A judge has been highly critical of flawed IT systems that prevent the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and one of its contractors from sharing vital information about disabled benefit claimants.
District Judge Lacey told Bournemouth County Court on Friday that it was “very poor indeed” that DWP and Maximus were unable to exchange information about claimants’ past requests to have their benefit assessments carried out at home rather than in an assessment centre.
He was hearing a case brought by Angela Bennetton, a former teacher, who was claiming that Maximus and DWP had discriminated against her by initially telling her in 2018 that she would have to attend an assessment centre for her work capability assessment (WCA).
Bennetton, a wheelchair-user with post-traumatic stress disorder and agoraphobia, who represented herself in court, had requested a home assessment.
But Maximus told her in December 2018 that she would have to visit an assessment centre for her WCA or lose her employment and support allowance (ESA).
It later emerged that her GP had mistakenly ticked a box on an ESA form stating that she would be able to attend an assessment centre.
But it was not until late January 2019 that Maximus told her that it had made a mistake and she did not need a face-to-face assessment.
She was eventually reassessed based solely on paperwork and found eligible to stay in the ESA support group, for those disabled claimants not expected to carry out any work-related activity.
The judge ruled on Friday that DWP and Maximus did have a system in place that allowed reasonable adjustments to be made for claimants who needed them, and that a reasonable adjustment had not initially been made for Bennetton due to error.
He said this was not a breach of the Equality Act and he was satisfied that “systems and action exist that do go far enough to avoid disadvantage that may be suffered” by a disabled benefit claimant.
He added: “I must find that both policy and procedures are in place to make reasonable adjustments and they were made in this case, apart from the mistakes by the GP and [a Maximus healthcare professional].”
But he said these mistakes were not enough to lead to “a finding that the whole process is discriminatory”, although the mistake by the healthcare professional was “unfortunate and should not have happened”.
He said it was a “wholly unsatisfactory situation which has been caused by the mistakes both by the GP and the original [Maximus] healthcare professional”, exacerbated by the time taken by DWP and Maximus to tell Bennetton that she no longer needed an assessment.
But he said that the flawed systems of Maximus and DWP and the “careless” actions of the GP and the healthcare professional do “not equate to indirect discrimination in this instance”.
He told Bennetton that he had to rule that Maximus and DWP had not breached the Equality Act, but he added: “Legally, I have not found in your favour.
“Morally, I completely understand your frustrations.”
The judge repeatedly praised Bennetton on Friday for the “impressive” way she had represented herself through the legal process.
She is now taking advice on a possible appeal.
She had told the court previously that the seven weeks during which she believed she would lose her ESA had caused her anxiety, stress and insomnia.
She was attempting to claim damages for this mental distress.
Bennetton had told the court that she believed there had been indirect discrimination because of the repeated requirement every time she was reassessed to obtain medical proof that she needed a home visit.
She told Disability News Service after the hearing: “The whole assessment system for ESA and personal independence payment (PIP) is undoubtedly seriously flawed, and I’m saying that despite getting a maximum award every time.
“Every assessment I’ve had, when I’ve seen the report I’ve initially thought it was for someone else.
“Even when the assessors know they’re being recorded they don’t seem to care whether or not what they write down is accurate.”
She added: “The only people who are profiting from this are the assessment contractors – DWP are undoubtedly paying a fortune for unreliable and often entirely unnecessary assessments and there seriously can’t be any question that claimants are being damaged by the process.
“I’m an ex-CAB [Citizen’s Advice Bureau] advisor and now provide advice on a couple of online forums and I’ve yet to come across a single person who, having gone through the assessment process once, is not at least apprehensive about doing it again.”
Bennetton said the assessment system was “particularly discriminatory” because it relies on claimants “being able to complete the very lengthy forms themselves or get help”.
She said: “I don’t know what the waits for appointments for advice agencies are like now, but when I was doing face-to-face advice, I’d need at least two two-hour slots for a disability living allowance form and I’d be fully booked for at least six weeks ahead.
“By the time the forms arrive, claimants often only have three weeks to fill them in and get them back to DWP, which alone severely discriminates against anyone who needs help.”
She has had two previous “identical” complaints upheld by the Independent Case Examiner (ICE), with one of them even appearing in the ICE annual report for 2018.
The annual report described how the assessment provider Atos refused her request for a home assessment of her eligibility for PIP, even though she provided medical evidence.
Instead, Atos arranged an appointment at an assessment centre nearly 40 miles from her home.
When a complaint was lodged, a home assessment was arranged, only to be cancelled at short notice without telling her.
Her complaint was upheld, and Atos was ordered to apologise and pay her £150.
Her other successful ICE complaint was also against Atos.
A DWP spokesperson said: “We welcome the judgment in this case.
“Work capability assessments held in assessment centres are the most appropriate in terms of health and safety, providing a suitable environment to conduct a comprehensive review.
“However, if a person is unable to attend an assessment centre they can be offered a home visit.”
DWP said that all healthcare professionals who carry out assessments on behalf of the department are highly trained and registered, and that if someone cannot attend an assessment centre due to evidence of a health condition that prevents them travelling there, or for practical reasons, they can be offered a home visit.
Maximus had failed to comment by noon today (Thursday).
A note from the editor:
Please consider making a voluntary financial contribution to support the work of DNS and allow it to continue producing independent, carefully-researched news stories that focus on the lives and rights of disabled people and their user-led organisations.
Please do not contribute if you cannot afford to do so, and please note that DNS is not a charity. It is run and owned by disabled journalist John Pring and has been from its launch in April 2009.
Thank you for anything you can do to support the work of DNS…