Category: ESA

Disabled people face a hostile environment of calculated, strategic ordeals to deny support

PIP court

Disabled people face a hostile environment comprised of strategically placed and thoroughly demoralising ordeals, which are being passed off as arising because of bad administrative practices and simple errors. However, such ordeals are happening far too frequently to have arisen through random error. Furthermore, there is an identifiable pattern of government sponsored behaviours that has emerged within privately contracted companies hired to deliver disability assessments, and within the Department for Work and Pensions, which is aimed at simply denying people support.

Many people who have challenged a Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP) decision not to award them Personal Independent Payment (PIP) in court successfully are finding that soon after they have won their appeal, they face a reassessment, and their award is taken from them again.

Even when people appeal, the system is rigged against them applying for legal support, and cuts to charities mean any support at all is shrinking away. Official figures last year showed that legal aid cuts mean ill and disabled people appealing their lifeline support through what have been consistently shown to be fatally flawed assessments and irrational, poorly evidenced DWP decision-making, are denied legal support in a staggering 99% of cases.

This means that someone with severe depression, or battling serious illnesses such as multiple sclerosis, cystic fibrosis or connective tissue illnesses for example, are left to take on a long, exhausting and complex legal case against the government, alone. 

The assessment process is set up to remove people’s disability benefits entirely because the evidence provided in medical notes by GPs and consultants, and the account of ill and disabled people, are not deemed by the state to be as credible as a snapshot report by a private company assessor, based on a half hour interview.

Private companies are motivated purely by making profit. This perverse incentive leaves no room for improving the dire situation that people, often at their most vulnerable, are facing. Improving performance as a service provider, or of prioritising human needs in a system that was originally designed to do so offers no reward for companies such as Maximus and Atos, because the government has been willing to pay them – from public funds – for atrocious failings that have harmed people and caused much distress. 

Since PIP was launched in 2013 to reduce the costs of disability support, the increasingly reduced access to financial assistance to help with the additional costs of being disabled has forced more than 75,000 people to give up their specially-adapted Motability vehicles. 

The UN have found that government policies have brought about “grave and systematic violations of disabled people’s rights” in the UK.

As someone who has gone through both PIP and Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) assessments and subsequent appeal, and as someone who co-runs a support group online for others going through this system, I know that both the assessment processes are beset by profound administrative failures and ordeals which seem to be wholly designed to work to the disadvantage of  ill and disabled people.

A report last year called Access Denied: Barriers to Justice in the Disability Benefits System, shows some of the immense suffering that the adversarial social security system causes disabled people and the long, exhausting and difficult process people who are ill have to go through to finally get the support they deserve and have paid into.

After being wrongly turned down at assessment, people must first go through mandatory review which can take anything from a few weeks to several months. The 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.

Case study: ‘Rose’

I spoke to someone this week who has faced two tribunals regarding her PIP award.  After successfully appealing the first, Rose (not her real name) had a face to face assessment when her review was due in July 2017.  The DWP decided to end her award, so she requested a mandatory review.  The DWP ‘lost’ Rose’s request twice after she had sent it, and then failed to log it and upload it onto their system.

Many other people have reported that they are not being notified of mandatory review outcomes, too, finding out after months of phone calls that the original decision was upheld. People cannot appeal until they have gone through a mandatory review, and several people told me they think the delaying tactics are deliberate, to discourage them from appealing DWP decisions. 

The mandatory review request in Rose’s case was sent in September 2017. The DWP acknowledged it had been received but had not been ‘logged’. As she was kept in the dark, Rose rang to find out what was happening over a month later in November, and was told once again hat the DWP had  ‘forgot’ to put it on the system.

She told me “They just said that there were always delays and to be patient and didn’t tell me why it had been delayed in the first place, then didn’t log it yet again”.

She added: “The DWP finally did the MR in a rush (and did not change anything from the original decision obviously) when I phoned again a month after that in Dec 2017 (as I still hadn’t heard anything) and they finally admitted what had happened both times. They sort of apologised on the phone but that was it. The MR document didn’t even change one letter of their original decision.”

Rose then waited almost a year for a tribunal date, which was arranged for 19 December 2018.

She told me: “The tribunal was very hard. It was not my first or even my second, as I fought and won before a couple of years ago after having two hearings adjourned because I was too upset to continue. But I won.

“It was an interrogation in a proper court room, with very quick fire questions and a very bizarre one, to presumably try to catch me out right at the end as I was standing up.

“The judge asked where I went to get my nails done!? I have never had my nails done in my life. I actually laughed and showed them my very short, bitten, discoloured nails. When I told my parents about that bit, they were furious and quite rightly said ‘would he have asked a man something like that?'”

The court didn’t reach a decision that day.

Rose said: “They did not decide on the day as it was 3.45pm (the hearing started at 3) and they were finished for the day – it was almost Christmas. The staff there definitely seemed to be winding down to say the least.

“Whilst I was crying in the waiting area, the receptionists were all screeching and laughing about their party plans, which I felt was pretty jarring and unprofessional. 

“I finally got my letter on Christmas eve telling me that they had awarded me standard rates on both daily living and mobility components, which I was relatively happy with.

“Although relieved, I do think it should have been enhanced rate on daily living but they never consider finances / therapy in most cases I’ve heard. I wasn’t so happy with the amount of time awarded (see below) but I was relieved to have an award.”

Rose waited for around five weeks to hear from the DWP, anxious that they may be considering appealing the tribunal’s decision. After being prompted to ring them by  someone online offering her advice, she was told it was usual for the DWP to contact people to check details before they can sort out an award and backpay.

Rose told me: “I don’t have my own phone so used my parents’. The DWP said that their self imposed deadline to ‘sort it out’ was within six weeks and it would be paid then.

“I  phoned up again to check something and they said the same… then phoned yet again when the six weeks was up, a few days later, and I still hadn’t heard anything.

“The guy on the phone said he didn’t know why I hadn’t heard anything (he was lying as they did know by then) but said that there was nothing he could do and to just to be patient.

“I was distressed, pretty hysterical and in tears at this point on the phone to him and felt a bit sorry for him, as I don’t think he could understand much of what I was saying.”

Rose became more and more anxious and worried, so emailed her MP  in the hope that she could find out what was going on. She told me she was petrified that the tribunal outcome was being appealed.

Her MP phoned a special DWP ‘hotline’ and immediately found out that there was a problem, as the tribunal decision letter that Rose and the DWP had received on Christmas eve had one tiny date error on it: the court had written that Rose’s  PIP award should be backdated from the 07/07/2017 rather than 02/07/2017 .

Rose said: “The error apparently meant that they couldn’t pay me until it had gone back to the courts service to be changed (and then back to the DWP and right back to the back of the queue) which could take months, depending on how busy they were. 

“I would NOT have known this if the MP’s office had not have got involved ….the DWP outright lied to me on the phone more than once when they knew what was happening and further to that should really have picked up on this earlier i.e. when it was received by them before Christmas, according to the MP’s assistant.

“The MP’s assistant emailed the courts email address (apparently the only way he could contact them as they don’t have a hotline to HMCTS like they do to other government departments) and told me that they had two weeks to respond to him with further details.

“The day before that deadline this week (now 9 weeks since the tribunal) they contacted him and said that apparently the courts are STILL waiting for my file to be sent from an ‘offsite storage facility’ and it has not even got to the judge yet to sign. They have known about this since the 25th January (which is when the DWP finally contacted them, they took over a month to realise the mistake)! You’d think sending a simple file would not take that long…..

“They refuse to give timescales (the MP’s assistant has emailed them back to ask for some but obviously they then have 2 weeks to respond to that request again!) ….and obviously after the judge deigns to have time to change it, it then has to go back to the DWP to sort out (and go to the back of their queue again).

Rose told me “I can’t believe this, I need this money to live on. I SHOULD have had it every month since July 2017 (20 months back dated almost)! I’m at the end of my tether and don’t think I can cope with much more.

“It has almost been 20 months that I have been living on the breadline, just on my ESA as I don’t claim anything else. This whole process has made me so very ill. I mean I’m ill anyway, very ill but the added of all of this and the constant mistakes and errors and not knowing what’s going on and waiting has out me on the verge of sending me into crisis again. I have started self harming more regularly, my psychiatrist has put my medication up yet again and I don’t think I can cope with this anymore.”

Rose added “There will be no respite either, even when /if this gets sorted out, as I have just had my ESA renewal forms (ESA50) through last week …which is what sent me into a [mental health] crisis a couple of years ago.

“I will also have to apply for PIP again at the end of this year presumably as most of the backdated PIP will then be gone, as they only gave me 3 years. They felt I ‘could get better’, which is utterly laughable.”

Rose has Ehlers Danlos Syndrome (EDS), which is a degenerative genetic connective tissue disorder which causes constant chronic pain, chronic fatigue and frequent joint dislocations, with it’s concurrent POTS [postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome], MCAS [a mast cell autoimmune disorder]and IBS. Rose also has spinal scoliosis, kyphosis, three ruptured spinal discs and trigeminal neuralgia. She is undergoing investigations for dyspraxia as well. 

She also has bipolar with severe depression and chronic anxiety.

She told me: “I’m a relatively intelligent person who used to have a very good job before I became too ill to cope (something the DWP have repeatedly used against me, that and my degrees). 

“Obviously mental health can improve in some cases, which is probably what they were getting at (very unlikely though with this strain constantly happening. I can’t see anyone going through this terrible system having time to gather their thoughts and improve in any way, shape or form when they constantly make you fight and justify why you are ill).

“But EDS is a degenerative genetic illness and the symptoms severely impact on my mental health as it is. Trigeminal neuralgia also only gets worse with age. The latter is also known as the ‘suicide disease’ because of the amount of people who have killed themselves rather than live with the pain. It’s said to be one of the most painful things you can get.

“It’s ridiculous, these are things that aren’t just going to go away. I have already been ‘not well’ for 20 years now, but was forced to finally give up work in 2009 after years of struggling and disciplinary meetings for being off sick so much. Yet the judge only gave me an award for three years, as it is, because they thought I could ‘improve’, which is impossible. 

“I’m so scared, this can’t be right, living in constant fear like this. Why do they hate us so much? I still can’t get hold of my welfare advisor at the local council to help me with my ESA50 either. I emailed him on the 12th and have left phone messages on his mobile and with his colleagues.

“I’m just so petrified that they will find some excuse not to give this [PIP award] to me now altogether. At the same time I am terrified that my ESA will be taken away and I’ll be left with nothing. The timing of the ESA reassessment is atrocious (but not surprising). I’ve been on ESA, in the support group since 2013 and have never had an assessment for that. Not until now, anyway.”

The tribunal granted Rose’s appeal. Because of the date error on the court letter, it may be justifiable that the error needs to be rectified by the court before the DWP issue the money she is owed in PIP backpay – from the date of her claim. However, Rose is entitled to ongoing PIP payments too. The DWP know this, yet haven’t given her a single payment. There is no credible reason for not paying her ongoing award in the meantime.

