Tens of thousands of unwell people could be left for “months on end” not receiving the benefits to which they are entitled due to delays in the system caused by coronavirus, campaigners have warned.
Charities told MPs on Wednesday that individuals claiming sickness and disability benefits could be left out of pocket as the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) diverts resources to tackling the outbreak.
People who believe they have been wrongly denied Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) or Personal Independent Payment (PIP) – the main disability benefits – can launch an appeal, for which they must first go through an internal system called “mandatory reconsideration”.
Thousands of people appeal in this way each month after being refused the benefit following controversial work capability assessments. The process is already beset with delays, taking around 10 weeks, but campaigners are concerned that as focus is directed towards responding to the pandemic, people will be left out of pocket for much longer.
Many of those who are unsuccessful in their mandatory reconsideration proceed to take their cases to court. Three in four go on to win their appeals at tribunal – casting doubt over the accuracy of decision-making.
Speaking to the Work and Pensions Committee on Wednesday morning, Marc Francis, policy and campaigns director at London-based charity the Zacchaeus 2000 Trust, said: “We anticipate tens of thousands of people stuck in the mandatory reconsideration stage.
“We’re anticipating that there are going to be long delays in mandatory reconsiderations being completed, so we can’t have a situation where people are left for months on end without being able to apply for that.”
Mr Francis explained that while the DWP may recommend people in this situation apply for universal credit, the charity would discourage this, as it would make it harder to go back onto the old system.
Ella Abraham, policy and campaigns officer at the charity, told The Independent many of their clients had already expressed fear about being left with no income for long periods due to delays in their appeals, as well as wider alarm about no longer being able to access face-to-face support they rely on.
She called on the DWP to provide all claimants with the appeal rate provided to people at the tribunal stage – £73.10 a week – while they are waiting for their mandatory reconsideration.
“There’s just so much uncertainty at this time. People are so scared about what's going to happen next,. A lot of the disabled people we work with are really worried about leaving their house, and the idea that they’re not going to have any income is a real fear,” she said.
“Also, so many services are not able to do their face-to-face services at the moment, so in terms of advocacy for people that's going to change. We are still keeping in contact with people, but we can’t hold our drop-in services.
“The fear is what will happen to the people who aren’t able to get the advice. Are they going to just not even lodge their mandatory reconsiderations? Because that whole process is really complicated.”
The DWP announced on Monday that face-to-face assessments for disability benefit claimants would be put on hold as a precautionary measure against unnecessary exposure to infection from coronavirus.
But charities told MPs this did not go far enough, and called on the government to temporarily suspend all disability benefit reassessments of people already in receipt of support.
Ayaz Manji, senior policy and campaigns officer at Mind, told MPs: “The DWP still plans to proceed with award reviews by paper or telephone. When you consider the difficulty people might have putting their case across, we think there’s a good case for suspending review altogether so we can safeguard people during this time.”
A DWP spokesperson said: “The government is committed to strengthening our welfare safety net at this unprecedented time. Our first priority is to ensure that the most vulnerable in our society are kept safe and lives are not put at risk. Our dedicated staff will continue to provide the best possible service.
“We would urge anyone seeking guidance to visit understandinguniversalcredit.gov.uk/coronavirus.”
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies