Official figures suggest that a new appeal stage introduced for unsuccessful claimants has been little more than a delaying tactic aimed at reducing the number of disabled people claiming benefits, say campaigners.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has finally published statistics showing the impact of the process on claimants of the out-of-work disability benefit employment and support allowance (ESA).
Since October 2013, claimants of ESA and other benefits who want to dispute a decision made on their claim have had to ask DWP to reconsider the decision – a “mandatory reconsideration” (MR) – before they are allowed to lodge an appeal with the independent benefits tribunal system.
And now the first MR figures to be published by DWP show that only about 10 per cent of ESA claimants who appeal through the MR process are successful.
When MR was first introduced, DWP civil servants were overturning more than 40 per cent of ESA decisions.
But that figure has now fallen dramatically, and in the last year only 11 per cent of decisions have been “revised and allowed” – out of more than 10,000 MRs a month – with the proportion dropping even further in the first months of 2016.
For claimants who dispute being found fit for work, the success rate is even lower, although it is not possible to calculate from the figures published so far how it has changed since October 2013.
Campaigners and benefits experts have stressed that it is not possible to draw firm conclusions from the figures because it is not yet clear how many of those claimants turned down at the MR stage went on to be successful at a tribunal.
But they suggested that the figures show the MR stage is simply delaying the benefits process, and pushing disabled people already at risk of poverty into greater hardship.
Stef Benstead, lead researcher on Beyond the Barriers, the report by the online Spartacus network that called for a replacement for the “inaccurate, unreliable and invalid” WCA, said the latest overturn rates of about 10 per cent – far lower than the more than 50 per cent of independent tribunal appeals that succeed – suggest that the MR system is not working successfully.
She said: “This suggests that the MR is functioning mostly as an additional layer of bureaucracy, with little to no positive effect on the speed of correct decision-making.
“Given the fall in numbers being assessed as fit for work, an intermediate step like the MR seems no longer necessary as an attempt to speed up the overall appeal process.
“This may be a good time to scrap the MR and return to the old system, which allowed the DWP to revise decisions before they reached tribunal and forward the remainder on directly, thus streamlining the process for the claimants.”
But she added that many more people were now being placed straight in the ESA support group after their WCA – 60 per cent – than when ESA was first introduced, which meant fewer people were having to use the appeals process.
Welfare rights expert Nick Dilworth said in a blog that the introduction of MR had led to a huge fall in the number of appeals heard by tribunals.
But he said that nearly three in five ESA appeals to tribunals were still proving successful, despite the introduction of MR.
He said his conclusion was that MR was “a total waste of time and designed to put you off appealing”, and was succeeding in this aim even though 58 per cent of those who do still appeal to tribunals are winning their cases.
He told Disability News Service that it would be difficult to draw wider conclusions until DWP had published the latest statistics on WCA outcomes, but that the MR statistics were “alarming” when compared with the proportion of claimants proving successful at tribunal.
Dilworth said that, based on anecdotal evidence, be believed that many disabled people were being discouraged from appealing and “simply do not have the energy or means to battle the DWP in their relentless efforts to find the sick fit for work”.
He said this often leads to cases in which people are found fit for work, and cannot cope with the jobcentre and the conditions placed upon them, and then become so unwell that they either give up claiming benefits or have to lodge a new claim because their condition has significantly worsened.
He said: “MR is not working. No amount of trying to put right a wrong decision is ever going to work unless you get down to the root of why these often absurd decisions are being reached in the first place.”
Rick Burgess (pictured), from Manchester Disabled People Against Cuts, said he believed MR was just a “rubber stamp for the original decision”, and “a delaying tactic” designed as “just another whittling down of people” by making the “tortuous” process “so abusive it is too difficult for people to navigate”, and leaving them “at profound risk of homelessness, starvation and death”.
Michelle Maher, co-founder of the WOW petition, pointed to the number of requests for MRs – and the number of MRs turned down – in February, March and April this year being the highest yet.
She said the figures suggested “a tightening up of the WCA”, which “just breeds immeasurable stress to all of us and again the Tory duty of care to us thrown out of the window”.
Pat Onions, founder of Pat’s Petition, said: “The DWP are operating a system that runs under rules that they invented and that they interpret.
“The DWP are judge, jury and defendant in all these appeals for reconsideration.
“It’s their self-contained world and a mystery to everyone else. We would have to understand it to make constructive comment.
“The system bears little relationship to reality in the labour market and the real world. It’s time for a new system that means something real. Then we could comment.”
A DWP spokesman said the department would not be scrapping the MR process.
He said: “The fact that nearly 90 per cent of decisions were not overturned last year shows that in the majority of cases decision-makers are getting it right first time.
“It is important to remember that mandatory reconsiderations were introduced to make the system as fair as possible for those going through it.”
He denied that the WCA had been tightened up to make it harder to claim ESA since the beginning of 2016, and insisted that “no changes have been made to the WCA”.
Asked why there was such a low success rate for MRs when the success rate for ESA tribunals was consistently at 58 per cent, he said: “The majority of decisions are overturned at appeal because of the claimant’s oral evidence or new written evidence is presented at the hearing.”