A disabled benefit claimant is set to take the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to court over its refusal to allow him to communicate with its civil servants via email.
Mark Lucas is facing a reassessment of his personal independence payment (PIP) claim next month, but is refusing to return his claim form by post because he does not think a paper-based system is secure.
He has asked DWP to allow him to communicate via email as a reasonable adjustment under the Equality Act, but says he was told this was not possible.
Now he expects to lose his PIP next month – he currently receives the standard rate of the daily living component – because of his refusal to submit a written claim form.
He has secured legal aid and a lawyer to fight his case and seek damages for disability discrimination.
Lucas, from Staffordshire, told Disability News Service (DNS) that he does not trust DWP to deal with benefit claims by paper because it previously altered a written statement he had submitted in 2013 as part of a jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) claim while he was at university, and then accused him of fraud and fined him £2,500.
DWP eventually agreed that he would not have to pay the fine, he said, after he proved that a DWP officer had added a paragraph to the statement, but he also took the case to tribunal – and won – so he could clear his name.
Lucas, who used to work in IT, said there are ways to check that the contents of an email have not subsequently been altered.
Another reason for his wish to communicate via email is that one of the side-effects of the epilepsy medication he is taking is memory loss, and it is much easier for him to keep track of communication if done by email.
With communication via post, DWP can claim that a page of a letter was missing or the letter itself never arrived, he said.
Lucas said DWP used such tactics to “target people who cannot fight back”, by making it easier to force more disabled people off benefits, and so cut the social security bill.
He said: “They would not be able to get away with what they have been able to get away with if they allowed email.”
He added: “They are providing a service for disabled people. They should make the service as inclusive as possible.”
And he pointed out that he was able to provide all of his documents safely to the tribunal service via email.
He said that the way he was treated following the JSA fine led to a “mental breadown”.
He was denied PIP at the same time, as a result of the fraud claim, and was left “destitute” for a year while he cleared his name, forcing him to live off an overdraft and building up about £500 in bank charges that he is still trying to persuade DWP to reimburse.
He only had his PIP reinstated in December 2015.
Lucas said he is hoping that other disabled people who take medication that effects their memory will benefit from his court case if he is successful.
A DWP spokeswoman said in a statement: “We do not recognise this version of events. If Mr Lucas requires a reasonable adjustment he can raise this and it can be implemented for future correspondence.
“Claimants are entitled to request to receive all communications from the department by email on the grounds of disability under the Equality Act 2010.
“When such a request is received, it must be for a valid reason which relates to the individual’s disability, that is, the customer finds it more difficult or they are unable to communicate and use our services through usual communication and contact routes because of their disability.
“We would also seek to explore whether alternative adjustments (eg large print/Braille) may suffice, but if this is not possible then email communications may be agreed.
“We don’t email claimants as a matter of course due to the potential risks these pose to citizens and DWP.
“In addition DWP must operate within its legislative framework and follow our business processes including records management. Therefore email correspondence must be carefully managed.”
The spokeswoman was subsequently told last night (Wednesday) that DNS had heard a recording of a member of staff in DWP’s PIP department telling Lucas: “We will not communicate via email.”
The DWP spokeswoman had not responded to this further evidence by noon today (Thursday).