Recently, I have seen a large number of cases where people are being re-assessed earlier than the DWP had stated and they are losing their awards. For those on PIP and ESA, it’s become commonplace for people to be going through appeals for both awards at the same time, or successively, which means there is no respite from the extreme strain that they are being put through. The thing that strikes me is that in every case, the decision to end someone’s award is irrational and cruel, most often with absolutely no reasonable justification provided in the assessment reports, which are invariably completely inaccurate.   

The endless ordeal of re-assessments and withdrawals of support for disabled people; the introduction of heavily bureaucratic mandatory reviews, designed to deter appeals; the withdrawal of support and the long periods people are being left without any means of meeting even basic needs; the fact that mandatory review very rarely changes the decision to end an award and then the awful experience of having to appeal again is certainly convincing evidence of an intentionally created hostile environment for ill and disabled people – those very people the government claims it protects. 

There are also the unofficial, undeclared and non-legislative means that the Department for Work and Pensions frequently use to try at every opportunity to end claims. For example, it’s fairly common for the DWP to try to end ESA claims because a disabled person has been awarded PIP – a non means-tested income to support day-to-day independence and meet the costs of the additional needs arising because of disabilities. The DWP often try to claim that this is “standard” process when someone has “another award.” But PIP does not affect people’s  eligibility for ESA at all.

The endless tactics deployed by the DWP are designed to force disabled people to go through the thoroughly demoralisng, anxiety-provoking and punitive claim process all over again – which means a huge reduction in income because during the mandatory review, people cannot claim any ESA, and following MR, they will then only be eligible for the basic rate ESA. This also means there will be another long wait for another harrowing assessment, which presents a further opportunity for the withdrawal of lifeline disability support, and so on.

This kind of ruthless tactic was probably also designed to ensure that people never feel secure while needing lifeline support – a kind of informal Poor Law-styled “deterrence”.

Earlier this year, through a parliamentary question from Labour MP Madeleine Moon, it was revealed that more than 17,000 people died waiting for a DWP decision on their PIP claim between April 2013 and April 2018.

Disclosed official DWP data also reveals that 7,990 people died within six months of having a claim for PIP rejected by callous DWP ‘decision makers’. This indicates that contrary to Conservative minister’s claims, those most in need of support are being catastrophically failed by the assessment and decision making regime. 

Of these, 3,680 died within just three months of having their PIP applications rejected by the DWP.

I’m wondering what it will take for the government to admit that the system is unacceptably cruel and to acknowledge the mounting empirical evidence that, rather than supporting those most in need, the system is intentionally set up to deny support to as many people as possible, regardless of their needs and regardless of the ethical red line that has been shamefully crossed by the Conservatives under the guise of ‘welfare reform’.

 


I don’t make any money from my work. I am struggling to get by, like many other ill and disabled people. But if you like, you can contribute by making a donation and help me continue to research and write informative, insightful and independent articles, and to provide support to others going through the disability assessment process, mandatory review and appeals. The smallest amount is much appreciated – thank you.

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A man ended his life when his ESA award was stopped, because he couldn’t find work

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Damien Lawler, who had a generous nature and a heart of gold. (Image: Karen Lawler)

Last year on 19 July, Karen Lawler found her son Damien, aged 34, dead at his flat in Newtown Court, Hull.

Damien killed himself after struggling to find work and his social security support – Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) was due to be stopped. Known as ‘Damo’ to his family, he was found dead in his flateast Hull, flat with a suicide note in his hand.

In the note, he wrote that he felt like a “hindrance” and “couldn’t carry on anymore” after having no success for the numerous job applications he had made. He also wrote that his ESA was due to be cancelled, and he was so terrified about being put on Jobseeker’s Allowance he was experiencing “stupid” panic attacks.

He wrote: “I’m sorry for all the pain and heartache I’m leaving behind. I love you with all my heart but I can’t carry on anymore.”

Damien’s mother, Karen Lawler, spoke of her heartache and described her son as someone “with a heart of gold”.  She said: “He never had much money but he would always give his last penny or his last cigarette to a homeless person on the street. He always had a care for the homeless.” 

“He had a wicked sense of humour and a heart of gold. He would do anything for anybody.”

Lawler, who found her son after letting herself into his home on July 19, 2018, said her son had been suffering depression for a number of years, and said more needed to be done to support people with mental health issues.  She said: “Damo was just so tired and exhausted with it all.

“There was not enough support for him.

“There’s just nothing there. He’s not the only one. The recent cases with males in Hull is going sky high because they can’t cope anymore.”

An inquest on Tuesday heard Ms Lawler took her son to his GP in November 2013 after he deliberately self-harmed, using a Stanley knife to cut off his toe nails. He was prescribed with anti-depressants but his mental health difficulties took a turn for the worse in 2017.

During a visit to his GP in January 2018, Damien revealed he had thoughts of self-harm and suicide. He was advised to return to the surgery for further consultation, but he did not follow through with the appointments.

Many people who are ill and struggling find it very difficult to keep appointments, especially when they face difficulties accessing acute services for help. Many need immediate help to follow from the first appointment, because by that time, they are in crisis. But all too often, people in terrible distress, with suicide ideation, are being told they must attend yet another appointment.

This system sets up a bureaucratic wall, placing an all too often insurmountable barrier between citizens in the greatest need – those least ability to cope with navigating the wall – and the services and support they need to access. 

We must also question the decision to end Damien’s ESA award, when he was so clearly ill and unfit for work. We must challenge a system that leaves people feeling as if they are some kind of ‘burden’ simply because they are ill.  

“There needs to be something there if they do not turn up for any appointments,” said Ms Lawler.  “They cannot just discharge someone. They need to try and find out why they have not come to the appointment. Maybe contacting a next of kin or something.

She added: “I don’t know what the answer is and I don’t suppose there is an easy answer but something needs to be changed. Something has got to change in Hull, it really has.”

I agree. Something has to change. The social security and health care systems no longer function to meet fundamental human needs. Instead they have been redesigned to provide as little support as possible at the lowest costs, while a host of private companies make profits at citizens’ expense. 

The Coroner, James Hargan, returned a verdict of suicide.

If you need help

Please, please talk to someone.

Samaritans (116 123)
 samaritans.org operates a 24-hour service available every day of the year. If you prefer to write down how you’re feeling, or if you’re worried about being overheard on the phone, you can email Samaritans at jo@samaritans.org , write to Freepost RSRB-KKBY-CYJK, PO Box 9090, STIRLING, FK8 2SA and visit http://www.samaritans.org  find your nearest branch.

CALM (0800 58 58 58) thecalmzone.net has a helpline is for men who are down or have hit a wall for any reason, who need to talk or find information and support. They’re open 5pm to midnight, 365 days a year.

Childline (0800 1111 ) runs a helpline for children and young people in the UK. Calls are free and the number won’t show up on your phone bill. 

PAPYRUS (0800 068 41 41) is a voluntary organisation supporting teenagers and young adults who are feeling suicidal. 

Depression Alliance is a charity for people with depression. It doesn’t have a helpline, but offers a wide range of useful resources and links to other relevant information depressionalliance.org 

Students Against Depression is a website for students who are depressed, have a low mood or are having suicidal thoughts. Bullying UK is a website for both children and adults affected by bullying studentsagainstdepression.org

You can also contact me on this site any time, too. I’m a good and experienced listener. I can also signpost people to organisations that can help.

 



I don’t make any money from my work. I have a very limited income. But you can help if you like, by making a donation to help me continue to research and write informative, insightful and independent articles, and to provide support to others affected by the Conservative’s welfare ‘reforms’. The smallest amount is much appreciated – thank you.

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250,000 disabled people sent 45-page form demanding evidence by DWP bureaucrats following DWP underpayment blunder

Image result for disabled people

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) have issued ‘senseless’ 45 page forms to thousands of ill and disabled people who are owed £970m in unpaid Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) by the government, leaving people having to provide evidence of details of their lives from up to seven years ago.

More than 250,000 people are being told they must fill out the ‘scandalous’ 45 page form to have their award changed after a government error has left them underpaid by thousands of pounds.

Unreasonably, families are expected to recall intricate financial details and arrangements from up to seven years ago. The form asks claimants to state exact dates they were in hospital and give details of insurance payouts, mortgage payments and savings. 

Campaigners warn it is “passing the buck” to benefit claimants who now face an unnecessary barrier to justice.

Shadow Minister for Disabled People, Marsha De Cordova, branded the form “scandalous”, adding: “People will very often not have kept the evidence the DWP is asking for which could lead to many being denied vital support once again.”

The 45 page form is being sent to thousands of people who are owed £970m in unpaid ESA dating back to 2011, through no fault of their own. 

The government blunder, revealed earlier this year, affects people who moved from older incapacity benefit – Incapacity Benefit to ESA between 2011 and 2014,when the government made fundamental cost-cutting changes to the welfare system. In total 570,000 cases are currently being reviewed, of which 180,000 are expected to receive back payments by the end of 2019.

A DWP spokesperson insists that everyone owed money will receive it. But some claimants expressed bafflement after the ESA3(IBR) form dropped on their doormats.

Carol Willoughby, 73, from Chessington, was asked to fill in details dating back to February 2013 for her 68-year-old husband Michael.

ESA claim form

 A page of the form asks about money set aside for repairs or from a pension.

Questions on her form included “please provide dates that you have been an inpatient in hospital” and requests to state amounts of lump-sum state pension, trust fund income and money set aside for essential repairs.

Mrs Willoughby said: “The DWP were supposed to check all the errors and deal with it.

“Now they’re putting the onus back onto us to provide all the information going back five years, half of which we won’t have any more.

“It will take me hours. They’re asking ‘have you been in hospital, when were you in, how long were you in for’.”

ESA claim 2

Another page asks for details of dates and visits to hospital from years ago.

When they were asked about Mr Willoughby’s case, the DWP said that some 261,000 of the excessively bureaucratic forms have been sent out.

This huge figure is utterly shocking, and it comes just weeks after the Mirror revealed up to 15,000 people caught up in the scandal have already died.

James Taylor, Head of Policy at disability charity Scope, said: “This feels like the DWP is passing the buck onto disabled people and their families.

“They have already been short-changed by bureaucratic errors in the welfare system that go back nearly a decade. 

“The DWP need to make sure that those who have missed out on their full ESA entitlement are payed back promptly with the minimum amount of stress and anxiety.”

ESA claim 3
The intrusive form also asks disabled people to provide details of payments from ex-partners, if relevant

Ayaz Manji, policy officer at mental health charity Mind, said the DWP must ensure “nobody falls through the gaps”.

He added: “Those of us with mental health problems can struggle to navigate a complex application process.

“The DWP needs to do all it can to take responsibility for fixing these errors.

“It’s senseless to place unnecessary barriers in front of those who have already gone through a lengthy, complicated and stressful process.”

Yes, anyone would think that the government have placed this bureaucratic barrier in front of ill and disabled people to make it as difficult as possible for them to be fairly reimbursed the money they were entitled to but not paid because of a government error.

esa claim 4
The form asks for details of property owned in the dates on the form.

A DWP spokeswoman insisted people only need to complete sections that are relevant to their circumstances. Officials claim that anyone can seek help completing the form over the phone, and where needed staff can arrange a home visit.

The DWP are also contacting people who they do not hear from within three weeks of sending out a form.

