The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has been accused of “careless cruelty” after it mistakenly sent out letters to disabled claimants, telling them their disability benefits had been stopped for failing to fill in review forms.
It is not clear how many claimants have been wrongly sent the letters, as the department refused to answer questions about the blunder this week, although it did not dispute that the error had been made.
It is the latest foul-up by a department blighted by years of serious mistakes that have led to the deaths of countless disabled claimants, and also include a failure to fix serious flaws at the heart of the universal credit system, and major errors that have led to repeated and costly trawls* through the DWP records of disabled people unfairly deprived of benefits.
The latest error saw letters sent out to existing PIP recipients who had been told in March that they did not need to fill in the review forms because of the coronavirus crisis, and that their claims would be automatically renewed.
But last month a DWP official apparently ordered letters to be sent to a number of PIP recipients, telling them their benefits had in fact been stopped, and that they might even need to repay some of the benefits they had been overpaid.
Many appear to have been told that they would also have to return their Motability vehicles.
One of those who received a letter was Vicki, a constituent of the minister for disabled people, Justin Tomlinson.
She was told: “As you cannot now get the enhanced rate of the mobility part of PIP, we will stop paying for your Motability agreement.
“Your Motability scheme provider will contact you about the return of your vehicle and options that are available to you.”
Vicki told Disability News Service: “I felt sick, I felt absolutely sick.
“Losing that extra money – I wouldn’t have coped. It would have sent me into a major depressive episode and potentially my self-harming and self-injuring behaviour would have peaked.
“I would lose my car, I would lose my independence.
“I would not be able to afford things like the [incontinence] pads I have to wear.”
She had been told in March, following a spell in hospital, that – because of the pandemic – she did not need to fill in the PIP review form she had been sent.
Vicki said: “They said they would auto-renew it until September and in September it would automatically be renewed until March.
“They said, ‘You can take your time filling the form in, and get the form to us as and when. We don’t need anything until [next] March.
“So to receive that letter was like, ‘what the hell?’”
She receives the enhanced mobility rate of PIP – which she uses to pay for a Motability vehicle – and the standard rate of the daily living component.
She said: “Without it, I would not be mobile. It pays for my car. I can only drive on hand controls. I had a grant from Motability to pay for the adaptations.
“I can’t afford to buy a car, I can’t afford to pay for the adaptations for a car.”
She received the letter on 1 September, and because she was not immediately able to contact DWP she called Motability.
A Motability staff member managed to speak to a manager in DWP’s PIP team and was told that she had been “caught in the wrong net”, she said.
Vicki said: “He was told that someone had done a search for those people who had not completed their forms in the designated time span and had then put a stop on their benefits.”
She was told that DWP had realised its mistake and was trying to reinstate the benefits of those affected.
She was also told that her benefits had not been stopped after all, despite the letter.
But she said: “It doesn’t change that letter and all the stress that they put me through.
“Other people who received the letter may not have been able to cope as well as I did.”
Although she has now been told by DWP that her PIP has not been stopped, she has also been told to complete a new review form by 2 October.
DWP announced in July that it would shortly be writing to some claimants to restart reviews, renewals and reassessments for PIP and disability living allowance (DLA) that had been put on hold because of the pandemic, although they would not involve face-to-face assessments.
Vicki said the DWP blunder showed – again – that the department was “definitely, absolutely” not fit for purpose.
She said: “They cannot be trusted with anything. They really and truly cannot.”
Fran Springfield, co-chair of Disability Labour, which was alerted to the DWP error by Vicki, said it had since heard of other disabled people receiving similar letters.
She said: “Vicki’s story clearly shows the careless cruelty of the DWP.
“She has already wrongly lost her Motability car once and to threaten this again is inexcusable.
“Once again the actions of the DWP have had a negative impact on Vicki’s mental health.
“At a time of increased stress for disabled people, this is not an acceptable way for the DWP to behave.
“If this is down to ‘human error’ surely there should be failsafe measures in place to stop such errors happening?”
Springfield added: “The DWP continues to treat disabled people is a disgraceful and persecutory way. This must end.”
A Motability spokesperson said that “when the customer contacted us about the letter they received, we contacted the DWP and were made aware of their situation”.
But she said Motability had “not been made officially aware of any additional mailings at DWP or of the people they have been sent to”.
She said Motability was unable to discuss further details of Vicki’s case for data protection reasons.
A DWP spokesperson refused to comment, or to say how many PIP claimants had had a similar experience to Vicki; how the error had occurred; whether DWP would apologise; what steps had been taken to put it right; and whether DWP was concerned about the impact the blunder will have had on claimants, particularly those with learning difficulties or experience of mental distress.
*It is still not clear how many such trawls there have been, but the figure appears to be between five and 10 in the last three years
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