A local authority is to hear evidence from up to a dozen disabled people later this month as part of an inquiry into serious concerns about the system of assessing eligibility for the government’s new disability benefit.
Stoke-on-Trent City Council launched the inquiry after hearing concerns from a local disabled people’s organisation about the personal independence payment (PIP) assessment process.
It comes as Disability News Service (DNS) continues its investigation into PIP assessments, which has revealed how assessors working for the outsourcing companies Capita and Atos – most of them nurses – have repeatedly lied, ignored written evidence, and dishonestly reported the results of physical examinations.
Duncan Walker, who works for the disabled people’s organisation Disability Solutions West Midlands (DSWM) and is branch secretary for the Unite Community union and a former Stoke city councillor, first brought concerns about the PIP assessment process to the council’s attention late last year.
He warned the council that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) was accepting “increasingly irrational advice” from assessors for Capita – which carries out PIP assessments on behalf of DWP in the Midlands – and that the assessment process was “some way short of any acceptable standard”.
Following his evidence, the council’s adults and neighbourhoods overview and scrutiny committee set up what it calls a “spotlight review” to examine the concerns in more detail.
In his submission to the council, Walker said the city was seeing increasing numbers of disabled people being turned down for PIP, with many – including blind residents and those with advanced cancer – being scoring zero points in their assessments (a claimant needs eight points to qualify for the standard rate of the mobility or daily living elements of PIP, and 12 for the enhanced rate).
One claimant with stage four lung cancer was given zero points, Walker told the council, with the respiratory section of the report marked “not applicable”.
The claimant’s consultant oncologist had written to the tribunal for the claimant’s appeal, but until that point – eight months after the claim began – the specialist had not been approached by DWP or Capita.
Another claimant had scored zero points, and again their GP had not been approached for any information, even though they had Parkinson’s disease, dementia and had lost six toes due to diabetes.
Their tribunal hearing had been halted after just five minutes and the claimant awarded an enhanced rate of PIP.
A new DSWM team set up last September had secured a 100 per cent success rate in tribunals for city residents appealing against PIP and employment and support allowance decisions, at the time Walker’s initial evidence to the council was submitted in November.
He told the council that significant numbers of disabled people were being refused PIP following face-to-face assessments, were losing their subsequent mandatory reconsideration – the internal DWP appeal – but were then winning their appeals at an independent tribunal.
Among other concerns passed to the committee about the PIP assessment process are that disabled people are being sent as far away as Derby for their assessments; claimants are having to wait months for their mandatory reconsiderations to take place; and that Capita has been failing to seek medical evidence from GPs and consultants.
Later this month, on 30 March, the committee will hear evidence from witnesses including at least 10 disabled people who have been through the assessment process and will give evidence in person, advice groups including DSWM and Citizens Advice, local MPs, and a DWP civil servant.
Capita has also been asked to send a representative to the evidence session, but has not so far responded to the committee’s requests.
Ellen Washington, the committee’s scrutiny officer, said there was a “high” level of concern about the PIP allegations made by Duncan Walker, and she added: “Something has got to be wrong with the assessment.
“The committee are quite concerned. That is why they have agreed to do this review.”
One of those set to give evidence is Mark Lucas, who in January told DNS that he was taking legal action against DWP over its refusal to allow him to communicate about his PIP claim with its civil servants via email.
He said he will provide evidence to the committee of the “emotional abuse” of PIP claimants by assessment providers, and intends to present “a claimant’s perspective of the PIP claim process”.
He said: “I welcome the council’s inquiry because it is highlighting the shockingly poor and dishonest service myself and other people with disabilities have had to suffer.
“At this stage this is of vital importance when in the last quarter over 11,000 people with disabilities needlessly went through appeals*.
“I am hoping the more inquiries and opportunities to highlight the government culture of hatred towards people with disabilities the sooner this will stop.
“I am also aware that government change happens slowly. My concern is the number of people with disabilities who will be abused and could die under the current regime.”
Lucas wants the committee to back his idea of a new “DWP fraud hotline” that disabled people could call to report concerns if the perpetrator is DWP or one of its contractors.
He hopes it would be set up in Stoke and then roll out across the country.
Among its benefits, he said, would be providing “peace of mind that someone official has made a record of their complaint”, signposting claimants to services, preventing self-harm, and offering a way to monitor trends and develop strategies to promote wellbeing among disabled claimants.
Ruth Smeeth, the Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent North and Kidsgrove, has already submitted written evidence to the committee.
She told DNS: “In recent months my office have been dealing with more and more people who feel they have been wrongly denied the support they need.
“I’ve helped a number of constituents who felt harassed and mistreated by Capita during their assessment process.
“On several occasions people with severe disabilities have been expected to travel from Stoke-on-Trent to Derby for an assessment, and others have been denied paper-based assessments on seemingly spurious grounds.
“I’m deeply concerned that a system that should be supporting disabled people is all too often working against them, and I have written to Stoke-on-Trent City Council to make them aware of the issues my constituents have faced during the assessment process.”
The committee hopes to complete its report, and any recommendations – which could include suggestions around funding for organisations supporting PIP claimants – in time to be considered by the council’s cabinet and then presented to the full council before its annual meeting on 18 May.
A DWP spokeswoman said: “We’re unable to comment on an ongoing inquiry.
“But it goes without saying that we expect the highest standards from the contractors who carry out PIP assessments and work closely with them to continuously improve, and ensure PIP is working in the best way possible.
“Claims are now being cleared at over five times the rate they were in January 2014, with around 81,000 a month currently being cleared.
“Of the 2.1 million claims for PIP, only seven per cent are appealed and three per cent are overturned.
“When a decision is overturned, it is often because the claimant has provided further evidence.”
Capita declined to say if it welcomed the council’s review or if it would provide evidence in person to the committee, but a Capita spokeswoman said: “Our assessments are carried out in-line with guidance from the Department for Work and Pensions.”
*Tribunal service figures show that more than 11,000 PIP claimants won their tribunal appeals in the third quarter of 2016-17