Brave cancer sufferer from Derby launches petition over ‘unfair’ benefits system
A popular Derby woman suffering from cancer has launched a petition in a bid to change the law over a benefit system deemed “totally unfair”. Sue Hodgkinson is undergoing chemotherapy after suffering from non-hodgkin lymphoma – a condition which can cause certain blood cells in the body to go haywire. Her condition is serious but not terminal.
But despite facing months away from work due to her illness, Ms Hodgkinson told the Derby Telegraph she has been left having to survive on just £89 per week via sick pay payments.
Ms Hodgkinson, who was diagnosed with the cancer in January, says she has to wait around three months to find out whether she is entitled to a Personal Independence Payment (PIP) which would give her extra financial comfort each week.
According to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) claimants have to satisfy a qualifying period of three months in order to receive a benefit payment. However an application can be fast-tracked should someone have a terminal illness.
Fortunately, Ms Hodgkinson – who lives in Spondon – has been given remarkable support from the community who have raised an incredible £4,000 in just a matter of weeks to help support her financially.
But the 61-year-old has described her situation as a “disgrace” and has launched a petition which calls for anybody undergoing chemotherapy to be automatically entitled to PIP so they receive financial help much sooner than the three-month waiting period.
Her petition has so far gained almost 1,000 signatures and needs 10,000 to force a response from the Government.
“I have worked for 50 years, paid taxes and insurance – it seems ridiculous that I have to wait that long. “This petition is not just about me but for anybody who suffers from cancer. “Everyday there are lots of people being diagnosed with cancer, it’s just totally unfair.
“Anyone who suffers from cancer should automatically get some kind of benefit and not just lose their wages.”
Ms Hodgkinson’s close friend Jo Andrew said: “Sue’s friends support her view that there is an injustice in the benefit system and feel quite strongly that the Government’s Personal Independence Payment (PIP) should be made available to people diagnosed with cancer and receiving chemotherapy.
“The system is particularly harsh for those in employment as, until the three-month period has elapsed, many of those in this position are expected to live on statutory sick pay (SSP). It is simply impossible to cover the additional costs associated with debilitating effects of cancer, whilst receiving SSP.”
Helping fight Sue’s corner is Derby North MP Chris Williamson who said he had every sympathy for her. Mr Williamson said on his Facebook page: “I’ve been deeply touched and incensed by this campaign. “Sue has been hung out to dry by this Tory Government but thankfully people in her community have stepped in to support her. Others in the same circumstances may not be so lucky.” .
Car thieves strike
The Derby Telegraph contacted the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) for its response to Sue’s petition but insisted they could only fast-track the PIP application process to people with terminal illnesses.
A DWP spokesperson said: “We are committed to ensuring that people living with cancer and terminal illnesses get the support they need through this difficult time. “That’s why we have put special measures in place, to ensure those with terminal illnesses can fast track their PIP claims and get support in a matter of days.
“PIP is a non means tested benefit and for those who are unable to work due to cancer or terminal illness, they may also be eligible for Employment Support Allowance as an income replacement.
A Sydenham man who has not been paid disability benefit since December last year is worried he will lose his car and his livelihood if nothing changes. Simon LaBarbera, 36, of Baddesley Close, has been a wheelchair user all his life after being born with spina bifida and hydrocephalus.
He currently holds down a full-time job as a data inputter at Warwick Hospital, and was claiming Disability Living Allowance before the benefit changed to Personal Independence Payment (PIP).
He was due to be seen by an assessor to see whether he was eligible for PIP on Monday November 13, but Simon got his dates mixed up and missed the appointment. Because of this, the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) stopped his benefit on Tuesday December 12.
He is now worried he will no longer be able to afford his Motability car, which he relies on to get out and about. Although Motability, which offers cars at a discount to disabled drivers, gave Simon a grace period since his benefit stopped, he will lose the car on Tuesday June 26 if he does not pay them. Simon said:
“The car situation is really my most important priority. “If I don’t have my car, I won’t be able to get to work and I won’t be able to help out at Warwick and Leamington Phab (a youth club held in Leamington for disabled and able-bodied young people aged 10-19 years).
“My car is a support network for me that I’m lost without.”
