The assessment process for the government’s new personal independence payment (PIP) disability benefit is “distressing, inconsistent and not fit for purpose”, according to the results of an inquiry by a panel of local councillors.
The review took evidence in person from seven disabled PIP claimants, and heard in writing from three more.
They told the group how the healthcare professionals who assessed them had offered little eye contact, and were “rude, abrupt and appeared uncaring”, while some said the subsequent assessment report they were shown “bore no resemblance to what they had told the assessor during the face-to-face assessment”.
One told the review group: “The assessment report stated that the assessor had watched me bend down and put something into the bin; I did not, I used my foot to open the bin.”
Another said: “He (assessor) had asked me to stand on my tiptoes which I could not do and after trying a few times and not managing it he told me not to bother again [but]this was not mentioned in his report.”
Claimants described how, after going through a lengthy process to secure a two-year PIP award, they received a letter from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) just six months later, telling them they needed to start a new claim.
The report says: “Many spoke of the continual stress this placed them under.”
Several of those who gave evidence said the assessment process “had had a negative impact on their mental health and their conditions had deteriorated as a result”.
The review was set up by Stoke-on-Trent City Council’s adults and neighbourhoods overview and scrutiny committee after serious concerns about the PIP assessment process were raised by a local disabled people’s organisation, Disability Solutions West Midlands (DSWM).
The review group concluded that the treatment of claimants was “inconsistent”, and the assessment process was “too long, too distressing, inconsistent and not fit for purpose”.
Disability News Service (DNS) has itself collected more than 250 cases of PIP claimants who have described – in varying levels of detail – how assessors from government contractors Atos and Capita lied in their written PIP assessment reports.
The council review also heard from local organisations including DSWM and North Staffordshire Citizens Advice Bureau, as well as Capita, which carries out the assessments on behalf of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) in the Stoke area.
The local organisations all said they had seen a “significant increase” in the number of claimants scoring zero points in their assessments (a claimant needs eight points for the PIP standard rate and 12 for the enhanced rate) and believed “that there now appeared to be a much tougher approach being taken to the assessment process”.
DSWM told the review: “The number of people we are seeing with legitimate claims and strong medical evidence who are given zero points is staggering.”
North Staffordshire Citizens Advice Bureau added: “It has become clear to us over the last two years that there has been a much tougher approach to the assessment process and we have seen an enormous number of people scoring zero points, which beggars the question: ‘What are assessors looking at?’”
Both organisations said they had seen inaccurate assessment reports “which did not reflect the information discussed during the face-to-face consultation at which they were present”.
DSWM described how one report claimed that a claimant who attended an assessment in their wheelchair had been “observed” to walk 200 metres, while another assessor claimed that a person with stage four lung cancer who used an oxygen mask showed no signs of breathlessness.
DWP evidence to the review was provided only by a jobcentre “partnership coach”, whose knowledge of PIP was “understandably limited”.
The review group said it was “extremely disappointed” that DWP declined to provide anyone with an “extensive knowledge” of PIP to answer their in-depth questions.
All of the PIP claimants who gave evidence to the review said the support they had received from DSWM and Citizen’s Advice had been “invaluable”, particularly the support provided by DSWM in preparing for, and attending, tribunal hearings.
DSWM is currently winning 98 per cent of its PIP appeals.
Cllr Joan Bell, who chaired the review, and the council’s adults and neighbourhoods overview and scrutiny committee, are now set to outline their findings in writing to work and pensions secretary David Gauke.
Cllr Bell is also set to write to local MPs to ask for their support for the report, and to ask them to bring it to the attention of the relevant all-party parliamentary group, although it is not yet clear which one.
DNS has also asked the council if it will bring the report to the attention of the Commons work and pensions committee, which was carrying out an inquiry of its own into the PIP assessment process, which had to be abandoned earlier this year when the prime minister called an early general election.
The review group also called on the council’s cabinet to consider ways to continue to provide funding to DSWM, which would enable it to continue to provide a local benefits support service, once council funding ends later this month.
Mark Lucas, one of the PIP claimants who gave evidence in person to the review group, said the report “again highlights the government’s utter contempt for persons with disabilities in the UK.
“A glowing example of this contempt is the fact no one from [DWP’s PIP department] could even be bothered to take part.
“Clearly the government have no regard for persons with disabilities and can no longer be trusted to administer support.
“The government and Capita plc are no longer of a ‘suitable character’ to perform services for disabled people.”
He added: “As a whole, the report brings into question the future of new benefit PIP and a responsible government would make sweeping changes or even decommission the service and return to DLA.
“Evidence clearly shows PIP is not viable and is failing persons with disabilities at the gain of external contractors like Capita, with none of the intended benefits expressed when Capita tendered for this contract.”
After being asked to comment on the report, a DWP spokeswoman released the following statement: “We introduced PIP to replace the outdated DLA system.
“Under PIP, 29 per cent of claimants are now receiving the highest rate of support, compared to 15 per cent under DLA.
“Decisions are made following consideration of all the information provided by the claimant, including supporting evidence from their GP or medical specialist.
“Since PIP was introduced, more than 2.4 million decisions have been made, and of these eight per cent have been appealed and three per cent have been overturned.
“In the majority of successful appeals, decisions are overturned because people have submitted more oral or written evidence.
“We constantly review our processes to make sure they are working in the best way possible and, to date, there have been two independent reviews of PIP.”
She said the government would respond to the second review “in the coming months”, and that the department expected “the highest standards from the contractors who carry out PIP assessments and work closely with them to continuously improve”.
She said DWP was “working on a range of initiatives to drive continuous improvement in the decision-making and appeals process”, including recruiting about 190 DWP presenting officers to attend PIP and employment and support allowance appeals to provide feedback on why decisions are upheld or overturned.
Meanwhile, a new report by the Disability Benefits Consortium, based on a survey of more than 1,700 people with long-term conditions, says that more than three quarters of respondents said their PIP assessment made their health worse due to stress and anxiety.
Two-thirds of those who saw their assessment report said it “badly reflected” the answers they had given in their face-to-face assessment.