Claimants of disability benefits who successfully overturned decisions at tribunal are being told their support could be cut off, because of a shortage of assessment professionals and a backlog of claims caused by the pandemic.
Claimants of personal independence payment (PIP) who previously secured fixed-term awards at benefit tribunal hearings are being told their payments will stop if their new PIP claim has not been approved by the time their award ends.
This means that claimants who have followed Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) instructions as they approach the end of their award could still find their PIP payments cut off.
This is apparently not affecting those with similar awards who did not need to go to a tribunal to secure the benefits they were entitled to, as many of this group have had their awards extended by DWP because of the pandemic, say welfare rights advisers.
This means the government is effectively “punishing people for having asserted their right to a fair hearing in court”, according to one welfare rights expert.
Disabled people who receive PIP following a fixed-term tribunal award are being told there is a large backlog of claims because of a shortage of assessors, with many nurses, paramedics and other healthcare professionals having returned to the NHS to help with the coronavirus crisis.
They are also being told that if PIP assessment providers Atos* and Capita are not able to complete their assessments and pass their recommendations to DWP by the end of their fixed term, their payments will automatically stop.
One disabled woman who has contacted Disability News Service (DNS) has described how she was forced to appeal to the tribunal three years ago, after a dishonest assessment report by an Atos healthcare professional.
Among a string of inaccuracies, the assessor wrote that Anna** was able to make cheese on toast, even though she had been told during the assessment that the last time Anna had tried to cook something she ended up wandering off and setting fire to the cooker.
In April 2018, the tribunal overturned a DWP decision that was based on the report, and increased Anna’s award.
In late January this year, as the end of her fixed-term PIP award approached, DWP told Anna to make a new claim, which she did a week later.
But she became increasingly anxious as the end date approached.
She and her husband were eventually told by an Atos adviser that many of its assessors had returned to the NHS because of the pandemic, and that there was now a lengthy backlog in dealing with claims.
A DWP adviser told her husband that her payments would cease in April if Atos did not manage to assess her before the three years expired, and that his carer’s allowance would also cease at that time.
Because of financial struggles when she was younger, including being homeless and pregnant in her late teens, Anna said that any form of financial insecurity can trigger significant mental distress.
She said: “I do find any threat of financial security incredibly distressing, as it brings me back to those times.
“I am terrified and horrified at even the sniff of going back to the prospect of homelessness for my husband and 11-year-old child that lives with us (my 23-year-old thankfully has his own place and is happily secure).”
Anna is the second PIP claimant to have told DNS how Atos informed them of a backlog of claims because of staff returning to the NHS to help with the pandemic.
DNS has been unable to clarify the situation with DWP, despite a lengthy email exchange, partly because Anna does not want the department to know that she has spoken to a journalist about her case.
But Finn Keaney, welfare rights team lead for Mind in the City, Hackney and Waltham Forest, said: “The DWP’s decision to allow their own decisions to ‘roll over’ whilst insisting on fixed end-dates where the award was made by a tribunal is arbitrary and causes a great deal of hardship for many disabled people.
“The government should not be punishing people for having asserted their right to a fair hearing in court, but that is exactly the effect that current policy has.
“The COVID-19 pandemic already disproportionately impacts disabled people, and the resulting short-staffing and delayed assessments at Atos/IAS is leading to many people facing months without their PIP payments through no fault of their own.
“I would urge the department to change their current approach of ‘one rule for some, one rule for others’ and correct this broken policy.”
Ken Butler, welfare rights adviser with Disability Rights UK, said he had dealt with a similar case to Anna’s, in which DWP refused to extend a PIP award from a February 2021 expiry date that had been set by an appeal tribunal, despite the disruption caused by the pandemic.
They had been told that it would be likely to take some months to assess her claim.
In December, Justin Tomlinson, the minister for disabled people, appeared to tell Labour’s Apsana Begum that DWP was “automatically” applying extensions of PIP awards caught up in the pandemic crisis, including those made by tribunals, although it was not clear exactly which cases he was referring to.
Butler said the Child Poverty Action Group had even drawn up a template letter threatening DWP with judicial review for those affected by the issue.
He said: “This problem should simply not be happening.
“Especially as the minister for disabled people told MPs three months ago that it wasn’t.
“PIP claimants should straightforwardly have their tribunal awards extended if the DWP is not able to process renewal claims before they expire.
“They should not have to be put in the position of using a proforma letter CPAG has devised to threaten the DWP with judicial review before it sees sense.
“Or having to ask their MP to contact the minister to ensure the DWP implement its own policy.”
A DWP spokesperson said: “We always aim to make an award decision as quickly as possible and are treating as a priority advance claims, where a person’s previous fixed term award has ended.
“Where a person is found to still be eligible for PIP their award is backdated to the point they claimed, so no one loses out financially.”
But DWP appears to be disputing that claimants with tribunal awards are being treated differently, although the department had not been able to clarify its position by noon today (Thursday).
An Atos spokesperson declined to say if there was a substantial backlog of PIP claims that needed to go through the assessment process, and if there was a shortage of PIP assessors caused by staff returning to the NHS during the pandemic.
But he said in a statement: “In common with health services everywhere some changes and disruption have been experienced as a result of the pandemic.
“As part of our overall strategy we are working closely with the DWP to increase capacity.”
Capita declined to comment on whether it was also experiencing staffing problems.
*Atos delivers its PIP assessment contracts through Independent Assessment Services, a trading name of Atos IT Services UK
**Not her real name
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