Despite trying for a long time to get the situation sorted, Simon was only seen by the DWP again on Thursday April 12, five months after he was supposed to be seen initially. He has also appealed the DWP’s decision to deny him benefit after the mix-up in November. His case is now with the Tribunal Service awaiting a hearing date.
Simon has been claiming disability benefit since he was a teenager, and could not believe how difficult it has been to claim PIP. He added: “I’ve got a disability that’s never going to get any better – this sort of thing should be taken into account (by the DWP).”
Simon’s aunt Sally Holland was also very critical of the situation.
She said: “This is about his wellbeing. He’s worked ever since he’s been able to work.
“If he loses his Motability car, he’d have to give up his job. “And where he lives is on a slope – he wouldn’t be able to get out of his street on his wheelchair.”
A spokesman for the DWP said: “We are committed to ensuring that disabled people get the support they’re entitled to. Decisions for PIP are made following consideration of all the information provided by the claimant and their GP or medical specialist.
“Anyone who is unhappy with their decision can keep their vehicle for up to six months while they await their mandatory reconsideration or appeal.”
Errors Plague The Benefits System – But If You’re Seriously Ill, It’s Even Worse
‘You just feel it’s almost like you’re scrounging.’
One morning in January, Gill Willis checked her bank account. She had expected to see her usual income, but instead she found a huge chunk of cash had been paid in without any explanation.
At first, she was thrilled. It was only when Gill read in the news that thousands of people who claim Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) had been underpaid for years, that she started to make sense of things.
That’s because Gill’s £3,500 wasn’t a windfall, it was a rebate. After years of administration errors by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), Gill was receiving money she should have had all along. “I would have been shot if I ever treated a client as I have been treated by the DWP,” the former financial analyst says.
The National Audit Office estimates as many as 70,000 claimants of ESA, which is available to people who have become too unwell to keep working, have been affected by miscalculations, a blunder that will cost the government hundreds of millions to rectify.
The errors related to people who may have been entitled to income-related ESA (which is not taxable, and means tested) but were instead only awarded contribution-based ESA (which is taxable and is not means tested), a potential difference of between £73 and £186 per week.
Since its inception in 2008, the benefit has been plagued by missteps and IT problems, failures that have directly affected claimants – many of whom have serious lifelong conditions, such as multiple sclerosis (MS), rheumatoid arthritis, cystic fibrosis, as well as terminal cancers and motor neurone disease (MND).
The errors have caused confusion, distress and have even risked worsening symptoms for those living with serious illnesses. Some claimants will never receive the money they are owed, as they have passed away in the time it has taken the government to rectify the problem.
Daniel Vincent of the Motor Neurone Disease Association (MNDA), says the mistakes can have a big impact on the lives of the terminally ill. “When you know that you have limited time left with your family, the last thing you want to be doing is fighting a battle with the DWP. “It’s not how people should be being forced to spend their last moments.”
Gill Willis has revealed the stress and anxiety caused by problems with her ESA claim.
“Imagine having two bottles of vodka and then trying to walk. That’s what it’s like,” 62-year-old Gill from Bicester, Oxfordshire, explains.
Gill lives with what is known as secondary progressive MS, which affects her balance. She no longer works and lives on ESA, alongside other benefits and an income from a private pension.
Gill’s problems with the DWP began when her disability allowance was switched to the new Personal Independence Payment (PIP) in November 2016. Many people, like Gill, are able to claim ESA and PIP at the same time.
When her allowance switched to PIP, the DWP assessed Gill’s overall income. Officials decided that because of her income from a private pension, she was entitled to a much lower rate of ESA. Meanwhile, the taxman decided her private pension income should be taxed, contradicting Jobcentre advice.
It was a double whammy. HMRC lowered her personal allowance and the DWP made additional deductions from her ESA to make up for what it described as “overpayments”. It meant that, on a monthly basis, Gill was £300 worse off.
It was heartbreaking, I cried for days, She recalls losing around £4,000-5,000 in total through the lower allowance and deductions. “It was heartbreaking, I cried for days,” Gills says.
In the meantime, to secure their finances, Gill and her husband moved to a cheaper property in Oxfordshire to free up money. “We had no choice, or else we’d have been on the poverty line and going to foodbanks.”
The extra cash paid for essentials, such as a stairlift and wet room in the new property. In January 2018, Gill noticed that the DWP had credited her bank account with £3,500. She also noticed her ESA had increased by £219.
