The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) must publish regular reports to show how many deaths of disabled people are linked to the disability benefits assessment system, a committee of MPs has concluded.
The call comes in a report by the Commons work and pensions committee, which has been investigating the assessment system since September 2021.
The committee says it is “deeply concerned” that claimants are still experiencing “psychological distress” due to the assessment process, nearly five years after the committee last investigated the system.
The report calls for DWP to carry out regular reviews of the impact of the personal independence payment (PIP) assessment and the work capability assessment (WCA) on the mental health of claimants, comparing them with other assessments such as those carried out to determine eligibility for social care.
It points to the system of internal process reviews (IPRs), secret reports carried out by DWP into deaths and cases of serious harm caused to claimants that are linked to the department’s actions.
The report says DWP should use its IPRs to publish figures showing how benefit assessments are contributing to deaths and serious harm among benefit claimants.
These figures should show how many of these deaths were suicides, the issues that led to deaths, and the steps taken by DWP in response to the IPRs.
This week, Disability News Service is revealing recommendations made by IPRs completed between 2019 and 2020, which link systemic safeguarding flaws across DWP to the deaths of multiple benefit claimants between 2018 and 2020 (see separate story).
As part of its inquiry, the committee carried out a survey that received more than 8,500 responses from people who had been through the assessment process, or who had supported disabled people with their claims.
It says these responses show that “trust in the assessment system is low”, with continuing problems over the use of evidence and a lack of knowledge about particular conditions.
And it says that, nearly five years after the committee’s previous inquiry into the assessment system, and despite some improvements, DWP has still not made key changes that could increase transparency, improve trust in the process, and ensure more accurate assessments and fewer appeals.
It says the pace of change has been “extremely slow”, and too many claimants continue to view the process “with great trepidation”, while a minority find the experience “devastating”.
The report adds: “The continuing high overturn rates at appeal suggest fundamental flaws in the assessment system.”
The committee says: “That we are still hearing accounts of poor accessibility, factual inaccuracy, delays, and communication problems speaks to a system that is still not adequately supporting often vulnerable people.”
Among its recommendations, the committee calls for all assessments to be recorded, unless the claimant opts out, and for DWP to start sending copies of assessment reports to all claimants “as soon as possible”.
Although the WCA is due to be abolished – if the Conservatives win the next election – it will remain in place until at least 2026 while PIP assessments will continue, “so retaining the status quo is not an option”, says the committee.
Other recommendations in the report include allowing claimants to choose between face-to-face assessments or assessments carried out remotely by phone or video; extending the deadline for returning forms; setting targets to reduce assessment waiting-times, and introducing payments to disabled people forced to wait beyond these new targets.
One disabled person who provided written evidence to the committee said: “The whole process was one of the most distressing experiences I have had.
“I became suicidal and wanted to self-harm daily. I ended up back on a higher dose of antidepressants (I had been off them for over a year).
“Having been in an abusive marriage many years ago, the process was very similar.
“I felt as if I was in an abusive relationship with the state, being disbelieved, judged, patronised, lied about and also abandoned without support.”
Another said: “In short, the assessments were very poor quality, often the reports contained lies about what I had said, and parts were copied and pasted from other claimants’ reports.”
A disabled woman told the committee: “I am jovial by nature and self-deprecating in regard to my lifelong illness.
“The assessor who laughed along with me even though I was exhausted and in agony stated in my assessment that I couldn’t have depression as I was joking.
“I also had to hang on to my husband as a walking aid and the assessor said I walked to the office unaided.”
The committee also received evidence from a disabled person who sits on benefit appeal tribunals, who said: “The quality of assessment we are seeing at tribunal is frankly appalling.”
Sir Stephen Timms, the Labour MP who chairs the committee, said: “We surveyed eight and a half thousand people as part of our inquiry and found a profound lack of trust in the system as a consistent theme.
“Many will welcome abolition of the work capability assessment. The government’s process improvements, and recognition that the system causes undue stress and hardship, are steps in the right direction.
“However, waiting years for changes won’t cut it when quicker wins are available: flexibility of choice on assessment by phone or face-to-face; recording assessments by default; extending deadlines to reduce stress; and sending claimants their reports.
“All this will give much-needed transparency to a process that so few trust yet affects their lives so fundamentally.
“All efforts must be made for unnecessary limbo and stress for claimants to be put to an end.”
A DWP spokesperson said in a statement: “This government is committed to ensuring people can access financial support in a timely and supportive manner and therefore reducing processing times and further improving the claimant experience are key priorities for the DWP.
“The proposals set out in our recent health and disability white paper will make it easier for people to access the right support and improve trust and transparency in our decisions and processes.”
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…