the initial appeal stage, bringing the total appeals process cost to £39m last year.
In the same period the Government lost 62 per cent of the tribunal cases in which it was attempting to sanction a claimant’s ESA – which supports people when impairments prevent them working.
They also lost 65 per cent of the cases in the latter half of 2016, the most recent period for which figures are available, relating to the Personal Independence Payment (PIP), a longer-term benefit.
But the defeats suffered by government lawyers are not persuading ministers of the need to change tack, with the figures actually pointing to a more costly appeals process in 2017.
THERESA MAY was facing a back-bench rebellion over disability benefit cuts yesterday as charities warned that thousands of people are being wrongly assessed.
Tory MP Heidi Allen led the charge after Labour demanded an urgent review of the assessment process.
The MP for South Cambridgeshire, who famously used her maiden Commons speech to launch a searing attack on George Osborne’s benefits cuts, said: “People with disabilities and health conditions already face challenges in life, so we must not add to them.”
She called for a review of the way personal independence payments (PIP), which replace disability living allowances (DLA), are assessed.
Labour had warned that disabled people are being forced to use foodbanks as benefit payments are being stopped incorrectly. Work and pensions select committee chairman Frank Field has written to ministers demanding an overhaul of the current system, which he says fails to consider the impact of people’s disabilities and health conditions. And Labour MP Neil Coyle has demanded answers, saying the assessment process for PIP has “failed on every measure.”
The calls come as the government moves people over from DLA to PIP with thousands of people having their claims rejected only to have the decision reversed on appeal.
Disabled People Against Cuts’s Linda Burnip told the Morning Star that assessors working for private-sector firms Atos and Capita appeared to be “totally ignoring medical evidence.”
She accused the Department for Work and Pensions of simply rubber-stamping fl awed rulings which were then overturned on appeal. “It’s past time something was done about it,” she said, calling for the government to “get rid of the companies, hold them to account, fine them for their negligence.”
An Oxford University study earlier this year revealed that more than 50 per cent of households which use foodbanks include a disabled person.
In the letter to Pensions Secretary David Gauke, Mr Field said that the PIP process used a “rigid” set of questions which saw may people having benefits wrongly withdrawn or drastically reduced.
Mr Field said: “Might you therefore review as a matter of urgency please the quality, accuracy and reliability of the assessment process, and report back on the steps that are being taken to ensure it more accurately reflects applicants’ health conditions?”
The assessments are carried out by privateers Atos and Capita, which are being paid an astonishing £600 million for their PIP contracts — the original contract was for £512m.
Mr Coyle said: “Millions of pounds of public money was being poured down the drain” with DWP officials reviewing many of their decisions and backdating benefits to those who have their PIP reinstated.
To qualify for PIP, claimants must be awarded eight points for the standard rate, or at least 12 for the higher rate. But 13,130 people who were initially awarded no points at all after being assessed went on to receive PIP after an appeal.
The work and pensions select committee will decide whether to continue with its PIP inquiry when Parliament’s summer recess ends on September 5.
Jane, 57, says her assessment for the new Personal Independence Payment was “wholly dishonest”
A Banbridge woman has said she feels “totally demoralised” after having her disability benefits slashed following changes to the welfare system.
The woman, who we will call Jane as she wishes to remain anonymous, was receiving mobility and home care payments for several years under the old Disability Living Allowance scheme.
Jane, 57, who has worked all her life in the care industry, began receiving disability benefits following her recovery from breast cancer in 2011. As part of her cancer treatment, Jane had several lymph nodes on her breast and underarm removed, as well as a large portion of her right breast. Lymph nodes are small, bean-shaped glands throughout the body which play an important part in our immune system, trapping bacteria and viruses.
Unable to work and living with constant pain and mobility issues, Jane previously applied for disability benefits and was successful.
Speaking to Belfast Live, Jane said that she was originally reluctant to apply for benefits. She said: “I have never claimed disability benefits before, but eventually things got so tough I had to accept that I was not the same woman I was before – and I knew I would never be the same woman again. The affect the treatment has on your body is horrible, the tremendous joint pain and pain deep in my bones – I have extreme difficulty walking and getting around.”
Jane now suffers from Lymphedema, a condition which causes painful swelling in the arms and legs. She now wears compression garments on her right arm and upper body to prevent swelling, which severely restricts her movement.
As a result of her cancer treatment, the mother-of-three’s immune system has been left severely compromised, resulting in frequent, debilitating infections. She also has to drain fluid from affected areas of her body every day and requires constant support from her husband, who is now retired.
Last year, an overhaul of the welfare system resulted in the old DLA system in Northern Ireland being phased out in favour of the new Personal Independence Payment. The changes required all those receiving DLA payments to be re-assessed by a healthcare professional to determine the level of assistance they require.
Assessment’s in Northern Ireland have been outsourced to the private firm Capita, which in turn employs nurses and other professionals to carry out the assessments.
Jane said that when she was visited by a nurse in April for her assessment, initially she thought the process would be seamless. “The assessment seemed to be going well, the nurse put me at ease and said i have nothing to worry about. I thought she understood my difficulties and would put that in her report.”
Several weeks later, however, Jane received a letter stating she scored zero in her assessment – meaning she does not require any daily assistance – and, as a result, her benefits would be completely withdrawn.
After obtaining a copy of her assessment forms, Jane was shocked to discover that much of what was in her file was “complete fantasy”.
She said: “Some things were unbelievable, like she just made them up out of nowhere. “The assessor said that my daughter drives me to the local Tesco in Banbridge every week so I can do my shopping. Now that’s all very well and good – except I have one daughter and she lives in England. She has lived there for the last 16 years and visits me once a year. So I don’t know where the assessor got that one from.”
Fresh concerns have been raised about the integrity of the disability benefits system, after a disabled woman’s appeal against having her benefits removed was rejected before she was even told her claim had been turned down.
According to the United Nations, the Conservative Party’s treatment of people with disabilities has been a “human catastrophe”.
Dealing with the Tory government, which denies any ill-treatment at all, despite the mountain of evidence, is “the most challenging exercise” in the history of the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
A middle-aged Hartlepool man died after going into the sea off Horden shortly after being told his sickness benefits were being withdrawn.
But County Durham and Darlington assistant coroner Crispin Oliver said it was impossible to say whether David Metcalf had meant to enter the water.
The 54-year-old was found on the beach at Grants Houses on Tuesday, January 3, four days after being visited by police and a mental health triage practitioner at his home in Arch Court, Hartlepool.
An inquest at Crook coroner’s court heard a post-mortem showed signs of drowning and hypothermia. Mr Oliver said Mr Metcalf had been ‘a somewhat solitary individual,’ with no family and apparently just one acquaintance, a local garage owner who had alerted police after Mr Metcalf gave him his car keys and bank documents, saying he would not need them any more.
He had been examined by mental health practitioner Leighann Fishpool, whose report said: “David was signed off sick for nine years due to anxiety, stress and panic attacks. “He has recently been deemed fit for work and told he would need to go to the JobCentre to claim Jobseeker’s Allowance. “He said he was frustrated and upset and thought ‘What’s the point?’