“It was totally unexpected,” Gill says. “They’ve given it to me, taken it from me, and then taken it again. You can’t go back five months later and say ‘I have made a mistake about the mistake, I take it back again’.”
A letter which arrived a few days later detailed the new payment but did not provide an explanation. “I haven’t got a letter to say ‘we made an error and that this is right now’,” she adds. “So I just feel – what if there’s been another mistake? “I’m scared they will take it away again.”
A DWP spokesperson told HuffPost: “We’ve apologised to Ms Willis, updated her entitlement and also backdated her payments.”
Julie Parry, 53
Julie Parry was diagnosed with MS in 2005, and two years later was assessed as needing financial support. “I’ve got relapsing remitting MS which means you can have a relapse and then you might not have another one for a few years,” she explains.
The 53-year-old from Nottinghamshire needed to give up her job on the checkouts at Morrisons and apply for what was then called Income Support and Incapacity Benefit. “In 2007, I was awarded a claim for life – I was told that my MS would never get better and if anything that it would get worse,” she says. “My biggest problem is my balance and weakness in my left leg. I can’t walk too far and I use a stick to get about.”
The man scratched his head and said ’I don’t know what you’re doing here?’
In 2013, when her benefits changed to ESA, Julie was told she was fit for work, a decision subsequently overturned by a magistrate.
However, it was revealed last year after a routine Jobcentre appointment that the DWP had been paying her as though she was fit for work between 2014 and 2017.
“The man scratched his head and said ‘I don’t know what you’re doing here?’” Julie says. As a result of the discovery, she received a back payment of over £3,000 for this error.
“We had a phone call to say that they thought I had been misplaced,” she says, recalling her relief at the decision.
But Julie’s hopes that her problems with the DWP had come to an end were quickly crushed. Within months, she was told that her status was to be reassessed once more.
Without any explanation, Julie was summoned to an assessment day in Nottingham and was subsequently declared fit for work again.
“You just feel it’s almost like you’re scrounging,” Julie says of the decision.
I’m just waiting for another letter to come through saying its all happening again
Having been told the ruling was valid, despite an appeal, she was forced to consider sending the case to tribunal, before the DWP stepped in and said her claim had been further reassessed and that she was, once more, considered not fit for work.
As with Gill, there was little by way of an explanation.
“It’s very stressful, it makes you feel like you’re almost like a beggar, but it’s money I’m entitled to,” she says. “I’m just waiting for another letter to come through saying its all happening again.”
Due to her experience, Julie did not give permission for her details to be shared with the DWP, but a spokesperson said: “We’re committed to ensuring that disabled people get the full support that they need.”
What is Employment and Support Allowance? If you’re ill or disabled, Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) offers you financial support if you’re unable to work; as well as personalised help so that you can work if you’re able to.
How much ESA you get depends on your circumstances, such as income; the type of ESA you qualify for; where you are in the assessment process.
Premium payments exist for those with illnesses and with severe disabilities.
There are currently an estimated 1.5m recipients of all forms of ESA.
How much do you get? After an assessment period, if you’re entitled to ESA, you’ll be placed in one of two groups and will receive:
up to £73.10 a week if you’re in the work-related activity group up to £109.65 a week if you’re in the support group If you’re in the support group and on income-related ESA, you’re also entitled to the enhanced disability premium at £15.90 a week.
You may also qualify for the severe disability premium at £62.45 per week.
Sources: Gov.uk and HM Parliament
Laura Wetherly, Policy Manager at the MS Society charity, said many people with the disease “have told us that problems with the benefit mean they’re struggling to get the help they need.”
But it is not just people living with MS who have been affected by the problems with ESA. The situation with underpayments also affects those with terminal illnesses, and in some cases, people facing just months to live.
According to the Motor Neurone Disease Association (MNDA), MND sufferers are among those who are likely to have been affected by problems with ESA.
An estimated 1,900 people with MND have received ESA since its introduction, according to government figures.
The charity has estimated the average cost of living with MND to be around £12,000 per year but this could rise further for some people with the disease. The high cost of adaptations to homes, round-the-clock care and, eventually, residential nursing, means every last penny is crucial.
But with the nature of conditions like MND, many people affected by the errors will tragically never see payments they were entitled to.
When you’ve limited time left with family, the last thing you want to be doing is fighting with the DWP. “Sadly, in the case of MND, a lot of people affected by the underpayments will have subsequently died as many of the affected cases are up until about 2014,” Vincent of the MNDA says. “So a lot of people won’t actually receive the redress.
“The individual who is affected by those errors in many cases won’t be around to receive an apology and compensation they should have got. “That reflects the reality of living with these conditions while trying to cope with the slowness and inflexibility of the bureaucracy around it.
“For people living with MND, time is precious,” Alex Massey, MNDA’s policy manager adds. “Delays of any kind can impact on people who ultimately might not want to go through the process of challenging it.” As with MND, those with other terminal illnesses have also been affected by delays, described as “completely unacceptable” by end of life charity Marie Curie.
“Delays and underpayments are completely unacceptable for people who have been diagnosed with a terminal illness, but these issues are only the tip of the iceberg,” the charity’s Scott Sinclair says. “As it stands the system excludes many terminally ill people from the fast-track support they desperately need by only offering it for those who have just six months left to live.
“Defining terminal illness as only six months from death is an arbitrary cut-off that leaves many who have been diagnosed as terminally ill without proper support.
“Until the DWP is willing to re-examine how it defines terminal illness, we will continue to see people approaching the end of their lives being mistreated by our benefits system.”
The DWP told HuffPost it has “committed to completing the repayments during the course of 2018/19.”
Labour MP Ruth George said the high level of deductions from payments ‘will see more people with no option but to go into debt’.
Thousands of Universal Credit claimants are having 40% of their benefit deducted to pay back outstanding debts.Labour MP Ruth George said the high level of deductions from payments “will see more people with no option but to go into debt”.
The Department for Work and Pensions said there were safeguards to protect benefit claimants from big reductions. But figures obtained by Ms George show just how many Universal Credit claimants are having major chunks of their benefit deducted every month.
In January, 6% of all Universal Credit full service claims had 40% deducted from their standard allowance, according to figures released in response to a written parliamentary question. DWP also says a small percentage of less than 0.5% of claims had total deductions of more than 40%.
In these cases, deductions for rent or fuel costs are applied first, in order to protect claimant welfare. But the whole deductions system has prompted concerns among MPs and charities over the impact on claimants.
Ms George, a member of the Work and Pensions select committee, said she was very worried about the low level of income people are left with. “Support under Universal Credit is already below poverty levels for many groups, especially lone parents and disabled people,” she said.
“It is almost impossible to repay a loan when your income is so low, and the high cost of credit for people on low incomes creates a vicious circle of debt.”
DWP can directly collect debts from Universal Credit payments, including for previous benefit and tax credits overpayments and certain third party debts such as council tax and rent arrears.
Additional deductions can also be made to repay advance payments for Universal Credit. Claimants face higher levels of deductions under Universal Credit compared to the old legacy benefits system.
Under tax credits, the maximum deduction is 25% of the award for those whose total income is less than £20,000 a year. Some 20% of Universal Credit payments are now often deducted to pay for rent arrears, compared to a standard rate of 5% on legacy benefits.
In a major report on Universal Credit last year, charity Citizens Advice said more than half of its advisers it spoke to had helped claimants who were having problems with deductions. Advisers cited concerns over higher rates, including cases not involving benefit fraud, as well as fears that higher deductions for rent arrears were causing claimants to access foodbanks or other welfare funds.
The issue of fraud and benefit overpayments is also contentious, given many errors are caused by officials rather than claimants. DWP fraud and error statistics show that in 2015/16 and 2016/17 around a third of all Universal Credit overpayments were caused by official error, be it by the DWP, a local authority or HMRC.
Some £90 million was overpaid out of £1.6 billion given out through Universal Credit in 2016/17, according to the same figures.
DWP says it has a duty to recoup all overpaid benefits, regardless of who was at fault. In the most recent month for which figures are available, 40,521 claimants had a deduction from their Universal Credit in relation to a benefit overpayment, which related to their legacy benefits.
The mean value of the outstanding balances was £1,082.50 and the median figure £332.55.
A previous Freedom of Information request revealed that between April 2016 and October 2017, 95,620 Universal Credit claimants had deductions made from their payments due to debt on tax credits.
