Under Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) and Personal Independence Payment (PIP), hundreds of thousands of disabled and unwell people are being wrongly assessed and denied the vital Social Security benefit they are entitled to. Without this essential income, many are pushed into problem debt, face rent arrears and eviction and have to rely on foodbanks to survive.
Poor design and implementation of the assessments means PIP and ESA are failing, forcing ill and disabled people to go through arduous review and appeal processes just to access the payments they are entitled to. The numbers of people who are wrongly assessed and let down by the system are likely to be much higher than official appeal figures suggest.
The report, Access Denied: Barriers to Justice in the Disability Benefits System, shows some of the suffering this causes – and the long and difficult process people have to go through to finally get the support they deserve.
“For the past two years I’ve been surviving on foodbanks, borrowing money and well-wishers helping me. Even now I’ve got over £8,000 debts to pay people.” Kalifa, ESA claimant
“I went to see my doctor and I said ‘I can’t stand this anymore.’ I would wake up in the middle of the night worrying about this.” Darren, PIP claimant
After being wrongly turned down at assessment, claimants must first go through Mandatory Reconsideration (MR), which can take anything from a few days to several months. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) argues that claims are fully reviewed at this stage, but the fact that 69 per cent of claimants win their appeal after having gone through MR proves that the MR itself is failing to correct the assessment’s flaws.
The report shows that for many, MR is a confusing, demoralising and thoroughly draining ordeal, which only rarely corrects the original decision and more often simply prevents people from continuing to appeal. Z2K calls on the Government to fundamentally improve the MR stage or remove it entirely, allowing claimants to go straight to appeal.
While those who reach the appeal do eventually receive a fair hearing, the arduous process means many never make it to this stage. Drastic cuts to legal aid mean countless ill and disabled people cannot get the legal support and representation required – and which significantly improves chances of success: 88 per cent of the clients Z2K itself supports win their appeal. The Government’s cuts to legal aid and reduced local funding for advice charities means many disabled people are losing out purely because they cannot afford private legal advice.
Raji Hunjan, CEO of Z2K, said “The whole appeal process – and the months of financial and emotional hardship people have to go through to get there – could be avoided if DWP got assessments right in the first place. Instead of creating such a hostile environment for those who are disabled, and assuming everyone is trying to cheat the system, ministers urgently need to recognise the reality of people’s disabilities and illnesses and give them the support they deserve. That means fixing the assessments, fundamentally improving MR and reinstating legal aid for disability appeals.”
The report recommends clear changes to the assessment, MR and appeal stages, in order to ensure that disabled and unwell people no longer have to suffer to get the payments they are entitled to.
Notes for Editors
Access Denied: Barriers to Justice in the Disability Benefits System illustrates the many barriers to justice that disabled people face, and highlights the potential solutions. It is based on in-depth research with Z2K’s clients, whose claims for ESA and PIP have been rejected – despite them having severe illnesses and disabilities. Their stories reveal not only the serious flaws in the assessments, but also the personal impacts and enormous obstacles people face in challenging the assessment decision.
The report makes several recommendations, including that:
- DWP and its contracted assessors must start recording all ESA and PIP assessments to ensure an improvement in their accuracy;
- DWP should introduce a new quality management framework for its contracted assessors and meaningful penalties to hold those companies to account for the quality of their work;
- If DWP will not commit to reforms to the Mandatory Reconsideration (MR) stage to ensure it corrects inaccurate assessments, MR should be scrapped and claimants should be allowed to go straight to an appeal hearing at the Tribunal;
- The Government should reinstate legal aid for disability benefits appeals.
Case study: Darren
Since a severe stroke, Darren has suffered with muscle weakness, pain, dizziness, fatigue, memory loss and anxiety. He needs a walking stick to get around, has to take frequent stops and requires an adapted bath and toilet. The damage to his memory makes simple acts such as cooking difficult or even dangerous, and his speech impairments mean social interactions are often extremely difficult.
In 2016 he was assessed for PIP – and turned down. At MR the decision remained unchanged. There was little sign that DWP had looked into it at all.
“I’d sent the forms off to DWP on a Thursday by recorded delivery, so I could check they’d received it on the Friday, and on the Tuesday they wrote to me to say no – and the Monday was a bank holiday.”
The ordeal of the MR was so draining he felt unable to continue. It was only because of the support of his GP, Citizens Advice and Z2K, that Darren was able to go on to appeal – where he was awarded the highest rate for both mobility and daily living components.
“It was only because other people were supporting me at that time that I was able to continue. For other people who aren’t well and they don’t have anybody to help them, god it must be so hard.”
Zacchaeus 2000 Trust (Z2K) is an advice and campaigning charity working across London to solve problems within the social security and welfare benefits system. Every year we help over 500 clients with their applications, assessments and appeals for disability benefits.
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