The DWP spokeswoman said: “We want to have all the information we need to make sure everyone gets the money they are owed and anyone can provide this over the phone with our support.”

I wonder why the DWP bothered with the forms, then, if that’s the case. 

It’s widely assumed that public services are organized and delivered for the benefit of citizens. The reality, however, is very different. The more we scrutinise the role and function of different government departments and programmes, the clearer it becomes that they are being redesigned to bring direct and indirect benefits to private businesses.

Ministers have been accused of creating a “hostile environment for sick and disabled people” following the blunder, which occurred when claimants were transferred onto the main sickness benefit, ESA.

Both PIP and DLA are designed to help people with the extra costs of disability, or long-term health conditions, yet any award is reluctantly made, and all too often people have to go to court to challenge extremely inaccurate assessment reports and enormously unfair decision-making.

Yet the British public are funding corporations as well as government departments, and we should expect and demand that those businesses observe certain conditions of basic fairness. Private companies were hired to fulfil a role of  discrediting disabled people’s accounts of their disability, and to engage in very bad report writing, with an ultimate aim of resource gatekeeping. At the same time, legal aid was withdrawn to prevent citizens from accessing justice and seeking redress.

The Centre for Health and Disability Assessments Ltd (Maximus, who conduct Universal Credit Work Capability Assessments) saw profits double between 2016 and 2017. 

One director got a £373k dividend and £12 million was paid in shares. Thousands of disabled and ill people had their lifeline support cut due to the private companies contracted to gatekeep essential financial support. The majority of ill and disabled people have worked and paid tax. They now need to draw on their social insurance, and are finding instead of support, they face punitive policies and a hostile environment, while big businesses are making obscene levels of profit for inflicting  hardship and utter misery on some of our most vulnerable citizens.  

Meanwhile, the government and media constructed a narrative to demonise and condemn the poorest citizens, labelling them as undeserving “scroungers” and would be “fraudsters.” This was a justification narrative –  an attempt to try and pass the state abuse of disabled people as somehow “fair”. 

Image result for disabled benefit scroungers

The government has awarded at least £1.4billion of outsourcing contracts linked to the roll-out of Universal Credit and the other welfare reforms since 2012.

The 10 highest value contracts awarded by DWP linked to Universal Credit and welfare reforms since 2012

  • £595million to Maximus People Services Ltd for health and disability assessment services. 
  • £207million to Atos for Personal Independence Payments assessment service Lot 1 contract extension (Lot numbers refer to different geographical areas)
  • £184million to Atos for Personal Independence Payments assessment service Lot 3
  • £122million to Capita for Personal Independence Payments assessment service contract extension Lot 1
  • £122million to Capita for Personal Independence Payments assessment service contract Extension Lot 2
  • £90million to Atos for a medical services IT contract
  • £8.2million to Serco to deliver a new claims telephony service for Personal Independence Payments
  • £6million to Advanced Personnel Management Group to provide healthcare staff to conduct work capability assessments for Universal Credit and Employment Support Allowance
  • £3.9million to Pinnacle People Limited for Phase 2 of the New Enterprise Allowance Scheme in the north east to support people into self-employment and to start their own businesses
  • £3.3million to Ixion Holdings (Contracts) Limited for Phase 2 of the New Enterprise Allowance Scheme in London and the home counties

Source: Tussell

It’s about time we had a public debate about the size and uses of the corporate welfare state. And about democratic accountability.

Curiously, none of those private companies that were contracted to profit through disabled people’s loss and distress have received forms that demand evidence and details of their histories.

Corporate welfare is prioritised rather more by the government than citizen welfare. In fact private companies are faced with perverse incentives – to generate profit requires undermining the welfare of citizens.

 


I don’t make any money from my work. If you want to, you can help by making a donation to help me continue to research and write informative, insightful and independent articles, and to provide support to others.

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Tens of thousands of people claiming ESA owed thousands each due to government blunder

Tens of thousands of disabled people are set to receive backdated benefit payments averaging £5,000 following a government error. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has revealed it will pay out more than £1.5bn after “shoddy administration” meant about 180,000 people did not receive benefits they were legally entitled to after being ‘migrated’ from Incapacity Benefit to Employment and Support Allowance (ESA).

The average underpayment for each person is estimated to be about £5,000, but some people will be owed significantly more, with approximately 20,000 having been underpaid around £11,500 and a small number owed as much as £20,000.

The error was first thought to have resulted in underpayment for 70,000 disabled people over seven years, but a government document published on Wednesday shows it is expected to have affected far more people, with the estimated back payments bill having risen from £340m to £970m. 

The average underpayment for each person affected is estimated to be about £5,000, but some people will be owed significantly more, with approximately 20,000 people having been underpaid around £11,500 and a small number owed as much as £20,000.

Initially, the government said there would be up to £150m that may never be paid back because arrears would only be accounted for as far back as 21 October 2014, the date of a legal tribunal ruling – meaning some would never have been reimbursed. However, following legal action, ministers made a U-turn in July and subsequently announced it would pay back the thousands of disabled people in full. 

In July, Esther McVey, the minster for work and pensions, made a ministerial statement: “The Department has analysed the relationship between ‘official error’ and section 27 of the Social Security Act 1998 in regulating how and to what extent arrears can be paid. As a result of the conclusions of this analysis, we will now be paying arrears to those affected back to their date of conversion to ESA.

“My department will be contacting all those identified as potentially affected as planned. Once an individual is contacted, and the relevant information gathered, they can expect to receive appropriate payment within 12 weeks.” 

Marsha de Cordova, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, accused the Conservatives of creating a “hostile environment for sick and disabled people”.

She added: “Disabled people have been short-changed and denied the social security they were entitled to. The government must ensure that disabled people who have been so unfairly treated are properly compensated.”

McVey also confirmed that once contacted, claimants would be provided with a dedicated free phone number on which they can make contact with the department.

The government said it was in the process of reviewing about 570,000 ESA cases that could be affected, and that it expects to complete the process by the end of 2019.

A DWP spokesperson said: “Anyone affected by this historic error will receive all of the money they are entitled to. That is why we have created a dedicated team of over 400 staff to examine cases, and have paid back around £120m so far. 

“We have worked with charities and other disability organisations to make sure that we are providing the right support to all affected claimants and are hiring and allocating more staff to do that.”

Responding at the time of the ruling, Carla Clarke, solicitor for Child Poverty Action Group, which launched the legal action, said: “Poor and inadequate DWP processes left up to 70,000 [now estimated at 180,000] disabled individuals without the support they should have received to help them with their additional costs.  

Justice required that the DWP error was corrected in its entirety for the people affected, many of whom are owed arrears from 2011. We are pleased that the DWP agreed that this was correct following our legal action. 

However, it shouldn’t be necessary to take a government department to court to achieve justice for people who have been failed by officials making avoidable errors.”

The government’s hostile environment and Personal Independence Payments

Image result for universal credit disabled people criticism

The government announced in January this year that every person receiving Personal Independence Payments (PIP) will have their claim reviewed. A total of 1.6 million of the main disability benefit claims will be reviewed, with around 220,000 people expected to receive more money.

The decision came after the DWP decided not to challenge a court ruling that said changes to PIP were unfair to people with mental health conditions. The review could cost £3.7bn by 2023.

The minister for disabled people, Sarah Newton, said the DWP was embarking on a “complex exercise and of considerable scale”.

She added: “Whilst we will be working at pace to complete this exercise, it is important that we get it right.”

The government should have got it right in the first place. It shouldn’t be necessary to take a government department to court to achieve justice for people who have been failed by officials.

Ministers made changes to PIP in 2017 which limited the amount of support people with mental health conditions could receive. As a result, people who were unable to travel independently on the grounds of psychological distress – as opposed to other conditions – were not entitled to the enhanced mobility rate of the benefit. 

The government pressed ahead with these changes, despite criticism from an independent tribunal in 2016.

In 2017, an independent review of PIP was highly critical of the assessment system, after revealing 65% of those who appealed against rejected claims saw the decision overturned by judges.

Last December, a High Court judge ruled the alterations “blatantly discriminate” against people with psychiatric problems and were a breach of their human rights.

Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey subsequently announced that the government would not appeal against the judgement, despite not agreeing with ‘certain aspects of it.’ 

 Disability income guarantee cut under Universal Credit

The first legal challenge against Universal Credit in June this year found that the government discriminated against two men with severe disabilities who were required to claim the new benefit after moving into new local authority area.

Prior to moving, both men were in receipt of the Severe Disability Premium (SDP) and Enhanced Disability Premium (EDP), which were specifically aimed at meeting the additional care needs of severely disabled people living alone with no carer, as part of their Employment and Support Allowance entitlement.

Recently released figures from the DWP suggest that 500,000 individuals are in receipt of the SDP. Both the SDP and EDP have been axed and are not available under Universal Credit. According to both the men, they were advised by DWP staff that their benefit entitlement would not change.

Despite repeated assurances from the government that “no one will experience a reduction in the benefit they are receiving at the point of migration to Universal Credit where circumstances remain the same” both claimants saw an immediate drop in their income of around £178 a month when they were moved onto Universal Credit.

When they asked for top up payments they were told that government policy was that no such payments would be paid until July 2019, when managed migration would begin.

The court ruled that the implementation of Universal Credit and the absence of any ‘top up’ payments for disabled people as compared to others constitutes discrimination contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights. Following months of litigation, McVey, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, carried out a policy U-turn and committed the government to ensuring that no severely disabled person in receipt of the SDP will be made to move onto Universal Credit until transitional protection is in place and also committed to compensating those like the two disabled men who have lost out.

Despite this, following hand down of the judgment the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has sought permission to appeal, maintaining that there was “nothing unlawful” with the way the disabled claimants were treated.

However, a subsequent court case resulted in agreement on compensation for the two men. TP will now receive £3,277 for past financial losses and £3,240 for the pain and distress he has been caused, as well as £173.50 a month to cover the shortfall in his benefits pending transitional protection coming into force.

AR will receive £2,108 for past financial losses and £2,680 for the anxiety and distress he was caused, as well as a monthly payment of £176 to make up the shortfall in his benefits.

The DWP had initially attempted to keep the terms of the agreement secret. However, the High Court ordered the department to disclose the details of the compensation settlement. 

Marsha de Cordova, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, said: “This again demonstrates the government’s mistreatment of disabled people.

“These men were assured by the government that they wouldn’t lose out on universal credit but they were left thousands of pounds out of pocket, which severely impacted on their wellbeing.

“Esther McVey should now compensate all those who lost out, reverse cuts to transitional protection, and withdraw her appeal against the original finding of discrimination.

“The government must also stop the roll out of universal credit and fix its fundamental flaws.

“The next Labour government will transform our social security system, ensuring it is there to support disabled people to live independently and with dignity.”

Tessa Gregory, from the law firm Leigh Day, who represented the two men, known only as AR and TP, welcomed the financial settlements.

But she called on McVey to compensate all other claimants in similar positions, and to reconsider her decision to appeal the finding of discrimination.

She said AR and TP had called on McVey to “urgently” reconsider draft regulations which currently only compensate disabled people in their position with a flat rate payment of £80 a month.

Gregory said: “This plainly does not reflect the actual loss suffered by our clients and thousands like them and compounds the unlawful treatment to which they have been subjected.”