Campaigners have sounded the alarm over the debt issue for Universal Credit claimants for a variety of reasons. The long waiting period for claimants to get their first payment has been linked to higher rent arrears and people turning to payday lenders.
The Government cut the waiting time from six weeks to five at last year’s Budget, as well as allowing households to get an advance of a full month’s payment within five days of applying. But Ms George said this would increase the number of people whose ongoing Universal Credit payments are reduced.
Other concerns have been raised about poor administration in the system and difficulties some families have adjusting to Universal Credit, such as budgeting for monthly payments and rents not being paid directly to landlords.
A DWP spokeswoman said: “We have a duty to the taxpayer to recover any overpayments and we recovered £1.1 billion last year.
“People are told about this in advance and they are recovered by regular deductions. “There are safeguards in place to protect claimants from large deductions being taken at one time and budgeting support is available to help people manage their money.”
Exclusive: Michelle Moloney, 40, who suffers from bipolar disorder type 2 and severe anxiety, was left unable to buy groceries after it was wrongly claimed she failed to attend assessment
A mentally ill woman has had her disability benefits stopped because her assessor failed to turn up to a home visit, leaving her unable to buy basic groceries and suffering high levels of anxiety.
Michelle Moloney, 40, was left hundreds of pounds down after she was informed by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) that because she “didn’t go” the assessment her Disability Living Allowance (DLA) would stop and her Personal Independent Payment (PIP) had been refused.
Capita, the company sub-contracted by the government to carry out disability benefit assessments, has since said the assessor arrived at the wrong time and apologised to Ms Moloney that their service “fell short of its high standards”.
Ms Moloney, who lives in Nottinghamshire and suffers from bipolar disorder type 2, severe anxiety, and has a history of self-harm, received a letter from the DWP on 28 February stating that her PIP claim had been refused.
It went on to state: “This is because you didn’t go to the assessment on 14 February 2018 and we don’t think you’ve given us a good reason for this.”
When Ms Moloney sent a letter of complaint to Capita with the help of a friend, they responded on 14 March saying that based on information they had received from the assessor (“a description of her house”) meant they were “unable to uphold” the complaint.
But after being contacted by The Independent, Capita sent Ms Moloney another email on 28 March stating: “Following a further review of your appointment on 14 February 2018 it became apparent the Disability Assessor attended your property earlier than the scheduled appointment time.
“DWP agreed to send the case back to Capita for a new appointment. I can confirm an appointment has been scheduled for 9.15am on Monday 16 April 2018 at your home address.” As a result of the error, Ms Moloney missed out on £685 last month, which left her unable to eat properly and suffering from high levels of anxiety.
“I’ve not done my usual online shop. I’ve been living off bread and cheese rather than getting proper food to cook. I’ve been scared to spend money. I cancelled everything that wasn’t a must be paid direct debit,” she told The Independent.
“It’s increased my anxiety levels too, worrying about it and what I was going to do without that money and how long it would take for an appeal to get to a tribunal. “It has really upset me, more so because they messed up and stopped all my ESA instead of just the severe disability premium on it and I didn’t have any idea what was going on with that. “Just losing the DLA, being refused PIP and having to figure out what I needed to do to start the process of appealing was stressful. My mood has dropped a lot.”
Charity Disability Rights UK said they routinely see poor practice in the way disability assessments are carried out, saying it was “unacceptable” that private companies are paid large sums of money to provide this service.
Ken Butler, welfare benefits advisor at the charity, told The Independent: “Time and time again we hear of poor assessment practices when it comes to disability benefits. This has a massive impact on people who qualify but are turned down for benefits because of bad administration and decision making.
“It’s unacceptable that companies like Capita, Atos and Maximus are paid hundreds of millions of pounds every year to provide a service to the public and are allowed to continue with their poor practices.
“The government should be doing more to hold them to account, and penalising them when they fail to deliver.”
He urged the government to “seriously consider” transferring responsibility for assessments to the public sector, rather than allowing them to be used as a “profit-making exercise”.
“In the meantime, disabled people must fully compensated for any extra costs they’ve incurred as a result of a poor assessment,” he added.
A Capita spokesperson, said: “We apologise to the individual that our service fell short of our high standards. On the rare occasion that this does happen, we investigate thoroughly and work with the person directly to address their issue.”
