The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is facing claims that it is deliberately misleading benefit claimants into thinking they have no right of appeal if they miss the deadline for applying for the new personal independence payment (PIP).
There are also claims that it is failing to make it clear enough to existing disability living allowance (DLA) claimants that they will lose their support if they miss that deadline, even if they have been given lifetime DLA awards.
Increasing numbers of long-term DLA claimants are now being told they need to apply for PIP, but are given just 28 days to do so.
If they miss that deadline, their DLA is suspended. And if they fail to claim PIP in the next 28 days, their DLA is “terminated” and cannot be reinstated, and they have to make an entirely new claim for PIP.
This could mean months without any financial support to cover the extra costs they face as a disabled person.
One long-term DLA claimant, Patricia Sadowski, a single mother with six-year-old twins, from Essex, has come forward to expose DWP’s actions.
Like hundreds of thousands of other DLA claimants, she was on a lifetime award – at the middle rate care and higher rate mobility – but still needs to go through the assessment process in the move to PIP.
DWP claims it sent her a circular in November, telling her she had just 28 days to make a PIP claim, and then another circular six weeks later, three days before Christmas, to remind her that if she did not put in a PIP claim her DLA would be terminated.
But Sadowski insists that she did not receive either of the circulars, and the first she knew that her DLA was being stopped was when she realised that her money had not appeared in her bank account.
She said DWP has refused to send her copies of the circulars it claims to have sent her.
At the time, in December, she had just come out of hospital and was “barely conscious”, due to a complex condition caused by lesions on her brain that have left her with complex neurological symptoms, including sight and memory problems.
Even if she did receive the letters, she said, she would have been unaware of their importance.
She has seen versions of the circulars online and says they look like regular DLA circulars, are vaguely-worded, and include just one paragraph about the need to make a PIP claim.
And she said that DWP’s safeguarding arrangements should have picked up her failure to respond, as the department was aware of her neurological condition.
But she also insisted that she was careful to keep all of her benefits paperwork and does not have the two circulars, and added: “Although I can misunderstand things, I don’t destroy things willy-nilly. I have been hyper-aware of the PIP transition for years.”
When she realised her DLA was no longer being paid, she contacted DWP, but was told that according to guidance issued to staff she had no right of appeal, and would have to submit a fresh PIP claim instead.
But Sadowski has discovered that the legislation – and the regulations introduced to cover the transition from DLA to PIP – makes it clear that there is a right of appeal, through the new mandatory reconsideration process, and then potentially to a social security tribunal.
She said: “The DWP were saying, ‘No reconsideration, no appeal.’ When people are trying to appeal they get an absolute wall of silence.”
After months of fighting with DWP – and with the support of her MP, the former work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith – she has now secured a right to appeal, although DWP has already confirmed its decision to terminate her DLA through the mandatory reconsideration, so she will now need to appeal to a tribunal.
Because of DWP’s actions, she now has to live on just £115 a week from employment and support allowance, leaving her more than £170 a week worse off, as she was also claiming severe disability premium.
Sadowski said she believes DWP is trying to catch people out in the transition process from DLA to PIP.
She said: “I think it is very hard to justify how every single member of DWP has never heard of the transition regulations and cannot refer to them.”
She said the way she had been treated by DWP was “humiliating” and tantamount to “fraud”.
She said: “When you have an untreatable condition with a lifetime award that is responded to in this way it makes you feel that you are not a full citizen, that you are not respected by society.
“The whole system is set up to make sure you are not worth the help and support you’re entitled to.”
And she said she feared for the well-being of those who have not had the education and support she has had, and their ability to fight what is a “very complicated and deliberately complicated process”.
A DWP spokesman said the department told Ms Sadowski in a letter on 21 January that her DLA claim had been terminated.
He said the department disputed Sadowski’s claim that DWP staff were telling DLA claimants they had no right to appeal in situations like hers, and that DWP was deliberately trying to catch DLA claimants out with its circulars.
He also said that DWP guidance on the PIP transition process does not state that there is no right of appeal for people in her situation, although he said that DWP would be amending the guidance.
He said there was an ongoing “extensive review of all communications on the claim and assessment process, including letters, claim forms, information booklets and material on the Gov.uk website”.
He said the letters that are sent to DLA claimants had been “revised”, while further changes had then been made following feedback from claimants during testing of the new format, “including giving clearer information about the process and more information on how to claim PIP”.
He said: “We are continuing to analyse our communications to ensure we reflect the claimant experience and act on feedback we receive.”