The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is facing its second call to act in consecutive weeks over the impact of the pandemic on disabled people waiting for their benefit claims to be assessed.
Last week, Disability News Service (DNS) reported how some claimants of personal independence payment who successfully overturned decisions at tribunal are being told their support could soon be cut off, because of a shortage of assessment professionals and a backlog of claims caused by the COVID-19 crisis.
But last year’s decision by DWP to halt all face-to-face assessments is also causing financial difficulties for another group of claimants.
Many disabled people who have been seeking support through the contributory form of employment and support allowance (ESA) are still waiting for decisions on their claims.
This is because assessors from DWP’s private sector contractor Maximus have not been able to secure all the information they need on some claims through telephone assessments, and it has told those in this position that they will need to wait for the resumption of face-to-face assessments.
But contributory ESA claimants – who qualify for the benefit because of past national insurance contributions rather than on income-related grounds – can only receive payments for a maximum of 12 months if they have been placed in the work-related activity group (WRAG)*.
All those claiming ESA are automatically placed in the WRAG until the assessment process has been completed.
This means that, even if they should have been placed in the support group and should therefore be entitled to continue to receive payments after 12 months, their payments will be cut off if their claim has not been decided by the time the year is up.
The last pre-pandemic DWP figures showed that 64 per cent of those who had an initial work capability assessment (WCA) were assigned to the support group, and just 16 per cent to the WRAG.
One of those affected is David**.
He submitted an application for the contributory form of ESA [now also known as New Style ESA] in May 2020, and took part in a telephone assessment by Maximus in November.
He later received a letter from Maximus telling him that the company’s assessors could not complete the assessment because they needed more information, which they could only obtain at a face-to-face assessment.
He was told he would have to wait for this assessment until DWP lifted the suspension on face-to-face assessments.
But in February, in a letter informing him of the annual increases to benefit payments to be introduced in April, he was told that his payments would cease in May when his year’s entitlement will expire.
He was told: “This is because you will have reached the maximum of 365 days that you can get contribution based ESA.”
Even though he believes he should and will be placed in the support group when his assessment is finally completed, his support will end – at least temporarily – on that date.
He has been told by welfare rights advisers that they have received many enquiries and concerns about the same issue, while his MP has raised the issue with work and pensions ministers.
He said: “I’m lucky. I won’t end up on the street or go hungry. My wife works and our house is paid for.
“What really riled me about the DWP’s approach was its callous indifference and injustice.”
Finn Keaney, welfare rights team lead for Mind in the City, Hackney and Waltham Forest, said: “The DWP’s insistence on withholding New Style ESA payments until claimants can go through a face-to-face assessment process that the department and their contractors are currently unable to administer has left many sick and disabled adults with no idea how they are going to pay their basic living expenses.
“Even those who are not excluded from claiming universal credit face an impossible choice: go without payments for an indefinite amount of time on ESA, or switch to universal credit and go without payments for a very definite five weeks.”
He added: “I first spoke to a DWP employee about this in July 2020 after I became aware of the issue.
“They confirmed to me that it had already been identified and taken ‘as high as it will go’… difficult to believe that eight months later it is still an issue.”
Ken Butler, welfare rights adviser with Disability Rights UK, said DWP’s own figures showed it was “likely that most people whose contributory ESA has stopped will in fact later be found to be eligible through being in the support group.
“Given the disability employment gap, there was no justification for limiting contribution-based ESA payment to only 365 days.
“Given the backlogs the pandemic has caused, this payment limitation should be lifted until the disabled claimant has had a successful WCA or until the appeal process has been completed.”
DWP declined to say how many claimants were affected by the issue, and whether it believed it was causing unfairness.
But it said that it had improved its capability and processes, which means it can now carry out a second telephone assessment for those claimants who have previously had a telephone assessment without a decision on eligibility.
This should reduce waiting times, it said, while claimants who cannot be assessed by telephone or video will be prioritised when face-to-face assessments resume.
As a result of this statement, David contacted Maximus this week to ask if he could have a second telephone assessment, but he was told he could not and that a face-to-face assessment was still necessary.
A DWP spokesperson said: “The vast majority of claimants can now be safely assessed over the telephone and we are working hard to make sure people get the support they are entitled to at the earliest opportunity.
“Contributory ESA claimants who have not had a WCA by the time their claim comes to an end can have it reinstated if they are placed in the support group when they do have their WCA, with money owed to them paid in arrears.
“They may also be eligible for support through universal credit.”
*DWP says the WRAG is for those considered “able to get back into work in the future”, while the support group is for claimants with higher support needs and barriers to work
**Not his real name
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