A Culture of Disbelief
During my first few weeks as Policy and Campaigns Officer at Z2K, I have been shadowing our brilliant caseworkers in various different ways. I have seen how our clients face hurdle after hurdle trying manage a benefits system which seems to trip you at every turn.
Last week, I went to an Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) tribunal with my colleague, Stacey, who was representing our client, Michael*. On arrival, he was sat clutching his bag, looking extremely nervous and shaking notably. With a history of abuse, social isolation, the loss of support network, and well-documented mental health issues, Michael should not have had his ESA claim refused to begin with. The long drawn out process of being refused ESA through to entering the tribunal can take many months, leading many people to give up on the process and try to go to work when they are not able to.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) often send one of their officers to attend the tribunal appeals by way of representing their department and defending their initial decision. This officer was questioned by the judge more than our client was.
Stacey had told me to expect the tribunal to last around 45 minutes – 1 hour. It actually lasted less than 10 minutes. Michael was so clearly unwell; he was scared and dissociative when he was asked questions. He stuttered whenever he tried to speak. After the appeal was allowed, he looked at my colleague and said ‘I didn’t hear anything they said’.
It was hard not to feel emotional when the judge herself looked disheartened to see Michael have to go through this. Sadder still to think that he will have to go through the whole process all over again, as the length of time he had to wait for this Tribunal hearing on his appeal, means he will be up for ‘reassessment’ again in less than a years’ time to see if he is still ‘not fit for work.’
And to what end? The DWP are spending billions on assessment contracts, appeals, reviews and mandatory reconsiderations, coming to £1.1 Billion since 2013. Yet, 88% of the cases we represent at appeal stage are successful. This means people are put through an extensive and a remarkably unnecessary process all so – in the end – they can get the benefits they were clearly fully entitled to in the first instance.
For a system which is supposed to support and help some of the most disabled and unwell people, thousands are instead seen through a lens of a culture of disbelief and the outcomes are truly devastating.
We know the process must change. This year we will be building on our Access Denied report, making sure we campaign to demand changes from the assessment process through to the appeal stage. As it stands, it not only a process which is inadequate, but it is one that leads to people being forced into poverty and deprivation.
* Names have been changed to protect privacy
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