The DWP have refused to answer questions about the case, including how many disabled people it believed had so far lost out on EDP and SDP in the move to universal credit, and whether McVey would reconsider her decision to compensate others in the same position as AR and TP by only £80 a month.

A DWP spokesman confirmed: “The government is appealing the decision of the judicial review, but in the interim we have agreed to make payments to the lead claimants.”

Figures published by the DWP suggest that, in February this year, there were 4,000 SDP claimants and 14,000 EDP claimants (including 3,000 who received both EDP and SDP) who have been moved onto universal credit.

The DWP has previously said it will stop moving claimants of SDP onto universal credit until the introduction of transitional protection next year, while all those who have already lost out through such a move will receive some backdated payments.

But it has not offered them the full compensation agreed with AR and TP and there has been no mention so far of claimants who previously received EDP but not SDP before their move onto universal credit.

And the DWP has still not been able to explain how it justifies not providing equivalent levels of support to new disabled claimants of universal credit, who will receive lower payments than those transferred onto universal credit from legacy benefits such as income-related ESA.

DNS has been forced to complain to the Information Commissioner’s Office about DWP’s refusal to offer a detailed description of how the introduction of universal credit – and the loss of the premiums – will impact disabled people financially.

I did some joint work with Alex, who writes at Universal Credit Sufferer, after a third sector welfare advisor informed us that people claiming PIP were being told to claim legacy benefits – ESA or JSA if they are fit for work – by the DWP and that they were not allowed to sign onto Universal Credit. 

Following several calls between us to the DWP press office, it was clear that staff were not at all clear about this situation. The response we eventually got was “We need to check with officials and come back to you tomorrow.” However, I didn’t get a follow-up call. 

It seems that all new claims for Universal Credit will not be accepted if the person claiming is in receipt of the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) Daily Living Component. However, this move has not been widely publicised. Both Alex and I found that when we used Universal Credit’s online application portal, it will not accept a claim if you declare you are in receipt of Personal Independence Payment (PIP).

While it may be a reluctantly positive move on the part of the government to ensure that disabled people won’t be forced into claiming universal credit and therefore losing their disability premiums, this isn’t a long term solution. It nothing to address the loss of the premiums for new disabled claimants. Nor does it address the controversial and fatally flawed assessment and appeal processes that are unfit for purpose under any welfare circumstance.

But the road to tyranny is mostly paved by government that create hostile environments for some groups and ignore citizens’ accounts of the impacts of their actions on citizens.


Related

Conservative MPs accuse citizens of ‘scaremongering stories’ about experiences of Universal Credit.

Work and Pensions Committee publishes “damning” evidence of the impact of Universal Credit

Disabled people ‘worse off’ under universal credit

 


I don’t make any money from my work.  But if you like, you can help by making a donation and enable me to continue to research and write informative, insightful and independent articles, and to provide support to others going through disability benefit assessment processes and appeals. The smallest amount is much appreciated – thank you.

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Blind chef who accidently set him self on fire deemed ‘fit for work’ by DWP

The 51-year-old was registered partially sighted five months ago (Photo: Russell Marcus)

51 year old Russel Barton was registered partially sighted five months ago (Photo: Russell Burton) 

Russell Burton was registered partially sighted earlier this year, after burning himself with oil and setting his clothing on fire accidently at work. Burton has worked as a professional chef for the 25 years, but says his deteriorating eyesight means that he is unable to carry on in that job.

Now he fears for his future because the Department of Work and Pensions have claimed he is ‘fit for work’ so he isn’t eligible for disability benefit.

Yet he cannot apply for work as a chef and he lacks the skills and experience to be considered for other roles. He says after 10 months of signing on he’s had no help with retraining from the government. 

Burton had tried to keep his health problems hidden from his bosses, but was “let go of” four times in 18 months after repeatedly missing orders and following several accidents in the kitchen. The last time this happened, in January this year, Burton said he had to acknowledge that he had to leave behind the career he’s known and loved all of his life. Then, five months ago, his doctor approved him as registered partially sighted. 

Burton says he has been switched back and forth between Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) and Employment Support Allowance (ESA) six times this year – and each time his money is delayed, which is making him depressed and anxious. He added “Each time they switch me between benefits I can be waiting a month of two for my money. They just tell me ‘go to a food bank”.  

“No-one will hire me as a chef anymore and I know myself I just can’t be in a kitchen anymore because I’m a health and safety risk to myself and to others. I tried to hide it for the last five years but I clearly can’t anymore.

“I’m keen to find a new career but no-one gets back to me when I apply for jobs I’ve no experience in. The Job Centre has promised me help with retraining but I’ve had zero support so far.” 

He explains: “One time I was holding a tea towel that caught fire and then the sleeves of my top went up.”

Since birth, Russell’s left eye as been affected by amblyopia. The childhood condition means that vision doesn’t develop properly. Children with this problem can see less clearly out of the affected eye and rely more on the ‘good’ eye. This has caused blind spots and double vision for Burton.

Five years ago, he suffered macular scarring in the righ eye — his ‘good eye’ — as an amateur photographer, as he was trying to capture the sun’s corona, which caused his central vision to go blurred and distorted.

Burton says he’s keen to find a new career path but wants some help with re-training 

He explained how his deteriorating eyesight impacted on his chef work: “I was missing tickets – in a restaurant a chef could get 120 tickets an hour and I was struggling to read them. There were times I cut myself chopping, you’re under pressure to work fast and that’s dangerous without good eyesight.

“One time I was holding a tea towel that caught fire and then the sleeves of my top went up. Other times I’d splashed myself with hot oil as I hadn’t seen there was any there in the pan.”

Burton says: “There’s an awful mentality with Job Centre staff where they think it’s acceptable or normal to leave people for months without money. The system is broken.”

Burton who lives with his partner Rachel and her two children, said the uncertainty and insecurity of his income has had an impact on his mental health: “For months I became a recluse, I didn’t go out anywhere or see anyone,” he said.

He has also lost two stone over the last nine months, which he believes is due to a combination of stress and an undiagnosed stomach condition. 

He said: “The doctors thought I had an ulcer but that’s now been ruled out but they don’t know what’s causing my gastrointestinal problems. It doesn’t help that when I’ve been switched to contributions based JSA or ESA I’ve not been entitled to free prescriptions so I’ve not been able to afford to buy the medicines I need to help settle my stomach.”

Burton said he feels “extremely let down” by the state.

“There’s an awful mentality with Job Centre staff where they think it’s acceptable or normal to leave people for months without money and they just say ‘go to a food bank’ when you complain.

“Food banks should be an absolute last resort for people. The system is broken.” 

A system that coerces people who may, through no fault of their own, pose a danger to themselves or others to work is definitely broken. If Russell Barton has an accident in the work place, who is culpable? Barton has expained the impact of his condition, and outlined some of the consequences. The Department for Work and Pensions have taken absolutely no notice of him. He may find some work he can do, but there are serious restrictions on the kind of work he can now do. 

It’s utterly appalling and cruel that people like Russell Barton are placed in situations where they are left for long periods with no income, and then forced to look for work within an extremely competitive employment market when there are such significant health and safety barriers to the kinds of work he can undertake. 

It’s a social security system that has been set up intentionally to fail people, and furthermore it is placing people in unacceptable situations of danger.

 


I don’t make any money from my research and writing. I’m disabled through illness and on a very low income, but this is something I can do.  If you like, can make a donation to help me continue to research and write free, informative, insightful and independent articles, and to provide support to others going through ESA, PIP and Universal Credit assessment and appeal. The smallest amount is much appreciated – thank you.

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New research shows welfare sanctions are punitive, create perverse incentives and are potentially life-threatening

Image result for 3 year study show sanctions don't work

Two days ago I published an article about people who have been harmed by welfare  sanctions because they were chronically ill. Two of those people died as a consequence of actions taken by the Department for work and Pensions – see Welfare sanctions are killing people with chronic illnesses

Several studies over the last few years have found there no evidence that benefit sanctions ‘help’ claimants find employment, and most have concluded that sanctions have an extremely detrimental impact on people claiming welfare support.

However, the Conservatives still insist that benefit conditionality and sanctions regime is ‘helping’ people into work. 

Yesterday, an important study was published, which warned what many of us have known for a long time – that sanctions are potentially life-threatening. The authors of the study warn that sanctioning is  “ineffective” and presents “perverse and punitive incentive that are detrimental to health”.

The study – Where your mental health just disappears overnightdrew on an inclusive and democratic qualitative methodology, adding valuable insight as well as empirical evidence that verifies that sanctions are harmful, life-threatening and do not work as a positive incentive to ‘help’ people into work. The authors’ conclusions further validate the wide and growing consensus that sanctions should be completely halted.

The researchers say that benefits sanctions and conditions are simply pushing disabled people further from employment as well as damaging their health.

The research was carried out jointly by the University of Essex and Inclusion London, and it was designed to investigate the experiences of people claiming the Work Related Activity (WRAG) component of Employment and Support Allowance (ESA).  

The authors of the report are: Ellen Clifford of Inclusion London, Jaimini Mehta, a Trainee Clinical Psychologist at the University of Essex, Dr Danny Taggart, Honorary Clinical Psychologist and Dr Ewen Speed, both from School of Health and Social Care, also at the University of Essex.

WRAG claimants are deemed suitable for some work related activity and failure to engage can lead to ESA payments being cut or ‘sanctioned’. Under Universal Credit, the ESA WRAG is being replaced by the Limited Capability for Work group (LCW). The ESA Support Group is replaced by the Limited Capability for Work Related Activity group (LCWRA). 

The research team found that all of the participants in the study experienced significantly detrimental effects on their mental health. The impact of sanctions was life threatening for some people.

For many, the underlying fear from the threat of sanctions meant living in a state of constant anxiety and fear. This chronic state of poor psychological welfare and constant sense of insecurity caused by the adverse consequences of conditionality can make it very difficult for people to engage in work related activity and was made worse by the extremely unpredictable way conditionality was applied, leaving some participants unsure of how to avoid sanctions. The researchers concluded that conditionality is an ineffective psychological intervention. It does not work as the government have claimed.

The research report and findings were launched at an event in Parliament hosted by the  cross-bench peer Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson.

Ellen Clifford, Campaigns and Policy Manager at Inclusion London, said: “This important research adds to the growing weight of evidence that conditionality and sanctions are not only harmful to individuals causing mental and physical negative impacts, but are also counter-productive in their aim of pushing more disabled people into paid work.

“Universal Credit, which is set to affect around 7 million people with 58% of households affected containing a disabled person, will extend and entrench conditionality.

“This is yet another reason why the roll out of Universal Credit must be stopped and a new system designed based on evidence based approaches and co-produced with disabled people and benefit claimants.”

The results also showed that participants wanted to engage in work and many found meaning in vocational activity. However, the WRAG prioritised less meaningful tasks.

In addition, it was found that rather than ‘incentivising’ work related activity, conditionality meant participants were driven by a range of behaviourist “perverse and punitive incentives”, being asked to engage in activity that undermined their self-confidence and required them to understate their previous achievements.

