A disabled woman has told how she has been forced to wait more than 14 months to be assessed for the government’s new disability benefit, just days after a Tory minister praised his own performance in cutting waiting-times.
Hannah Wells, from Ascot, Berkshire, told Disability News Service (DNS) that she put in her application for personal independence payment (PIP) in November 2013, with her claim logged by Atos Healthcare early the following month.
It is the longest wait yet by a PIP claimant to be reported by DNS.
She has already had two assessments at the Atos centre in Reading cancelled this year – the first one in January 2015, and the second one this week – because of staff sickness.
And she has been told by Atos that she is “not the only one waiting for an assessment from 2013”.
Debt-collectors are now “knocking on the door”, she is unable to afford the healthy diet she needs (she has type one diabetes, among a number of health conditions), and she cannot afford to run her car or to move to more appropriate housing.
She is also unable to apply for other linked support from her local authority because she is not yet receiving PIP, and is surviving on out-of-work disability benefits, having been placed last November in the employment and support allowance support group, for those with the highest barriers to work.
Wells said: “The system is torturing disabled people who are severely dependant on what they are legally entitled to.
“I worked for more than 20 years and paid into the system. It is torture, making you jump through hoops to get what you are entitled to. It is absolutely wicked.
“It has left me financially crippled. My car is left rotting outside and there is nothing I can do.
“If I get my backdated PIP, I can pay off all the bills and get back to having a real life.”
She tried complaining to DWP, but was told there was nothing they could do to pressure Atos.
And now she fears that she will have to wait even longer, as a disabled friend who himself has been waiting more than six months for an assessment in Reading has been handed a date in April.
An Atos spokeswoman apologised for the latest cancellation but refused to comment on the wait of 14 months.
She said in a statement: “We are now conducting over 2,000 PIP assessments every day and people are being seen as swiftly as possible.”
A DWP spokesman said: “We apologise for the length of time Ms Wells has had to wait. Any PIP award agreed for Ms Wells following her assessment will be backdated.
“We have made significant progress in reducing waiting times.”
Mark Harper, the Conservative minister for disabled people, defended the PIP reforms when he gave evidence to the work and pensions select committee on 28 January.
He said the government had “made a lot of progress compared with where we were in the unacceptable period last summer”, although he said he was “not satisfied with where we are”.
He added: “When the prime minister asked me to do this job, he said this was the top priority for me to sort out, and I have said that consistently since, and it has been and I think we have made considerable process.
“We have hit the secretary of state’s ambition to get the process functioning now in the shape that is acceptable, but we still have more work to do.”
New DWP figures released just before the hearing showed that although the average waiting-time for a PIP assessment had fallen from 30 weeks to 14 weeks, one in 11 of those who had lodged a new PIP claim since the benefit’s launch in April 2013 was still waiting to be assessed, and had been waiting longer than 16 weeks.
Those figures suggested that just under 50,000 claimants had – like Hannah Wells – been waiting longer than 16 weeks for an assessment.
Harper declined to tell MPs on the committee the length of the current longest wait for an assessment.