Benefit assessment system undermined by culture of mistrust, say MPs

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The disability benefit assessment system is being undermined by a “pervasive culture of mistrust”, fuelled by widespread claims that assessors are deliberately trying to prevent disabled people receiving the support they are entitled to, according to a committee of MPs.

The long-awaited report by the Commons work and pensions committee describes how many claimants of personal independence payment (PIP) and employment and support allowance (ESA) have reported dishonesty by the healthcare professionals who have carried out their face-to-face assessments.

The report says the culture of mistrust this has produced means that assessors “risk being viewed as, at best lacking in competence and at worst, actively deceitful”.

The committee’s report substantiates evidence provided by hundreds of disabled people who have contacted Disability News Service (DNS) over the last 15 months to describe the dishonesty of the healthcare professionals who assessed them.

A separate report published earlier in the week includes examples from the “unprecedented” response from claimants who had submitted evidence to the committee, with nearly 4,000 submissions.

The committee says this response was “remarkable” in the “consistency of the themes that emerged”, including claims that assessment reports “bore little or no relation to their circumstances or what had occurred during the assessment”.

Claimants, said the committee, “do not believe assessors can be trusted to record what took place during the assessment accurately”.

One example quoted by the committee comes from Mary, a PIP claimant who first told her story last year to DNS (she was named ‘Elizabeth’ by DNS).

She told the committee how the assessor wrote in her report that she “arose from the chair without any difficulty” when in fact she “was in bed the whole time (she let herself in) and I only have the one chair in the room and she was sitting in it”.

Another who submitted evidence said: “I did most of the talking as my partner was drowsy with his medication, but in the statement with the PIP decision [it said that]my partner was chatty. Completely untrue.”

A third claimant told the committee: “I was attacked with a deadly weapon only a short time before my assessment. 

“The man threatened my life, on a walk with my dog. So the assessor wrote that I like to talk to people on my walk.”

A fourth claimant said: “The assessor claimed in the report to have completed an extensive examination of me during the assessment.

“She listed a breakdown of her observations regarding the movement of all my limbs and joints.

“In reality though my assessment was only fifteen minutes long and the assessor didn’t examine me at all.”

The committee calls in its report for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to improve trust in the system by offering the opportunity for all face-to-face assessments to be audio recorded, and by providing a copy of the written assessment report to all claimants.

The evidence provided to DNS helped persuade the committee last year to investigate what Frank Field, the committee’s chair, described as “concerning reports about the operation of the PIP assessment process”.

He later said that DNS had “provided us with a useful series of case studies that acted as a further catalyst” for calling an emergency evidence session last March, which subsequently led to the launch of the inquiry.

The committee had appeared last year to be trying to avoid discussing allegations of dishonesty that had been raised by DNS, refusing to ask welfare rights experts about such claims in the urgent evidence session, and then neglecting to raise the issue of dishonesty in a letter seeking further evidence about the PIP assessment process.

But the sheer weight of the allegations submitted by PIP claimants appears to have convinced the committee that these claims were valid, even if there was no explicit statement in this week’s report that the MPs believed there was dishonesty in the assessment process.

Despite the role played by DNS in persuading the committee to investigate the PIP assessment process, neither Field, nor Heidi Allen, the senior Conservative member of the committee – the two MPs who were said to be available for interviews – agreed to talk to DNS this week.

A spokeswoman for the committee declined to say if the refusal to be interviewed was connected with DNS reports that have criticised Field and his colleagues.

Those reports questioned why they failed to ask the minister for disabled people about figures suggesting attempted suicides among people claiming out-of-work disability benefits may have doubled between 2007 and 2014, following the introduction of the work capability assessment, which tests eligibility for ESA.

In response to the committee’s report, a DWP spokeswoman said: “As the [committee]highlights, assessments work for the majority of people, with 83 per cent of ESA claimants and 76 per cent of PIP claimants telling us that they’re happy with their overall experience.

“However, our aim has to be that every person feels they are treated fairly, with respect and dignity.

“We are committed to continuously improving the experience of our claimants; that is why we’ve commissioned five independent reviews of the work capability assessment – accepting over 100 recommendations – and two independent reviews of PIP assessments.

“We continue to work closely with our providers to ensure people receive high quality assessments, and are exploring options around recordings to promote greater transparency and trust.”