They added that they had been advised by DWP that her benefits have been reinstated.
It emerged last month that Capita and Independent Assessment Services (formerly known as Atos) – another private firm contracted by the government to carry out disability assessments – received a £40m increase in funding last year despite widespread concerns with the system.
A freedom of information request by The Independent found the DWP paid the companies nearly £255m last year to perform PIP assessments – the highest amount spent on the scheme since its launch in 2013.
It came after the High Court ruled the system was “blatantly discriminatory” against people with mental health conditions, prompting the Government to announce it will review 1.6 million disability benefit claims. It could see up to 220,000 claimants receive higher payments.
The DWP came under fire last week after an investigation by the National Audit Office revealed the department had underpaid an estimated 70,000 people who transferred to ESA from other benefits over the past seven years.
‘A relentless conveyor belt’: Grim Tory benefits regime exposed in the words of this former disability assessor
A whistleblower says assessors have just 15 minutes to read claimants’ medical history before interviewing them
A former benefits assessor today exposes the grim world of the Tories’ “unfair” and “ethically questionable” disability regime.
Staff have just 15 minutes to read claimants’ medical history before interviewing them for vital Personal Independence Payment (PIP), the whistleblower said. And the process is such a “relentless conveyer belt” that they skip toilet and lunch breaks – just to get “10 seconds” back in the day.
PIP, worth £22 to £141 a week, is meant to be a fairer way for 1.6million disabled people meet everyday costs. But in a Mirror interview, the healthcare professional said they saw vulnerable people through “two worlds – the real world and the PIP world.”
Rigid and “uneven” rules meant some people who obviously needed help were denied the benefit, the assessor claimed. And some staff were reluctant to score claimants higher – because they could be “told to change” their decision by bosses.
“For staff it’s probably relentless, for claimants it’s probably unfair, and as a professional I think it just needs improving,” the expert told us.
“I think the process was questionable from a clinical point of view. “If I got my code of ethics out, there were things I was having difficulty reasoning in my head.” Our source worked for a number of years for outsourcing giant Atos, which the government has paid more than £480million to assess people for PIP since 2013.
PIP is replacing the old Disability Living Allowance – but campaigners say assessments for the new benefit are unfit for purpose. Of 947,000 people moving from DLA to PIP, almost half (46%) had their payments downgraded or stopped.
Our source, who resigned amid concerns over the “unpleasant” system, told us the “intense” and “frustrating” daily routine for staff had an effect on claimants. They said: “You’re basically given four slots a day and those slots are fixed. You don’t organise your own diary.” That left 15 to 30 minutes to read claimants’ medical history before starting an assessment, the source said – if the centre was not overbooked that day.
Some claimants had just an application form and GP’s letter. But sometimes “you think great, I’ve got 15, 20, 80 bits – I’ve had 80 bits of evidence before – how am I going to read through that? “Atos won’t say ‘we give them 15 minutes or half an hour to read through’, they would just say ‘we’ll give them as long as they need’.
“But in reality, if I’ve got a 9am appointment, I know at 11am I’ve got somebody [else] coming in.” Our expert said appointments last 45 minutes to an hour, and guidance was to spend 105 minutes on each claimant’s case.
But if someone needed an interpreter or had complications, “booking times go out the window”. “I could have somebody come in with arthritis on their big toe and somebody come in with multiple mental health conditions,” the source said. “You generally get the same slot.”
The assessor claimed staff were so pressed for the time that they would skip lunch and toilet breaks. “You look for 10 seconds, anything you can grab, because you know you’re going to be pushed,” they added.
The second problem was the rigid criteria to decide if people were disabled enough. “We’ll have two worlds – there’s the real world and the PIP world,” the assessor said. “In the real world, you think right, I know they will find it difficult to get dressed.
“But because the definitions are so specific, it’s sometimes difficult to award them a higher level.” Shocking blunders in the past have led to questions over assessors’ competence. One claimant with no dog who couldn’t walk was told they regularly walked their dog. Another was asked: “When did you catch Down’s syndrome?”
Our source insisted staff were highly-trained as nurses, paramedics, physiotherapists or occupational therapists, with pay starting around £30,000. Instead the assessor blamed the scoring system – and audits that check it’s being followed.