Other themes that emerged during the study included more negative experiences of conditionality, which included feeling controlled, a lack of autonomy and work activities which participants felt were inappropriate or in conflict with their personal values.

The government have claimed that generous welfare creates ‘perverse incentives’ by making people too comfortable and disinclined to look for work. However, international research has indicated that this isn’t true. One study found that generous welfare actually creates a greater work ethic than less generous provision.

Dr Danny Taggart, Lecturer in Clinical Psychology at the University of Essex, said: “Based on these findings, the psychological model of behaviour change that underpins conditionality and sanctioning is fundamentally flawed.

“The use of incentives to encourage people to engage in work related activity is empirically untested and draws on research with populations who are not faced with the complex needs of disabled people.

“The perverse and punitive incentives outlined in this study rendered participants so anxious that they were paradoxically less able to focus on engagement in vocational activity.

“More research needs to be undertaken to understand how to best support disabled people into meaningful vocational activity, something that both the government and a majority of disabled people want.

“This study adds further evidence to support any future research being undertaken in collaboration with disabled people’s organisations who are better able to understand the needs of disabled people.” 

Participants in the study commented on some of the perverse incentives: “The new payments for ESA from this year are £73 a week as opposed to £102. Well if you’re on £102 a week because you’ve been on it for longer than 6 or 12 months and you know if you go back to work and it turns out you’re not well enough to carry on then you’re coming back at the new rate of £73 per week. That’s going make you more cautious and its counter-productive and it increases the stress.” (Daniel). 

“After 13 weeks I have to go and put a new claim in. After 13 weeks if the job doesn’t last, or if I get made redundant, or if I get terminated or the contract stops, I then have to go into starting all over again. Reassessment etc. So, I’m worse off.” (Dipesh).

Another form of perverse and punitive incentive arises because qualifications are regarded as an impediment to employment, not an asset; “So when the Job Centre says to you, you should remove your degree from your CV because they don’t want you to be over qualified when you apply for the jobs they give… The impact on your feeling of self-worth… They told me to remove it and if I didn’t I would be punished and would be sanctioned… This is the way that the Job Centre chip away at your confidence and all those sorts of things.” (Charlie).

The report discusses the stark impact of sanctions, described by ‘Charlie’. The authors say: “We include a fuller narrative in this case as it incorporates a number of the themes that came up for the sample as a whole – the perverse and punitive incentives and double binds involved in the WRAG, the mental health crises caused by Conditionality and Sanctioning, and how these pushed people further away from employment.

Charlie explains: “It became a really stressful time for me… we didn’t have a foodbank that was open regularly so I didn’t have that as an option… So, what I was doing instead, because quite quickly my electricity went out… So, all my food was spoilt that was in the freezer. I managed to last for another 5-6 days of food from stuff that I had in the house. So, after that I started to go, I was on a work programme but was never called in. So, I’d go in anyway and there were oranges and apples in a fruit bowl, so I would just go in there and steal the oranges and bananas so I would have something to eat. Then they finally made a decision that I was going to be sanctioned… And there was this image which will probably stay with me for the rest of my life. 

“On Christmas day I was sat alone, at home just waiting for darkness to come so I could go to sleep and I was watching through my window all the happy families enjoying Christmas and that just blew me away. And I think I had a breakdown on that day and it was really hard to recover from and I’m still struggling with it. And it was only my aunt,
I’ve got an aunt in Scotland, every year she sends me £10 for my birthday and £10 for Christmas. And so on the Saturday after Christmas, the first postal day, I received £20 from her and so then I could buy some electricity and food. I was then promptly sick because I’d gorged myself, because I ate too quickly.” 

The authors add Charlie’s description of a meeting with the same advisor who had sanctioned him following the Christmas break and how it has affected him since: “So finally, when new year had ended and I had to go back and sign with that same woman who had sanctioned me. She said that being sanctioned had shown her that I didn’t have a work ethic. Now I’d been working pretty much solidly since I was 16 and it was only out of redundancy that I was out of work… 

“The problem I had with that was the woman who sanctioned me was in the same place and it made me extremely nervous. I now have a problem going into the Job Centre because I literally start shaking because of the damage that the benefit sanction did to me… So yeah that was part, the sanction was one of the reasons that triggered the mental health and problems I’m having now…it was awful and I ended up trying to commit suicide… to me that was the last straw and I went home and I just emptied the drawer of tablets or whatever and I ended up in A&E for a couple of days after they’d pumped my stomach out.” (Charlie).

The report also echoes a substantial part of my own work in critiquing the behaviourist thinking that underpins the idea of sanctions. The ideas of conditionality and sanctions  arose from Behavioural Economics theories. (See also my take on the hostile environment created by welfare policy and practices that are based on behaviourism and a language of neoliberal ‘incentives’ –  The connection between Universal Credit, ordeals and experiments in electrocuting laboratory rats).

The study finds “no evidence to support the use of this modified form of Behavioural Economics in relation to Disabled people”.

The report authors say: “These models of behaviour change are not applicable for Disabled People accessing benefits. The incentives offered by Conditionality and Sanctioning involve threats of removing people’s ability to access basic resources. This induces a state of anticipatory fear that negatively impacts on their mental health and renders them less able to engage in work related activity.”

The report concludes that the DWP should end sanctions for disabled people. The authors recommended that the DWP works inclusively with disabled groups to come up with a better system.

It was once a common sense view that if you remove people’s means of meeting basic survival needs – such as for food, fuel and shelter –  their lives will be placed at risk. Welfare support was originally designed to cover basic needs only, so that when people faced difficult circumstances such as losing their job, or illness, they weren’t plunged into absolute poverty. Now our social security does not adequately meet basic survival needs. It’s become acceptable for a state to use the threat and reality of hunger and destitution to coerce citizens into conformity.

Why sanctions and conditionality cannot possibly work

One fundamental reason why sanctions can never work as the government has claimed, to ‘incentivise’ people into work centres on Abraham Maslow’s groundbreaking work on human needs. Maslow highlights that people can’t fulfil their ‘higher level’ psychosocial needs when their survival needs are compromised. When people are reduced to a struggle for survival, that takes up all of their motivation and becomes their only priority. 

The Minnesota Starvation experiment verified Maslow’s theory. 


One of the uniquely important features of Britain’s welfare state was the National Insurance system, based on the principle that people establish a right to benefits by making regular contributions into a fund throughout their working lives. The contribution principle has been a part of the welfare state since its inception. A system of social security where claims are, in principle, based on entitlements established by past contributions expresses an important moral rule about how a benefits system should operate, based on reciprocity and collective responsibility, and it is a rule which attracts widespread public commitment. National Insurance is felt intuitively by most people to be a fair way of organising welfare.

The Conservative-led welfare reforms had the stated aim of ensuring that benefit claimants – redefined as an outgroup of free-riders – are entitled to a minimum income provided that they uphold responsibilities, which entail being pushed into any available work, regardless of its pay, conditions and appropriateness. The government claim that sanctions “incentivise” people to look for employment.

Conditionality for social security has been around as long as the welfare state. Eligibility criteria, for example, have always been an intrinsic part of the social security system. For example, to qualify for jobseekers allowance, a person has to be out of work, able to work, and seeking employment.

But in recent years conditionality has become conflated with severe financial penalities (sanctions), and has mutated into an ever more stringent, complex, demanding set of often arbitrary requirements, involving frequent and rigidly imposed jobcentre appointments, meeting job application targets, providing evidence of job searches and mandatory participation in workfare schemes. The emphasis of welfare provision has shifted from providing support for people seeking employment to increasing conditionality of conduct, in a paternalist attempt to enforce particular patterns of behaviour and to monitor claimant compliance.

The Conservatives have broadened the scope of behaviours that are subject to sanction, and have widened the application of sanctions to include previously protected social groups, such as ill and disabled people, pregnant women and lone parents.

Ethical considerations of injustice and the adverse consequences of welfare sanctions have been raised by politicians, charities, campaigners and academics. Professor David Stuckler of Oxford University’s Department of Sociology, amongst others, has found clear evidence of a link between people seeking food aid and unemployment, welfare sanctions and budget cuts, although the government has, on the whole, tried to deny a direct “causal link” between the harsh welfare “reforms” and food deprivation. However, a clear correlation has been established. 

A little more about behavioural economics and welfare policy

I’ve written extensively and critically about how Behavioural Economics and the ‘behaviourist turn’ has become embedded in welfare policies and administration. 

The use of targeted citizen behavioural conditionality in neoliberal policy making has expanded globally and is strongly linked to the growth in popularity of behavioural economics theory (“nudge”) and the New Right brand of “libertarian paternalism.”

Reconstructing citizenship as highly conditional stands in sharp contrast to democratic principles, rights-based policies and to policies based on prior financial contribution, as underpinned in the social insurance and social security frameworks that arose from the post-war settlement.

The fact that the poorest citizens are being targeted with theory-based “interventions” also indicates discriminatory policy, reflecting traditional Conservative class-based prejudices. It’s a very authoritarian approach to poverty and inequality which simply strengthens existing power hierarchies, rather than addressing the unequal distribution of power and wealth in the UK. 

Some of us have dubbed this trend neuroliberalism because it serves as a justification for enforcing politically defined neoliberal outcomes. A hierarchical socioeconomic organisation is being shaped by increasingly authoritarian policies, placing the responsibility for growing inequality and poverty on individuals, sidestepping the traditional (and very real) structural explanations of social and economic problems, and political responsibility towards citizens.

Such a behavioural approach to poverty also adds a dimension of cognitive prejudice which serves to reinforce and established power relations and inequality. It is assumed that those with power and wealth have cognitive competence and know which specific behaviours and decisions are “best” for poor citizens.

Apparently, the theories and “insights” of cognitive bias don’t apply to the theorists applying them to increasingly marginalised social groups. No one is nudging the nudgers. Policy has increasingly extended a neoliberal cognitive competence and decision-making hierarchy as well as massive inequalities in power, status and wealth.

It’s interesting that the Behavioural Insights Team have more recently claimed that the state using the threat of benefit sanctions may be counterproductive”. Yet the idea of increasing welfare conditionality and enlarging the scope and increasing the frequency of benefit sanctions originated from the behavioural economics theories of the Nudge Unit in the first place.

The increased use and rising severity of benefit sanctions became an integrated part of welfare conditionality in the Conservative’s Welfare Reform Act, 2012. The current sanction regime is based on a principle borrowed from behavioural economics theory – an alleged cognitive bias we have called “loss aversion.”

It refers to the idea that people’s tendency is to strongly prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains. The idea is embedded in the use of sanctions to “nudge” people towards compliance with welfare rules of conditionality, by using a threat of punitive financial loss, since the longstanding, underpinning Conservative assumption is that people are unemployed because of alleged behavioural deficits and poor decision-making. Hence the need for policies that “rectify” behaviour.

I’ve argued elsewhere, however, that benefit sanctions are more closely aligned with operant conditioning (behaviourism) than “libertarian paternalism,” since sanctions are a severe punishment intended to modify behaviour and restrict choices to that of compliance and conformity or destitution. At the very least this approach indicates a slippery slope from “arranging choice architecture” in order to “support right decisions” that assumed to benefit people, to downright punitive and coercive policies that entail psycho-compulsion, such as sanctioning and mandatory workfare. 

