Universal Credit may have dominated the headlines, but disability benefits are in chaos too

A personal experience of what sanction targets in the Personal Independence Payments system are doing to claimants and their families.

Pic: Former DWP Minister Ian Duncan Smith, who introduced the PIP system 

With the ongoing disaster of Universal Credit, the botched Personal Independence Payment scheme has fallen into the background. But the nightmare it is causing for disabled people continues.

A quick glance at disability forums online and PIP’s continued harm becomes evident. “Face-to-face” assessments are routinely error-strewn and have received a litany of complaints regarding the conduct of assessors, the tribunal service has made it clear the DWP’s presentation of cases is generally terrible, and claimants transferred from the old Disability Living Allowance are finding their claims downgraded at a relentless pace.

For those unfamiliar, PIP is assessed as follows:

  • An initial claim is made by phone
  • The claimant completes a form detailing how their disability affects them
  • The claimant is then “assessed” in a face-to-face meeting
  • A decision is then issued
  • If the claimant disagrees with this decision, they have to go through the absurd “mandatory reconsideration” (MR). The DWP sets a target that 80% of original decisions should be upheld at MR, pointlessly elongating a process that can already take months
  • If the MR again denies a claim – as 85% of them do – then the only option is a first-tier tribunal.

It is a gauntlet I am personally familiar with. My husband has an ASD and ADHD. We had to take the claim to tribunal and, like a staggering 65% of tribunal cases, his claim was successful. He was granted a three year award nearly a full calendar year after he first applied.

Fast forward a few years through reassessments, paperwork, denials, face-to-face appointments, and complaints to Capita, and my husband finds himself facing a tribunal once more.

I have a severe physical disability and cannot attend the tribunal with my husband. He finds tribunals extremely trying; like most people with ASD, he struggles to articulate himself well in high-stress situations. I therefore decided to contact the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) to obtain an advocate, and notified PIP of this when I requested the tribunal.

On November 10th, my husband received a telephone call from a withheld number, purporting to be from PIP. I took over the call.

According to the caller, the CAB had told PIP they could not help with the case. The CAB wanted to return the ‘bundle’ of documents regarding the case to PIP. I was also asked, in an offhand way, whether we’d be continuing to tribunal given there would be no advocacy. Finally – and most confusingly – I was asked what the CAB should do to return the “bundle” to PIP.

This was extremely odd. My husband had not had an appointment with the CAB; it was arranged for the next week. They knew nothing of his case. Yet PIP were claiming the CAB had rejected it and, what’s more, expected me to suggest what the CAB should do with the related documents PIP claimed they had provided.

If this paragraph makes no sense to you, then you’re in the same boat I was: I was utterly confused. I was also crestfallen, as I believed what I was being told; I believed no advocacy would be possible.

However, I was dubious about this – so we carried on. On November 27th, my husband had his appointment with the CAB. They agree he has a strong case, and will be provided representation for the tribunal by a supporting body called SHARP.

I did initially wonder if PIP might have misinterpreted the CAB’s response: the CAB do not provide advocacy themselves, but they do refer viable cases to bodies that do. Is this where the confusion arose? Did the CAB tell PIP they would refer the case to SHARP and, somehow, PIP took this as a rejection?

No. First and foremost, the CAB did not make the referral until after his appointment. Secondly, the CAB specifically told us they had had no contact from PIP. They did not have the document bundle; they have never had it, nor have they contacted PIP to ask to return it.

So why did they call me to say CAB had rejected the case? I feel, strongly that it was to dissuade us from pursuing the tribunal – to suggest no representation would be forthcoming. I cannot imagine how confusing this kind of interference would be for those like my husband, but without a neurotypical wife to help wade through it.

This whole fiasco has been bizarre and stressful, but that, sadly, is nothing new when it comes to PIP.

Wearing down claimants to the point they cannot fight for themselves now appears to be at the heart of our welfare system. Universal Credit may have dominated the headlines – but it is PIP which is causing confusion and distress behind the scenes.

AJ Kelly a Midlands-based freelance writer, focusing on disability and chronic illness. 

Do you have a personal story about Personal Independence Payments and sanctions? Get in touch – editor@leftfootforward.org

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