Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) officers who attend benefit appeal tribunals are being asked by their bosses how many high-level awards to disabled people they have been able to prevent.
DWP has finally released information that shows that the presenting officers (POs) it sends to personal independence payment (PIP) appeals must report back to their bosses afterwards on whether they persuaded the tribunal not to grant an enhanced PIP award.
The same applies for those sent to employment and support allowance (ESA) appeals, with POs having to tell their managers whether they persuaded the tribunal not to award the claimant eligibility for the ESA support group.
The information that POs have to provide to their managers after an ESA tribunal includes: “PO impact – Was SG award averted?” and for those attending PIP tribunals: “PO impact – was enhanced PIP award averted?”
The Collins dictionary definition of “avert” is “to turn away or aside” or “to ward off”, as in “to avert danger”, while Oxford Dictionaries, publishers of the Oxford English Dictionary, defines avert as “turn away” or “prevent or ward off (an undesirable occurrence)”.
The information came in response to a Disability News Service (DNS) freedom of information (foi) request that was submitted last September.
Marsha de Cordova, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, yesterday (Wednesday) described DWP’s admission as “truly appalling”.
DNS has been in contact with a DWP civil servant working on the PIP “frontline” – who is also a former PIP case manager – who has warned that POs are being given the “target” of stopping enhanced PIP payments.
It was this civil servant who first told DNS last September that every PO had to tell their manager if they had prevented an enhanced PIP award when they returned from a tribunal appeal.
This has finally been confirmed this week by the foi response, which lists about 40 pieces of information that POs need to pass to their manager on their return from an appeal, including whether new evidence was produced, if the PO agreed with the tribunal’s decision, and whether they managed to “avert” a higher level award.
The DWP civil servant said: “That is not fair justice, nor the correct outcome.
“If the fair justice and correct outcome is any combination of Nil, Standard, Enhanced [the three levels of PIP eligibility], then the system should be working towards that.
“However, with Government trying to subvert justice by restricting enhanced payments, then it is something I must try and highlight and fight.”
He said this attempt to restrict enhanced payments was placing an “immoral pressure” on POs.
De Cordova said: “The idea that the ‘impact’ of DWP staff is being assessed on whether they managed to get ESA support group or enhanced PIP awards ‘averted’ is truly appalling.
“Presenting officers are supposed to be there to provide fair and balanced evidence of a claimant’s needs.
“In May last year, freedom of information requests revealed that the DWP was setting targets to reject 80 per cent of social security appeals at mandatory reconsideration.
“They clearly haven’t changed their approach.”
She added: “The whole system is broken: from assessments where, for example, only eight per cent of claimants think assessors understood their mental health, through to appeals where judges are overturning over 67 per cent of initial ESA and PIP decisions.
“Labour will scrap the current PIP and ESA assessments, bringing an end to the Conservatives’ failed, privatised assessment system.
“Instead of enforcing a culture of distrust and cost-cutting, we will work with disabled people to ensure that they have personalised, holistic support to live full and independent lives.”
It is the latest in a series of damning revelations about PIP, which continued earlier this month with three DNS reports based on data released to campaigner John Slater by DWP, again under the Freedom of Information Act.
That data revealed “devastating” proof of the “shocking” performance of DWP contractors Capita and Atos in delivering PIP assessments during 2016.
Over the last year, DNS has also heard from about 300 PIP claimants who have described their experiences of dishonest PIP assessors from Capita and Atos.
Slater said: “Surely the only concern for POs or any civil servant within the DWP is that a claimant gets the social security benefits they are entitled to, paid at the appropriate rate for their specific circumstances.
“People’s behaviour changes to meet the targets/measures that they believe they are being monitored against.
“If POs specifically have to report about enhanced PIP or ESA support group being awarded, then any reasonable person must conclude that the DWP sees it as their job to stop that happening.
“The obvious risk is the POs will do things that break the rules/law to achieve their targets.”
Information published by DWP states that the role of a PO is both to present the department’s case, but also to “draw the [first tier tribunal’s]attention to new points in the appellant’s favour”.
The minister for disabled people, Sarah Newton, said last November that DWP was “recruiting, training and deploying” about 150 POs to attend PIP and ESA tribunals “in order to present the Secretary of State’s case and support the First tier Tribunal in arriving at the right decision”.
Instead of providing balanced information that is fair to the claimant, the department’s freedom of information response appears to show that POs are being told to prevent as many enhanced awards as they can for PIP and ESA.
A DWP spokeswoman declined to say whether Newton was aware that her department appeared to be breaching both the spirit and the letter of the law on ESA and PIP; what action Newton would take; and how she responded to the comments from one of her own civil servants.
But in a statement, she said: “The role of the presenting officer (PO) is to present at first tier tribunal (FtT) hearings and support the FtT in making the right decision.
“At the tribunal the PO is able to set out why the department has reached the decision it has based on the evidence supplied to date.
“Frequently more evidence is supplied on the day of the tribunal, and by having a PO in attendance the department is able to consider this new evidence alongside the tribunal and, if appropriate, change the original decision.
“A PO is not there to prevent an award being changed, but to ensure that the award is correct.
“For example, judges have recently commented on the improved appeal responses, which are more personalised and better focused on areas such as mobilising descriptors.
“We have improved our feedback processes and in many cases our POs have actively supported people to increase their awards when further evidence is presented at Tribunal. This includes applying new descriptors in favour of the claimant.
“At a recent tribunal, a PO was able to point out that case law had changed in the favour of the claimant, and this resulted in the judge and PO jointly agreeing on an increased award.
“This demonstrates our commitment to law and instructions whilst understanding the complex needs of some of our customers.
“In addition to making sure the right entitlement of benefit is awarded, the PO is also able to provide valuable feedback on why a decision may have changed.
“This is fed back to decision makers and forms part of any improvements we can make to our processes.”
DNS has now submitted a fresh freedom of information request to ask DWP whether the number of enhanced and support group awards that POs prevent affects any bonuses they receive.