For anyone curious as to how such tyrannical behaviour modification techniques like benefit sanctions arose from the bland language, inane, managementspeak acronyms and pseudo-scientific framework of “paternal libertarianism” – nudge – here is an interesting read: Employing BELIEF: Applying behavioural economics to welfare to work, which is focused almost exclusively on New Right small state obsessions. Pay particular attention to the part about the alleged cognitive bias called loss aversion, on page 7.

And this on page 18:

“The most obvious policy implication arising from loss aversion is that if policy-makers can clearly convey the losses that certain behaviour will incur, it may encourage people not to do it”.

And page 46:

“Given that, for most people, losses are more important than comparable gains, it is important that potential losses are defined and made explicit to jobseekers (eg the sanctions regime)”.

The recommendation on that page:

“We believe the regime is currently too complex and, despite people’s tendency towards loss aversion, the lack of clarity around the sanctions regime can make it ineffective. Complexity prevents claimants from fully appreciating the financial losses they face if they do not comply with the conditions of their benefit”.

The paper was written in November 2010, prior to the Coalition policy of increased conditionality and the extended sanctions element of the Conservative-led welfare reforms in 2012. 

The Conservatives duly “simplified” sanctions by extending them in terms of severity and increasing the frequency of use. Sanctions have also been extended to include previously protected social groups, such as lone parents, sick and disabled people.

Unsurprisingly, none of the groups affected by conditionality and sanctions were ever consulted, nor were they included in the design of the government’s draconian welfare policies.

The misuse of psychology by the government to explain unemployment (it’s claimed to happen because people have the “wrong attitude” for work) and as a means to achieve the “right” attitude for job readiness. Psycho-compulsion is the imposition of often pseudo-psychological explanations of unemployment and justifications of mandatory activities which are aimed at changing beliefs, attitudes and disposition. The Behavioural Insights Team have previously propped up this approach.

Techniques of neutralisation

It is unlikely that the government will acknowledge the findings of the new study which presents further robust evidence that unacceptable, punitive welfare policies are causing distress, fear, anxiety, harm, and sometimes, death.

To date, we have witnessed ministers using techniques of neutralisation to express faux outrage and to dismiss legitimate concerns and valid criticism of their policies and the consequences on citizens as “scaremongering”. 

It isn’t ‘scaremongering’ to express concern about punitive policies that are targeted to reduce the income of social groups that are already struggling because of limited resources, nor is it much of an inferential leap to recognise that such punitive policies will have adverse consequences. 

Political denial is oppressive – it serves to sustain and amplify a narrow, hegemonic political narrative, stifling pluralism and excluding marginalised social groups, excluding qualitative and first hand accounts of citizen’s experiences, discrediting and negating counternarratives; it sidesteps democratic accountability; stultifies essential public debate; obscures evidence and hides politically inconvenient, exigent truths.

Research has frequently been dismissed by the Conservatives as ‘anecdotal’. The government  often claims that there is ‘no causal link’ established between policies and harm. However, denial of causality does not reduce the probability of it, especially in cases where a correlation has been well-established and evidenced.

The government have no empirical evidence to verify their own claims that their ideologically-driven punitive policies do not cause harm and distress, while evidence is mounting that not only do their policies cause harm, they simply don’t work to fulfil their stated aim.

You can read the new research report from Inclusion London and the University of Essex in full here.

 

Related

DWP sanctions have now been branded ‘life-threatening’

Two key studies show that punitive benefit sanctions don’t ‘incentivise’ people to work, as claimed by the government

The new Work and Health Programme: government plan social experiments to “nudge” sick and disabled people into work

Exclusive: DWP Admit Using Fake Claimant’s Comments In Benefit Sanctions Leaflet

Benefit Sanctions Can’t Possibly ‘Incentivise’ People To Work – And Here’s Why

Nudging conformity and benefit sanctions

Work as a health outcome, making work pay and other Conservative myths and magical thinking


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DWP is facing investigation following the suicide of 42-year-old mum of nine

Jodey Whiting’s mother, Joy Dove, with Jodey’s daughter Emma Bell (Image: Ian McIntyre)

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is facing a legal investigation after a mother of nine took her own life “because the DWP stopped her benefits”. 

Jodey Whiting, who suffered severely disabling medical conditions, ended her own life in February 2017, shortly after the DWP stopped her disability support payments. The payments stopped because was claimed by the DWP that Jodey failed to attend a work capability assessment (WCA).

However, her family claims that she never received the appointment letter and is blaming the Government for her suicide.

The 42-year-old grandmother was diagnosed with a brain cyst and curvature of the spine and could barely walk to her own front door, but an inquest has heard that despite her  disabilities, Jodey Whiting faced a distressing battle with the DWP for lifeline benefits.

Supported by volunteers from the Citizens Advice Bureau, Jodey appealed the DWP decision to end her claim, but was told that due to a backlog in appeals it could take up to sixteen months before her case was reviewed.

Her mother, Joy Dove, who assisted her daughter in claiming the lifeline support she was entitled to, has taken up the battle with the DWP following her daughter’s death. She told Gazette Live“To have to wait another 16 months is devastating, but we can’t do anything about the fact there are so many cases that need investigating.

“I’m glad they’ve taken the case on. We will always fight for justice for my daughter.

“She has kids and grandchildren left without a mum, and I’ve been left without a daughter. I want to make sure this doesn’t happen to anyone else.”

The case will now be investigated by an Independent Case Examiner (ICE), who will look at the circumstances surrounding Jodey’s death and whether the DWP’s decision to stop her benefits affected her metal state at the time of Jodey’s suicide.

The ICE will looks at five key parts of the case against the DWP:

  • The Citizen’s Advice Bureau sent a letter to the DWP regarding Jodey’s health issues on February 15, six days before her death, but it failed to act on it until March 23.
  • Despite being made aware of her death on February 23 using the ‘tell us once’ system, the DWP issued a claim to Jodey about her Employment Support Allowance claim on February 25.
  • The DWP failed to take appropriate action to upgrade their computer systems until March 1.
  • The DWP continued to call Jodey’s phone and leave her voicemail messages until May, despite knowing of her death.
  • The department failed to respond to Mrs Dove’s letter of April 13, 2017 until June 14, 2017.

Jodey had been sent a letter that instructed her to attend a work capability assessment on January 16 last year, but missed the mandatory meeting while being in hospital because of a brain cyst. She knew nothing about the appointment.

On February 6, the DWP ruled that Jodey had not ‘provided sufficient evidence’ for missing the appointment and stopped her disability benefits. Jodey raised concerns about the decision on February 10 and made a formal appeal on the 13th. She killed herself on February 21, before a different DWP decision maker had reviewed her case and decided on February 25 – just four days after her death – that she should have continued to receive disability benefits.

A message about the ruling was sent to Jodey’s mobile phone inbox after her death, despite the DWP being informed of her death.

Joy has also started a ‘Justice for Jodey’ petition, with the aim of persuading the DWP to look again at how it handles social security claims. You can sign it here: you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/justice-for-jodey

She said that messages of support there have helped her as she struggles to overcome her grief: “We’ll never stop battling. The messages I get on the petition, and from people who have been in similar situations, are incredible.”

The DWP did not respond for requests for comment.


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Grieving daughter handed her mother’s ashes to ESA assessor to prove she wasn’t ‘fit for work’


A grieving daughter furiously handed an urn containing her mother’s ashes to a benefit health care professional who turned up to assess if the dead woman was fit for work, following an inexcusable and heartless blunder by the Department for Work and Pensions. 

Louise Broxton had suffered a host of neurological problems for which she received welfare support. She tragically died from lung cancer at the age of just 47 in August.

Her daughter, Hatti, immediately informed the authorities of her mother’s death and all her benefits were cancelled. After initially saying the information had been placed on file, however, some seven months later the Department for Work and Pensions sent an assessor to the door of her home in Wolverhampton to see if Louise was “fit for work.”

Hatti, a prison administrator, said: “I’m so upset and angry about what’s happened.

“It’s our government that has done this to us.

I’m only 27 and my brother has just turned 17. We’ve been through enough already and we don’t need this.

“I told the DWP afterwards I’d love to live in the world that the DWP live in, the one where my mum’s still alive. But she’s been gone for seven months.

When Mum passed away August last year, everyone was notified.

“I got an acknowledgement from the DWP themselves to say that mum had died.

“They stopped paying her benefits, and paid the arrears they owed her into my account because I am her next of kin.

“But on February 28 we got a letter addressed to Mum saying they were going to do a home visit on March 13 to assess her disabilities for ESA.

 

Hatti continued: “I was furious about it so I decided not to phone them about the mistake. Instead I waited to see if they would actually have the balls to do the home visit.

“I booked the day off work and stayed at home to wait for someone to come. My cousin came round to support me.

The letter stated they’d be coming between 11am and 2pm and they would contact to book an appointment.

“Obviously they haven’t been able to contact Mum because her phone has been cut off. They had my details as next of kin but they didn’t contact me.”

At 1pm Hatti had a knock on the door from the Employment and Support Allowance assessor.

She invited him inside and, seeing her cousin sat on the sofa, the doctor asked if she was Louise.

Hatti said: “My cousin replied, ‘No, I’m not,’ and I said, ‘Hang on a minute.’

“I walked over to the mantle piece in the lounge where we keep mum’s remains in an an urn decorated with a rose. I picked up her urn, turned around, and said ‘This is Louise Broxton and you’ve come to assess her?’

“He was completely mortified, as you would be. He apologised and offered his condolences.

I told him, ‘I’m not doing this to embarrass you, but the letter and having you on my door today, that’s twice the DWP have missed something.’”

Hatti says the assessor had not looked at her mum’s medical records, which would have shown him she was dead.

She also believes the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) missed three opportunities to realise something was wrong – when they sent the letter, when no one responded to their request, and when the doctor missed Louise’s medical records.

Hatti asked the doctor to leave and inform his bosses of the mistake straight away. 

She said: “I had gone through all the correct channels to report my mother’s passing and his visit was very upsetting.

“He admitted he hadn’t even been through mum’s medical records which would have said quite clearly at the end – deceased.

She said: “It’s not the case that my mum died a couple of weeks ago. Then a crossover would be understandable and I would accept their apology. 

After the doctor left, within 10 minutes the DWP rang. The lady apologised and offered her condolences, but after admitting their mistake she tried to leave it at that. 

“That’s not good enough. I want policies in place and procedures to be followed. I don’t want anyone else to be in my situation.” 

A DWP spokesperson said: “We’ve apologised to Ms Broxton for the distress caused by the administrative error.” 

Hatti’s mother, Louise Broxton

 


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The PIP & ESA inquiry report from the Work and Pensions Select Committee – main recommendations

Image result for pip esa inquiry

Yesterday, the government published the latest Work and Pensions Select Committee report on PIP and ESA Assessments. This is an utterly damning report, highlighting a lack of quality, consistency, transparency, objectivity and fairness from the government’s PIP and ESA incredibly expensive outsourced assessment regimes.

The report highlights failures by the private contractors, Atos and Maximus, to conduct accurate assessments, and substantial failures in the DWP’s decision-making – both the initial decisions about benefit awards and mandatory reviews were all too often found to be lacking in facts and accuracy. 

