Mounting evidence suggests a crisis within the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) systems that assess disabled people for their eligibility for benefits.
Delays and backlogs across the assessment system have even led to DWP refusing to carry out any repeat work capability assessments (WCAs) for claimants already receiving universal credit (UC) who need a higher level of support.
Disability News Service (DNS) reported earlier this month how DWP’s own figures showed a picture of significant delays and backlogs across the personal independence payment (PIP) assessment system.
Now DNS has heard of serious backlogs within the WCA system, despite DWP’s refusal to publish official WCA figures for claimants claiming UC.
Zeeta Osborn, from Hastings, has been waiting for a year for a new WCA, but has been told by DWP that it is not currently offering repeat assessments to those already receiving UC, and is only booking assessments for new claimants.
This means that Osborn, whose health has deteriorated since her last assessment – which placed her in the limited capability for work (LCW) group, for those disabled people expected to move gradually towards the job market – is unable to work but is struggling to survive on the benefits she receives and sharp increases in the cost of living.
Her original assessment, more than two years ago, looked only at her mental distress in the wake of her mother’s death, but did not examine the impact of her scoliosis, which has since worsened and means she is now unable to work due to “excruciating constant pain” in her back, legs and arms.
She was told last week on her UC online journal – a message DNS has seen – that DWP “are still working on new claims and the reassessments will not be taking place for foreseeable”.
Finn Keaney, welfare rights team lead for Mind in the City, Hackney and Waltham Forest, told DNS that one of their clients had been in the same situation as Osborn, and had been waiting for a year for a reassessment that would allow them to move from the LCW group to limited capability for work-related activity (LCWRA).
This would entitle the client to a higher rate of support and less stringent conditions.
He said his colleague had been informed by DWP staff that they were not currently reassessing people with LCW.
He said: “We have noticed the beginnings of a trend wherein people who already have LCW are not being granted reassessments to determine whether they also have LCWRA.
“The impact of this is that some long-term sick and disabled adults, in particular those whose health may have deteriorated over the course of the pandemic, are being denied access to additional financial support and reduced conditionality.
“With COVID restrictions and COVID-specific support coming to an end it should not be impossible for the government to grant access to reassessments to those individuals who need them.”
A discussion on the Rightsnet online forum last month raised the same issue, with one welfare rights expert describing how her client, in a similar situation to Osborn, had been told by DWP that “the dept is not currently undertaking WCA reviews due to the ongoing pandemic”.
DWP continues to refuse to provide statistics that would show how many universal credit claimants have been put through the WCA process, how long they have had to wait for a WCA, and what level of benefit they received following their assessment.
The minister for disabled people, Chloe Smith, told Labour’s Steve McCabe this week that DWP did not have figures showing how many claimants have been waiting longer than three months for a WCA.
Another universal credit claimant, Barbara*, from Sussex, told DNS this week that she had been waiting for more than six weeks for a £7,000 backpayment that was now owed to her by DWP after she had been forced to wait nearly two years for a WCA.
She said she was “really angry about the whole system”.
She said: “I have been under so much financial and emotional stress, not eaten well, and got into debt over the two years.
“I tried to claim PIP three years ago too but failed that, mostly due to not enough evidence.
“I haven’t got the physical or emotional strength to go through that again.
“There are many people being treated like this and it is so wrong. At 51, I could be dead before they pay out.”
Meanwhile, there is also growing evidence of problems within the PIP assessment system.
Rebecca* acts as an appointee for her disabled daughter Jane*.
Jane finally had a PIP review assessment in January after eight months of DWP delays, mistakes and misinformation.
But when she received a copy of her daughter’s assessment report, Rebecca realised it was seriously inaccurate and was likely to lead to her daughter losing her PIP support.
Like many disabled people, her daughter experiences “overwhelming psychological distress” during the period of not knowing whether she will lose her support.
Meanwhile, the Benefits and Work website reported this week that PIP renewals were “in a state of chaos”, with claimants “left terrified that their PIP is suddenly going to stop because a new decision has not been made by the time their award is due to end”.
The website said evidence from its readers had made it clear that the PIP renewal system was “currently badly broken”.
The main cause, it said, appeared to be a rise in the number of new PIP claims and a decision by DWP “to prioritise these over existing claims, but without any effort to explain what is happening and give claimants a written extension to their award”.
But the website did say that it had not yet heard of any cases in which a PIP award had been stopped due to a failure to make a new decision.
DWP had not commented by noon today (Thursday).
*Not their real names
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