Atos assessors give people ‘points’ for everyday tasks they can’t do. If someone scores below eight, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) denies them the benefit. But assessors can have their reports “amended” by superiors – and if it happens too often, they are put on a performance review.
The assessor agreed it was right to check reports but said the process was “uneven”. “It goes both ways,” our source said. “I’ve had reports back where auditors have told me to score higher. But I’ve also had reports where they’ve told me to score lower.
“What I’ve found is, more often than not, it’s more difficult to score people higher. I think it’s uneven.” Our source added: “You’re getting this stuff sent back and you’re thinking God, I really know this person needs assistance. No way they can do it.
“And it will be sent back and an auditor will basically be telling you ‘no, that’s not the case’. “What they’ll do is they’ll pick some other evidence in the report that supports their point. “In my opinion that evidence is sometimes weaker. But you’re essentially told to change it.” They said it took a toll on staff saying: “It’s led to so many colleagues leaving. On a daily basis it drives people nuts.”
A spokesman for Atos’ PIP arm Independent Assessment Services said: “We listen carefully to all feedback provided by those being assessed, and continually adjust our service to help deliver an enhanced experience for all involved. “Our Health Professionals (HPs) are able to take as long as they need to understand a claimant’s health condition or disability.
“All assessments are conducted in accordance with DWP policy, and there is no incentive or encouragement given to HPs to conduct an assessment in any way that would lead to a certain outcome.”
A DWP spokeswoman said: “Assessments work for the majority of people, with 87% of PIPclaimants telling us that they’re happy with their overall experience. “But one person’s poor experience of PIP is one too many, and we’re committed to continuously improving the process for claimants.
“We expect the highest standards from our assessment providers, and we work closely with them to ensure that all claimants receive objective, accurate and high quality assessments.”
“The stress of it froze me to the spot and I cried”
Janet Roberts burst into tears when she opened the letter that slashed her benefits in 2016. The gran-of-two had been unable to work for four years after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s aged 44.
But after an hour-long assessment for PIP at her St Albans home, her mobility payments were cut – from the full rate under the old DLA benefit to zero. Janet faced losing her adapted Motability car on her 30th wedding anniversary to husband Aubrey, 76.
But to her relief a DWP internal appeal restored her benefits with days to spare. The former NHS microbiologist, now 57, told the Mirror: “I just couldn’t believe it. “The stress of it froze me to the spot and I cried, because it was going to make such a difference to my quality of life.
“I had been living with this condition for 10 years. It is a rotten condition that greatly takes away all sorts of bits of your body and relationships. “To decide it was nothing felt like a real insult.”
Janet claimed the assessment was “not fit for purpose” because it didn’t account properly for her condition changing from one hour to the next. She said: “They ask how far you can walk. When my medication’s working I can walk reasonably far – but there’s six or seven times a day when I basically can’t move.” She added: “I had taken my medication at the right time so I was in my optimum physical state when I was there. “I said ‘if you wait ten minutes you will see me in the off state’ but the reply was ‘I don’t need to’.”
PIP is paid in two parts, ‘mobility’ and ‘daily living’, and following her appeal Janet now gets both. But she feared she had lost her mobility payments for around four months while the appeal went through. Thousands wait longer because they appeal to an independent tribunal.
Janet helped charity Parkinson’s UK hand a 33,000-strong petition to Downing Street last month calling for reform to the assessment process. She said the system can be “brutal”, adding: “There needs to be a certain amount of individualism.
“It’s almost like disabled people sometimes are [treated] like a different species – but we’re human beings with real struggles.”
Important case law for people transferring from DLA to PIP. The Upper Tribunal makes a decision that makes it clear that there should be a connection between the new PIP award and the previous DLA award.
An Upper Tribunal has said that, when someone is reassessed for PIP after being on DLA, there is a direct connection between the level of the DLA award and the level of the new PIP award.
The tribunal has said that claimants should get an award of PIP which is similar to the award they had on DLA.
Where the new award is not similar to the old DLA award there needs to be a good reason for not continuing with a similar award.
The DLA to PIP transfer problem
As most people on DLA will be aware, everyone on DLA is being invited to claim PIP and be re-assessed for PIP.
For many DLA claimants this has resulted in significant differences between what they received on DLA and what they are awarded on PIP.