The report document says: “We heard many reports of errors appearing in assessment reports. Such experiences serve to undermine confidence amongst claimants. So does the proportion of DWP decisions overturned at appeal. At worst, there is an unsubstantiated belief among some claimants and their advisers that assessors are encouraged to misrepresent assessments deliberately in a way that leads to claimants being denied benefits.

“All three contractors carry out assessments using non-specialist assessors” it adds “Without good use of expert evidence to supplement their analysis, the Department will struggle to convince sceptical claimants that the decision on their entitlement is an informed one…It is extraordinary that basic deficiencies in the accessibility of PIP and ESA assessments remain, five and ten years respectively after their introduction.”

The committee concludes: “Claimants of PIP and ESA should be able to rely on assessments for those benefits being efficient, fair and consistent. Failings in the processes – from application, to assessment, to decision-making and to challenge mechanisms – have contributed to a lack of trust in both benefits. This risks undermining their entire operation.”

Meanwhile, the private contractors have made massive profits, despite the governments’ own quality targets having been universally missed.

The report continues: “The Government has also spent hundreds of millions of pounds more checking and defending the Department’s decisions.”

Recommending ultimately that the assessments might be better conducted by ‘in-house’  assessors, in the meantime the Work and Pensions Committee has called for new conditions to be put in place for transparency in the process.

Conclusions and recommendations made:

The importance of trust

1For most claimants, PIP and ESA assessments go smoothly. But in a sizeable minority of cases, things go very wrong indeed. For at least 290,000 claimants of PIP and ESA—6% of all those assessed—the right decision on entitlement was not made first time. Those cases, set alongside other problems throughout the application and assessment process, fuel a lack of trust amongst claimants of both benefits. The consequences—human and financial—can be enormous.

Our recommendations aim to correct the worst of these problems and rebuild claimant trust. Properly implemented, they will bring real improvements for claimants going through the system now and in the near future. The question of whether a more fundamental overhaul of welfare support for disabled people is necessary remains open. We do not intend this to be the end of our work on PIP and ESA. (Paragraph 12)

Before the assessment

2. Applying for PIP or ESA can be daunting. The Department has so far only made limited efforts to provide support and guidance in a variety of clear, accessible formats. It should not rely on already stretched third sector organisations to explain the Department’s own processes. A concerted effort from the Department to help with applications would be both reassuring to claimants, and of great practical benefit. 

We recommend the Department co-design, with expert stakeholders, guidance in a range of accessible formats on filling in forms and preparing for assessment. This should include accessible information on the descriptors for each benefit, to be sent out or signposted alongside application forms. We also recommend the Department makes clear to claimants being reassessed that they should not assume information from their previous assessment will be re-used, and should be prepared to re-submit any supporting evidence already provided. (Paragraph 18)

3. Many PIP and ESA claimants have multiple health conditions that bring with them severe limitations. Focusing on what they are able to do is a common coping strategy—one that is often incompatible with filling in PIP and ESA application forms. It is impossible to draw a causal link from application to claimant health. The Department should demonstrate, however, that it is alert to the risk to mental health posed by parts of the application processes and seek to offset this. (Paragraph 20)

4. We recommend that the Department commission and publish independent research on the impact of application and assessment for PIP and ESA on claimant health. This should focus initially on improvements to the application forms, identifying how they can be made more claimant-friendly and less distressing for claimants to fill in. The Department should set out a timescale for carrying out this work in response to our Report. (Paragraph 21)

5. As a result of their health conditions, many PIP and ESA claimants require communications in a specific format. The Department’s resistance to meeting even some of the most basic of these needs makes applying for PIP and ESA unnecessarily challenging for some claimants. Its failure to provide a widely-used, accessible alternative to telephone calls, and Easy Read communications, is extraordinary. 

We recommend that the Department enables claimants with hearing impairments to apply for PIP and ESA via email, ensuring this service is appropriately resourced to prevent delays to claims. In the longer term, it should look to offer this option to all claimants. It should also ensure key forms and communications—especially the PIP2, appointment and decision letters—are available in Easy Read format, allowing claimants to register this as a communication preference at the start of their claim. (Paragraph 25)

6. Home visits are an important option for claimants whose health conditions make attending an assessment centre difficult. Contractors interpret the Department’s guidance on home visits differently. They take varying approaches to granting them and require different standards of supporting evidence. This leads to inconsistencies between the benefits and between contractors. It can also place additional burdens on claimants and the NHS. (Paragraph 30)

7. We recommend the Department issue new guidance to PIP and ESA assessors on the procedure for determining whether claimants receive a home visit. This should specify that GP letters are not required where other forms of evidence and substantiation are available. This should include evidence from the claimant, as well as from carers, support workers and other health professionals. To ensure guidance is being followed, we recommend contractors be required to gather evidence and the Department audit requests made and granted for home visits, as well as reasons for refusal. (Paragraph 31)

The assessment

8. Atos, Capita and Maximus all use a generalist assessor model. They pay no regard to the specialist expertise of individual assessors in assigning cases. They therefore assess claimants with the full gamut of conditions. The success of this model depends on a consistent supply of high quality, relevant expert evidence. There is ongoing confusion amongst claimants and those supporting them alike about what constitutes “good evidence” for functional purposes.

We recommend that the Department sets out in response to this Report its approach to improving understanding amongst health and social care professionals and claimants of what constitutes good evidence for PIP and ESA claims. This should include setting out how it will measure, monitor and report on the supply of evidence into PIP and ESA assessments. (Paragraph 39)

9. Successive evidence-based reviews conducted on behalf of the Department have identified a pervasive culture of mistrust around PIP and ESA processes. This culminates in fear of the face-to-face assessments. This has implications far beyond the minority of claimants who directly experience poor decision-making. It can add to claimant anxiety even among those for whom the process works fairly. While that culture prevails, assessors risk being viewed as, at best lacking in competence and at worst, actively deceitful. Addressing this is a vital step in restoring confidence in PIP and ESA. 

The case for improving trust through implementing default audio recording of assessments has been strongly made. We recommend the Department implement this measure for both benefits without delay. In the longer term, the Department should look to provide video recording for all assessments. (Paragraph 44)

10. Some claimants may be unable or embarrassed to explain the full implications of their condition to their assessor. Companions can help them to articulate these and support claimants during a potentially stressful process. Their role in assessments is vital. The Department’s recognition of this in its guidance to contractors is welcome. We are concerned, however, that this guidance is not consistently followed.

There is no reference to companions in the Department’s auditing or contractor training programmes. That none of the contractors could even reliably tell us how many claimants are accompanied to assessment suggests this is not a priority. (Paragraph 49)

11. We recommend that the Department develop detailed guidance on the role of companions, including case studies demonstrating when and how to use their evidence. Contractors should also incorporate specific training on companions into their standard assessor training. After implementing default recording of assessments, a sample of assessments where claimants are accompanied should be audited on a regular basis to ensure guidance is being followed. (Paragraph 50)

The report and initial decision

12. DWP decisions on PIP and ESA claims are often opaque, even when decisions are correctly made. Ensuring claimants can see what is being written about them during assessment, and providing a copy of the assessor’s report by default would prove invaluable in helping claimants understand the reasoning behind the Department’s decisions. Both steps would increase transparency and ensure claimants are able to make informed decisions about whether to challenge a decision. In turn, many tribunals could be avoided, the workload of Decision Makers at Mandatory Reconsideration reduced, and overall costs lowered. 

We recommend the Department proceed without delay in sending a copy of the assessor’s report by default to all claimants, alongside their initial decision. We also recommend it issues instructions to contractors on ensuringclaimants are able to see what is being written about them during assessment, and allowing their input if they feel this is incorrect or misleading. This should include, for example, emphasising to contractors that rooms should be configured by default to allow the claimant to sit next to the assessor or be able to see their computer screen. (Paragraph 55)

13. Claimants often go to considerable efforts to collect additional evidence for their claim, providing important information for generalist HCPs. Contractors and the Department should ensure that it is clear to claimants how and when this evidence is used. Without doing so, they will struggle to convince sceptical claimants that the decision on their entitlement to benefits is an informed one. Knowing how their evidence has been used will further empower claimants to understand the Department’s decisions, and to decide whether an MR is necessary. (Paragraph 60)

14. We recommend that the Department introduce a checklist system, requiring HCPs to confirm whether and how they have used each piece of supporting evidence supplied in compiling their report. Decisions not to use particular pieces of evidence should also be noted and justified. This information should be supplied to Decision Makers so they can clearly see whether and how supporting evidence has been used, making it easier to query reports with contractors. It should also be supplied to the claimant along with a copy of their report. (Paragraph 61)

Disputed decisions

15. Mandatory Reconsideration should function as a genuine check, not an administrative hurdle for claimants to clear. Improving the quality of assessments and reports will ensure fewer claimants have to go to MR, but disputes will always happen. The Department deserves credit for a renewed emphasis on MR quality. MR decision-making has not always been characterised by thoroughness, consistency and an emphasis on quality, however. Not all claimants who have, perhaps wrongly, been turned down at MR will have had the strength and resources to appeal. (Paragraph 66)

16. We recommend the Department review a representative sample of MRs conducted between 2013 and December 2017, when it dropped its aspiration to uphold 80% of MRs, to establish if adverse incorrect decisions were made and, if so, whether there were common factors associated with those decisions. It should set out its findings and any proposed next steps in response to this report. (Paragraph 67)

17. The Department argues that the high rate of decisions overturned at appeal is driven by the emergence of new evidence that was not available at initial or MR stage. It has displayed a lack of determination in exploring why it takes until that stage for evidence to come to light. In almost half of cases the “new evidence” presented was oral evidence from claimants. It is difficult to understand why this information was not, or could not have been elicited and reported by the assessor. The Department’s argument does not absolve it of responsibility.

Its feedback to and quality control over contractors is weak. Addressing these fundamental shortcomings would not only ensure a fairer system for claimants. It would also reduce the cost to the public purse of correcting poor decision-making further down the line. (Paragraph 72)

18. The Department must learn from overturned decisions at appeal in a much more systematic and consistent fashion. We recommend it uses recording of assessments to start auditing and quality assuring the whole assessment process.

When a decision is overturned, the Department should also ensure that the HCP who carried out the initial assessment is identified and that an individual review of how the assessment was carried out is conducted. Given what we know about reasons for overturn, this should focus on improving questioning techniques and ensuring claimants’ statements are given due weight.

We also recommend the Department lead regular feedback meetings with contractors and organisations that support claimants. These should keep the Department informed of emerging concerns and ensure that swift action is taken to rectify them. (Paragraph 73)

Incentives and contracting

19. The Department’s quality standards for PIP and ESA set a low bar for what are considered acceptable reports. The definition of “acceptable” leaves ample room for reports to be riddled with obvious errors and omissions. Despite this, all three contractors have failed to meet key performance targets in any given period. It is difficult not to conclude that this regime contributes to a lack of confidence amongst claimants. (Paragraph 87)

20. The Department’s use of contractual levers to improve performance has not led to consistent improvements in assessment quality, especially in relation to PIP. Large sums of money have been paid to contractors despite quality targets having been universally missed. (Paragraph 88)

21. The PIP and ESA contracts are drawing to a close. In both cases, the decision to contract out assessments in the first instance was driven by a perceived need to introduce efficient, consistent and objective tests for benefit eligibility. It is hard to see how these objectives have been met. None of the providers has ever hit the quality performance targets required of them, and many claimants experience a great deal of anxiety over assessments.

