Short-cuts introduced to reduce the backlog of applications for the government’s new disability benefit have made it easier to reject claims, according to the main union representing Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) staff.
The union’s evidence suggests that efforts to cut the “huge backlog” of claims for personal independence payment (PIP) have instead increased mistakes and potential appeals and brought DWP staff close to “breaking point”.
DWP disputed nearly all of the union’s claims, and said that its performance in dealing with PIP claims had “improved significantly”.
The PCS Union claims that DWP staff were told to make only one telephone call to PIP claimants who miss their assessment. If that call is unsuccessful, the claim is automatically “disallowed”.
A DWP spokesman said there was “simply no directive to only attempt one telephone call”, although claimants who failed to comply with the claim process “may delay their claim”.
PCS also says that DWP decision-makers have been told to make decisions based only on the information given by the assessment-providers Atos and Capita, even if they need further medical evidence to make a “fully informed decision” on a PIP claim.
Again, DWP says this is not correct and that if DWP decision-makers “feel that further evidence is required then this will be obtained”.
DWP is also trialling new rules that stop staff from calling claimants to explain why their PIP claims have been rejected.
DWP did not dispute this, and said that such calls were “not the best use of the decision makers’ time when they could be dealing with other cases”.
The union says the measures were all introduced to help cut the backlog of claims for PIP, which is gradually replacing working-age disability living allowance.
They are included in the union’s response to a call for evidence for the first independent review of PIP, which was written late last year.
As the review report concentrated on other issues, the PCS concerns were not highlighted by the author of the review, Paul Gray.
As well as the shortcuts, the PCS evidence says there has been “intense pressure on DWP staff to decide upon claims as quickly as possible”.
The union adds: “The number of PIP decisions that DWP staff are expected to make each day has recently been doubled and three times a day decision-makers are questioned by managers as to their progress that day.
“This is increasing the pressure and stress that DWP staff are under to breaking point.”
The DWP spokesman said this claim was “unfounded” and that “many of the improvements that we have made to our processes have been as a direct result of suggestions made by our staff”.
He added: “Decision-maker productivity has doubled from four cases a day in June to more than eight cases a day as of the current time.”
The union also says that DWP “greatly underestimated” how many staff it would need to process PIP claims, so there is now “an acute shortage of both administrative staff and decision-makers”.
The DWP spokesman also dismissed this claim, and said: “As the volumes of claims have increased we have increased the numbers of DWP staff working on PIP.
“In June 2014 we were employing around 1,100 staff to process PIP claims and by December 2014 this had risen to around 1,800 staff, which is in line with our forecasts.”
The DWP spokesman added: “Our performance has improved significantly and the latest stats show that the average claimant now waits 14 weeks for an assessment.
“Furthermore, the number of cases dealt with by the assessment providers has quadrupled in the last year.
“We are committed to building on this progress and achieving further reductions in claimant waiting times.”
But Philip Connolly, policy and communications manager for Disability Rights UK, said: “This government has been critical of centrally imposed targets and inefficient controls so it is natural that we could expect the government to oppose targets for PIP assessments that cannot be met with current resources and that inefficiently move the backlog into another folder labelled ‘appeals’.
“The government has access to statistics (for example, from PIP assessments completed) that suggest that some groups of people with some conditions could be removed from the need for face-to-face PIP assessments and automatically awarded the payment.”
He added: “At the root of the PIP backlog is a log jam in thinking about how to resolve delays to thousands of disabled people. We need to remove both the backlog and the log jam.”
Charles Law, an industrial officer with PCS, and its main spokesperson on DWP issues, said DWP was “still under enormous pressure to reduce the time taken to process PIP claims”, and the measures “increase the likelihood of mistakes being made and errors being made, rather than people having a reasonable amount of time to consider the decision”.
He said: “It is sure to increase the risk of error and indeed the risk of appeals, which therefore brings more work into the system.
“I would guess that most, if not all, of those measures are still to some extent in place.
“It would be very surprising if there has been any significant easing off of the pressure on our members.”
Law said PCS wanted to see “quite a fundamental overhaul” in how PIP claims are dealt with, and an end to private outsourcing companies such as Atos and Capita being handed the assessment contracts.
Government figures released last month showed that ministers broke their high-profile promise to slash all PIP waiting-times to less than four months by the end of 2014.
By the end of 2014, nearly 60,000 claimants had been waiting longer than 16 weeks just to be assessed.
From 8 April 2013 to 31 December 2014, more than 523,000 new claims were referred to Capita and Atos for an assessment, but the two providers had delivered only about 388,000 assessments (74 per cent).
In September 2014, the queue for PIP assessments reached more than 175,000 claimants.