The test case that the Upper Tribunal looked at
In the case (CPIP/3272/2016) the Upper Tribunal looked at, a claimant who got Middle Rate Care and High Rate Mobility on DLA was awarded no points when re-assessed for PIP. A First Tier Tribunal (the appeal hearing that follows a Mandatory Reconsideration) had previously looked at the case and accepted the DWP decision to award no points. The claimant appealed to the Upper Tribunal, saying that this made no sense.
What the Upper Tribunal decided
The Upper Tribunal said that it was a long-established legal principle in social security law that Tribunals must give good reasons why it was making no or a lesser award when a substantial one had been made under a predecessor benefit. (This is known as the R(M)1/96 principle, after the case which established it).The Upper Tribunal said that it accepted that DLA law and PIP law are different and that you cannot argue that an award of DLA automatically entitled someone to a similar PIP award.
However, the Upper Tribunal also said that the evidence and factors influencing decisions were often the same for the two benefits. Because of this, the UT decided, the R(M) 1/96 principle applied to DLA to PIP re-assessments.
This means that Tribunals must adequately explain why someone’s PIP award is very different from their earlier DLA award. If they do not give any reasons, or not good enough reasons, then the Tribunal’s decision is not legally valid and can be set aside. Another Tribunal would then need to make a fresh decision.
How can you use this decision?
If you get a PIP award which is very different to your DLA award, and you appeal that to the independent Tribunal, the DWP are going to be obliged to explain to the Tribunal why the award is different.It will not be enough for the DWP to say, as they do now, that the law is different and so DLA awards have nothing to do with PIP awards.
If the Tribunal cannot find a good reason why your PIP award should be very different from your DLA award, it will have to make a PIP award which is in line with your DLA award. In time, this may push Tribunals to thinking that an equivalent award of PIP to that previously received on DLA is the ‘usual’ situation. But see the important note below.
In time, this UT decision ought to change DWP policy so that decision-makers start looking at previous DLA awards when making PIP awards and asking themselves why the PIP is different from the DLA award.
If there is a good reason why your PIP award is different to your DLA award, and the DWP or Tribunal can say what that good reason is, then legally you can still have a PIP award very different to your DLA award.
Good reasons might be that your conditions have changed since your DLA award, or that PIP law treats the same condition or impairment very differently from DLA award.
This particularly applies to mobility awards under PIP. High Rate Mobility under DLA was awarded to people who were unable or virtually unable to walk. In deciding whether someone was virtually unable to walk, a rule of thumb (not a hard rule) was whether you could reliably and repeatedly walk about 50 m. Under PIP, Enhanced Mobility (ignoring planning and following journeys) is awarded to people who cannot reliably and repeatedly walk only 20 m. So there is a perfectly good reason why someone who was awarded High Rate Mobility on DLA has not been awarded Enhanced Mobility for PIP – they couldn’t walk 50 m, but they can walk 20 to 50 m. If this walking test applies to you, this Upper Tribunal decision will not help you.
If from now on you get a PIP award which is very different to your earlier DLA award, you can now ask the DWP to explain why the decision is different, quoting this case as your authority. You can do this in your mandatory reconsideration. If the DWP fail to give good reasons, you can ask a Tribunal to set-aside or dismiss the DWP’s PIP award quoting this Upper Tribunal decision.
If from now on a Tribunal doesn’t give good reasons why they have awarded you less PIP than you had on DLA, then you can quote this Upper Tribunal decision to ask a Regional Tribunal Judge or the Upper Tribunal to set-aside the Tribunal’s decision and give you another hearing.
You will need to ask the Tribunal for a Statement of Reasons to know whether or not they found a good reason.
When does this apply from? The Upper Tribunal made this decision on 17 January 2018. As it applies a new legal principle, it only applies to claims decided by DWP after that date.
Hopefully, in time, the DWP too may start thinking that an equivalent award of PIP to that previously received on DLA is the ‘usual’ situation. However, for now, it is likely that you will only see this new principle being applied in appeal hearings. If you have an adviser or representative, please make sure they are aware of this principle and that they bring it to the attention of the appeal panel if you are having to challenge a DLA to PIP award decision.
The BASE adviser team will be happy to answer any questions you have on this article or any questions on other benefits that you need help and support with.
Want to know more about BASE and how we work?
Check out our web site here