The Department will need to consider whether the market is capable of delivering assessments at the required level and of rebuilding claimant trust. If it cannot—as already floundering market interest may suggest—the Department may well conclude assessments are better delivered in-house. (Paragraph 94).

While the above recommendations will help make some improvements, these alone are not sufficient to fix the fundamental lack of trust in the current assessment system. Many of us who have been through more than one assessment for PIP and ESA – that have too often been ordeals – face more of them in the future. It’s a relentless process and some of us have been forced to challenge Kafkaesque decisions more than once or twice.

The assessment is itself a challenge, after that many of us face mandatory review, and sometimes a formal complaint is also appropriate. With no more than 18% of mandatory reviews resulting in a reversal of unreasonable and often profoundly unfair decisions, we are then forced to go through an appeal. Often within 3 months of winning an appeal, we face a reassessment – I did.

Many of us also need to claim PIP. My experiences of the ESA assessments were so distressing and damaging to my health, exacerbating my illness, that I put off claiming PIP in 2011. In fact I only claimed from last year, and that was with a huge amount of support from my local councils’ occupational therapy and welfare support teams. Despite my illness being progressive, I will be reassessed in 2020. 

Urgent reform of PIP and ESA is needed to ensure that disabled people are treated humanely, fairly and may maintain their dignity. It’s needed to ensure assessments are accurate, transparent and fair, and lead to disabled people getting the lifeline support that they need and are entitled to. 

“Independent” assessments were introduced to reduce successful disability benefit claims, to save money. That was a clearly stated objective. However they have cost much more than they were intended to save.

__

Read the report summary

Read the conclusions and recommendations

Read the full report: PIP and ESA assessments

 


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Man leaves coroner letter as he fears Work Capability Assessment will kill him

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The government have persistently denied any “causal relationship” between their welfare reforms and an increase in premature deaths and suicides, despite an existing correlation. Ministers have also denied a link between disability assessments and an increase in mental distress and ill health.

Figures released last year show that between December 2011 to February 2014, 4,010 people died after being told they were fit for work, following a Work Capability Assessment (WCA). 40,680 died within a year of undergoing the WCA, making a bleak mockery of any claim that the WCA is a real and valid “health assessment” of any kind. Or that our welfare system is “supportive” to those in most need, in any real or meaningful sense. Those people were clearly not at all “fit for work.” The figures were only released after the Information Commission overruled a Government decision to block the statistics from the public.

Research last year from Leonard Cheshire, a charity that works with disabled people, also showed that the assessments are making people who are ill more sick. Almost three quarters (72 per cent) said they found the assessment had a negative impact on their mental or physical health, or both. The same number described the face to face appointment as very stressful.

David Sugg would agree with those research findings. David suffered a life threatening subarachnoid haemorrhage (bleeding in the brain) because of an aneurysm (a swollen and very weakened point in a blood vessel) in 2013, and faces more life saving surgery because he has developed two more aneurysms that threatens to rupture, putting him at risk of another catastrophic brain haemorrhage. Whilst he waits for his operation, he has been told that if his blood pressure goes up, he is likely to die.

He had a Work Capability Assessment with Maximus this week. He was so afraid of the adverse health impacts that the strain of the WCA may have on him that he left a letter for the local coroner, to be opened in the event of his sudden death.

The letter said: “You may be looking into the reason for my death. I am hoping I can save you some time. This uncaring and spiteful Tory government killed me.”  

He told me: “My neuro-surgeon says I mustn’t get stressed, but I have been called by the Department for Work and Pensions for an assessment even though I’ve told them about my situation. 

If I don’t go for an assessment my benefits will be stopped. But I fear it may cost me my life.”

Although David survived his appointment, he has been suffering with a violent headache since, and hasn’t been able to eat for a week.

 “That appointment might still kill me. If my blood pressure goes up I could be dead before I hit the floor. I asked the assessor why she was putting my life at risk, but she said it wasn’t her decision,” he said.

Aneurisms are quite often caused by an increase in blood pressure. The majority of people don’t survive a subarachnoid haemorrhage, and those who do are remarkably lucky if they escape without serious disability. Most people don’t survive if they have a second one.

David added that he felt the situation he is in has “Orwellian” parallels. It’s a terrible choice to have to make: he either risks his life and complies with the assessment or loses his lifeline support – his benefit is the only income he has.

David explained to me that like many people needing to claim Employment Support Allowance – which is a very misleading name for a sickness benefit –  he had worked all of his life before becoming ill. He worked in IT and security until a couple of years ago. He became unemployed at that time, and was struggling to find work.

 “I’d paid tax and national insurance all my life – since I was 15,” he said.

“The battle to get Job Seekers Allowance was so stressful I actually think that led me to having the aneurysm in the first place. Then I had to battle to get support. The first work capability assessment I had was just six months after I’d had seven-hour brain surgery.”

He told me that his assessor recognised how inappropriate the appointment was, telling him “you shouldn’t actually be here.”

Despite the fact that David was awaiting life saving surgery, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) demanded that he was assessed again. He returned the form, explaining that he was awaiting life saving surgery and must avoid stress, but to his horror, was forced to attend nonetheless.

He said “It’s brutal bullying by the DWP. No wonder people are committing suicide, pushed over the edge. You either die because of your condition or from suicide. All I would have to do is stop taking my pills for a couple of days and I would die.”

Debbie Abrahams, the shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, said that David’s case is far from unique.

She said: “This WCA process, revised by this Government, is not only not fit for purpose, there is growing evidence of the harm it is doing. These assessments need to be completely overhauled. Labour want to see a holistic, person-centred approach, not the dehumanising, harmful, inefficient process we have now.”

David wrote to his own MP, Stephen Metcalfe, outlining his extremely distressing circumstances, and was told that Stephen would contact the Department for Work and Pensions, but did not yet receive a response.

The system is designed to deter successful claims

I co-run a support group on Facebook for sick and disabled people claiming disability benefits. I know from the accounts and everyday experience of many others just how stressful the assessment process is. It’s a terrible state of affairs when people who are already struggling with severe health problems are made even more vulnerable because of callous cost-cutting government policies.

The assessment is not always an end to the stress, either. Quite often, people are forced to challenge wrong decisions, because the WCA is designed to find ways of passing people off as “fit for work” regardless of whether they actually are, cutting their benefit. It’s worth remembering that people needing sickness benefits have already been assessed as unfit for work by their own doctors.

If people need to appeal a wrong decision, they first have to go through a mandatory review  – where the DWP “reconsider” the decision. Sickness benefit is stopped at this stage, leaving people who are often very ill without any lifeline income. Most can’t claim jobseekers allowance because they are too ill to work and so cannot meet the harsh and rigid conditionality requirements of that benefit. There is no set time limit for how long the DWP have to undertake the mandatory review. No-one may appeal until after their review is completed. The appeal process is also very stressful and intimidating, it usually entails another wait of months. 

The revolving door of assessments and psychological distress

David is not the only person to contact me this week.

George Vranjkovic has been extremely anxious and distressed about his Work Capability Assessment, too. He is very afraid at the thought that he may lose his lifeline support.

He told me: “I took 5 days filling out the assessment form by hand and I sent it in 12 days before my deadline. But 5 days before the deadline I got a letter saying it had still not been received, so I rang them, and I got some bloke who chuckled. He said it probably got lost and was there anything else he could do.

I blew my top I’m afraid and said he could effing apologise for losing my form!!! He said he deserved to be treated with respect. I was so upset I shouted not if you sit there laughing at desperate people you don’t . Anyway, I ended up filling in the form on line, printing it off and sending one version by fax, and one version by special delivery, which is what I was instructed to do by them… £22.00 that cost me.”

The form showed up, according to another advisor that George spoke to the next day, but by then he had already paid out for the fax and special delivery and was told the likelihood of getting the £22.00 back was pretty remote. This is someone relying on just a lifeline benefit, calculated to meet only basic living costs – essentials: food, fuel and shelter.

Previously, George has been left without any money to live on by the DWP, without them providing any reason. That’s absolutely unacceptable.

“For 6 months when they cut my money off completely,  I was made to feel like a criminal. I was spoken to so badly on the phone. I wasn’t being sanctioned. They just weren’t paying me.

 This is all just another example of the abject cruelty we, as honest people, are put through,” he said.

Like many other disabled people, George has also worked previously, co-running a photographic service.

George talked to me over a period of 24 hours before his assessment yesterday. He hasn’t slept for weeks. He really needed someone to support him emotionally. He was extremely anxious, agitated and afraid. He knows that the WCA is designed to try and cut costs and take lifeline support from sick and disabled people.

He told me that he is someone who usually copes, and doesn’t like to make a fuss. He said “I try not to fall to pieces in public.” He was in a state of sheer panic, however, when he contacted me.

When he arrived for his appointment, George said that the assessor tried to reschedule the assessment. His distress was so great by this time that he absolutely refused to leave until the assessment was carried out. He simply couldn’t face going through the strain of waiting again.

“He asked me how the rescheduling of the test made me feel.  He told me that it wasn’t the first time today he’d heard that forms had got lost or went missing, he asked me if I’d ever thought about committing suicide. Which I have, the last time being a year and a half ago when the DWP cut off my money for 6 months,” he said.

Like many others, George has had several assessments. It’s fairly common experience to have to go through an appeal, only to get another appointment within three months of a successful outcome.

A study published by the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health last year, showed a correlation between worsening mental health and assessments under the WCA. The study linked the WCA tests with an additional 590 suicides, increased mental health problems and hundreds of thousands of antidepressant prescriptions

In a letter to the Guardian, the study’s main author, Benjamin Barr, said it was crucial the DWP takes seriously concerns that WCAs are “severely damaging” mental health. He called on the department to release data it holds to researchers to allow further analysis of the health impact of the controversial test.

Calls to scrap the WCA

Earlier this year, a report for the Social Market Foundation thinktank recommended that the government entirely scrap the work capability assessment. The report also said the government should introduce a properly funded system – making use of trial projects and extensive consultation with benefit claimants – which would identify those disabled people closest to being able to get a job, while those too ill or disabled to work should have a “level of benefit provided … sufficient to allow them to live comfortably and engage fully in society.”

It also recommended that the government abandon the failing benefit sanction system for people with chronic illness or a disability – instead putting an emphasis on support meetings and financial incentives through a “steps to work wage” on top of their unemployment benefit.

Remarkably, the report was written by Matthew Oakley – a former Treasury adviser who until 2013 was head of economics at the right-of-centre Policy Exchange thinktank. He was also on Iain Duncan Smith’s own social security advisory committee.

The WCA is not only unfit for purpose, arbitrary and cruel, but it is also one of the most shocking political betrayals of those most in need that has ever been allowed to go unchecked.

 

What you need to know about Atos assessments

 

 

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