The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has agreed to stop intimidating disabled claimants into accepting lower benefit payments than they are entitled to, hours before it was due to face a high court hearing over its tactics.
Work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey agreed on the eve of the judicial review hearing to change policies described as “unfair, unlawful and discriminatory” and to retrain staff.
Her department was facing a legal claim brought by a disabled woman who was left so distraught by its high-pressure tactics that she tried to take her own life.
The settlement is just the latest evidence of an unsafe and institutionally disablist culture at the department, after a decade of high-profile tragedies, legal cases, campaigns, research, protests, television exposés, parliamentary debates, and reports by MPs and organisations into how the department’s benefits regime impacts on disabled people.
Lawyers for a disabled woman, referred to as K, had gathered evidence for her case against DWP that showed that disabled claimants who had appealed a DWP decision on their benefit claim were often being called by the department and encouraged to accept offers that were lower than they were entitled to by law.
They also found evidence that DWP staff had repeatedly called claimants directly, even when they had been told to liaise with their representatives, and had failed to tell them about their appeal rights.
K, who has high support needs due to physical and mental health conditions, had appealed against DWP’s decision to award her a lower rate of personal independence payment (PIP) than her GP and support workers believed she was entitled to.
But she then received a call from DWP, without warning and from a withheld number, pressuring her to accept more than she had been offered before, but not the full amount she was entitled to.
She was told she had an hour to consider the “offer” and was warned that it was “scary going to a tribunal”.
There was no call from DWP to K’s mother, who DWP had been told on her paperwork was her representative.
K did not think she could appeal the new “offer” and DWP failed to tell her about her right to do so.
She decided to accept the offer, but the experience left her feeling suicidal and struggling to cope.
And when she later realised DWP had been using the same tactics on other disabled claimants, she instructed Public Law Project to help her challenge the policy through the courts.
She said: “The caller from the DWP told me I had one hour to think about it and said that if I accepted the offer then the tribunal appeal would be cancelled, but if I didn’t accept the offer then I could lose the whole award at the tribunal.
“I was imagining me in a big court room trying to argue my case on my own and with my whole PIP award at risk.
“They called me back before I could speak to my mum, so I just accepted the offer as I didn’t know what else to do.
“I felt I had been pressured into making the wrong decision and I didn’t know how to put it right.”
DWP says the call was made as part of a process known as “lapsing an appeal”, where the department can revise a decision if new evidence or information becomes available after an appeal has been lodged, but before it is heard at a tribunal.
DWP claims it contacts claimants in cases where it has enough evidence to revise the decision to a higher award, but not to the level the claimant was seeking on appeal, to find out how the claimant wants to proceed.
It says that, if a claimant chooses to have their decision revised, they still have appeal rights and that these are set out in the subsequent decision notice.
But K, who had previously tried to take her own life, said: “I felt awful after the call, really panicked, anxious and upset.
“I felt like I had been pressured into making the wrong decision. I obsessed about the call for weeks.
“I was paranoid that I was being targeted by the DWP and again I tried to take my own life.”
She said the way DWP treated people was “disgusting”.
She added: “The DWP call had a serious and negative affect on my mental health at a time when I was already really struggling.
“It haunted me for a long time, affected my sleep and made me really ill.
“I felt I had been pressured into making the wrong decision and I didn’t know how to put it right.
“I now know that lots of other people felt the same as me when getting these calls.
“It’s really not right and it needs to stop.”
Sara Lomri, K’s solicitor at Public Law Project, said: “It has not been easy for our client to bring this claim.
“This challenge has demanded a huge amount of personal resilience and determination.
“Our client does not stand to gain any sort of pay-out here, she is doing this simply to make sure that nobody else has to go through what she did.”
She added: “Judicial review is always a last resort, and this case shows why there must be an accessible legal route for people to hold public authorities to account.
“The law is there for us all to follow, and when the state makes a mistake, acts unlawfully, and will not change itself, there must be a way to correct it.”
A DWP spokesperson declined to explain how such a policy could have been introduced; whether it would apologise for its actions; or whether those actions again suggested that the department was institutionally disablist and not fit for purpose.
But he said in a statement: “Our overarching aim is that claimants are paid the correct amount of benefit at the earliest opportunity.
“We contact people if we can revise a decision and increase their benefits award as a result of new evidence becoming available after their appeal was lodged – and they always have the option to continue with their appeal or challenge a revised decision.
“We have addressed PLP’s concerns by improving our guidance on telephone calls so options and appeal rights are always clearly set out, as well as stopping making contact when a tribunal is imminent, and we are pleased they have withdrawn their case.”
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