DWP statistic masks the true scale of poor decision-making

Z2K’s Jamie Thunder takes a closer look at the figure DWP claims shows its disability benefit assessments get things right

Last month, the i newspaper reported that since 2018, 200,000 people got no PIP at all until they challenged the decision. More than 70,000 of these claimants eventually received at least one ‘enhanced’ element – and all of them were denied vital income that they were entitled to.

These were just the latest of a raft of figures that demonstrate how the disability benefit assessment system fails those who need it: the 630,000 people whose health means they can’t work, but who don’t receive PIP; the 80% of appeals DWP either loses or concedes; the 90% of those lost appeals that are based on evidence DWP already had, or could have had if the assessors had asked the right questions.

To DWP, however, there is a simple response: only 4% of PIP claims are overturned by the Tribunal. The implication is clear – most people get what they should. These cases are unfortunate, but overall the system does a pretty good job.

We’d argue that one in every 25 cases preventing seriously ill or disabled people access the support they need would still show a system that isn’t working properly. But in any case, this is a dangerously complacent reading of the evidence – and one you could only reach if you started from the premise that there was no systemic problem.

Firstly, that 4% doesn’t include the appeals that are lodged but never make it to hearing because DWP concedes them. If you include those, the figures goes up to about 6%. Even if there were no other problems with the number, this is the figure DWP should be using.

But there are other problems with the number; it’s simply a bad measure of whether the system works, because it assumes that all of those cases with an incorrect initial decision go to appeal. There are lots of reasons why you might not challenge a PIP decision – even if challenging that decision would eventually mean you get more money.

An obvious one is that you might not realise that you should be getting more! Working out how your disability or health condition translates into points, and therefore an award, is a detailed and specialist process. So if you’re awarded the standard rate for daily living, you might just think “Oh, that’s what I get”, rather than realising you really ought to be getting more.

Even if you’re certain that the decision is wrong, you might not understand your appeal rights or how to exercise them – or you might have found the initial application and assessment process so difficult and distressing that you can’t face pushing further. You might also conclude that the system is just against you, so there’s no point in challenging the decision.

Then there’s support. At Z2K we’re proud of the work we do in helping people challenge bad decisions, and grateful to the funders that make this work possible. But there’s been no Legal Aid funding for welfare benefits cases since the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. That means advice agencies face real challenges in getting long-term, secure funding – and there’s more demand for advice, advocacy, and representation than the sector can meet. And if you can’t get support, you’re even less likely to challenge a decision, and less likely to succeed if you do.

It’s impossible to know the exact number, but add all of these reasons up and it’s clear that many cases that would win at appeal never get there. Combined with the fact that 80% of cases that get to appeal are conceded or lost by DWP, it is clear that far more than just 4% of PIP claimants are being denied what they’re entitled to in the first instance.

Rather than hiding behind its 4% figure, DWP should think harder about how the system actually works, and commit to getting its decisions right first time.

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