DWP admits it has wrongly refused disabled people benefits at record rate as cost to taxpayers soars

Exclusive: Warnings that ‘flaws in the system’ have led to almost 80,000 Personal Independence Payment decisions being overturned at initial review

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Monday 21 February 2022 10:24
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The government is finding a record number of disability benefits claimants have been wrongly rejected by its own assessments as the cost of correcting these errors soars, new figures show.

Campaigners have pointed to "flaws in the system" that led to almost 80,000 Personal Independence Payment (Pip) decisions being overturned at initial review last year.

Meanwhile, separate figures show the cost of these reviews has surged by 26 per cent in the last two years, despite the fact that the number of reviews carried out by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) decreased by 23 per cent over the same period.

Claimants who wish to appeal a Pip decision, which are based on assessments by two private firms - Capita and Atos - must first appeal through the department’s internal process, known as mandatory reconsideration.

The rate at which these appeals have led to a decision being reversed has surged from 22 per cent (46,580 of 236,720) three years ago to 43 per cent (78,390 of 182,880) last year, according to data obtained via freedom of information (FOI) laws.

Separately, figures published by DWP minister Chloe Smith in response to a written parliamentary question show that the cost to taxpayers of mandatory considerations for Pip stood at £24.8m last year, compared with £19.7m in 2018/19 and £13.7m in 2016/17.

The findings have led to warnings that ministers are “throwing disabled people’s lives into turmoil” by putting them through “long stressful” waits to get the right support, while presiding over an “appalling waste” of taxpayers’ money.

When asked about the increase, the DWP pointed to a new approach giving decision-makers more time to contact claimants and gather evidence.

Vicky Foxcroft MP, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, said the new figures were “yet another example of the benefits system not working for disabled people” and called on the government to “get a grip and sort this problem once and for all”.

“Ministers have long spoken about fixing the system – these high levels of successful mandatory reconsiderations show otherwise,” she added.

There is no target timeframe for the DWP to complete mandatory reconsiderations; some reconsiderations take two weeks, while others take several months. During this time, the individual will receive the amount they were awarded by the DWP, which will be nothing if the decision was to refuse them the benefit.

One Pip claimant, a 55-year-old woman from Devon who suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome, PTSD, depression and a number of other conditions, told The Independent she applied for a mandatory reconsideration after losing her Pip support in November last year, and was yet to get a response from DWP.

The woman, who did not wish to be named, said she had been on disability benefits since 1996 but received an “unexpected letter” from the DWP in 2021 – only several months after she was reassessed as still being eligible for Pip - saying she needed to have another assessment. Due to the pandemic, it took place via telephone.

“This wasn’t good for me as I’m very nervous speaking to people I don’t know on the phone, plus I tire and get confused easily [...] By the time the call was over, I was in tears, exhausted, confused about a lot of the questions I was asked,” she said.

In October 2021, the woman received a letter informing her that her Pip was being completely stopped, which she said left her feeling “confused and devastated”.

“Reading through the assessment it was like it was someone else they were referring to. I don’t understand how my conditions can be judged over a telephone and feel like so many of my issues weren’t taken into consideration and many conclusions jumped too,” she added.

“Now I’m worried about how I’m going to get by now I only get £260 a fortnight to survive on. Having my benefits slashed in half means I can’t afford to put my heating on or pay the people I used to have helping me with shopping and other chores I can’t do for myself.”

The 55-year-old registered for a mandatory reconsideration in November 202 - but said she was yet to even receive a notification from the DWP that it had been received.

“From what I understand this has become normal practice from DWP as they try to discourage people from going through to appeal, giving up because it takes so long,” she said.

“The assessments should be properly evaluated and the right decisions given in the first place. An appalling waste of money is spent on getting these assessments wrong, and unfortunately often the people who need the extra safety net the most are the ones losing the support.”

Paul Alexander, policy manager at disability equality charity Scope, said the high proportion of decisions being overturned showed there were “flaws in the system” as the DWP “still gets it wrong far too many times, throwing disabled people’s lives into turmoil as they face long, stressful fights to get the right support”.

“Disabled people shouldn’t have to fight to get what they are entitled to. DWP needs to be getting decisions right first time around,” he added.

The FOI data shows that one in five of the 905,870 initial Pip decisions made last year went to mandatory reconsideration, and one in 13 of all initial decisions were overturned at this stage.

Among the thousands who were unsuccessful in their mandatory reconsideration and proceeded to take their case to court, more than half (56 per cent) were “lapsed” – meaning the DWP overturned it before it got to court – and 69 per cent of those that went to tribunal were overturned.

Phillip Anderson, head of policy at the MS Society, pointed out that the appeals process is “so stressful” that many people decide not to challenge the decision, “for fear of losing what little support they already have”.

He added: “Pip should measure your need for support, not your willingness to battle a system setting you up to fail. We’re calling on the government to face the facts and fix this faulty system so that it works once and for all.”

A DWP spokesperson said: “For the majority of Pip claims, we get decisions right and all assessments are carried out by healthcare professionals trained to consider the impact of someone’s health condition or disability, but we are exploring what more we can do so the welfare system better meets the needs of disabled people through our health and disability green paper.”

Capita and Atos declined to comment.

Additional reporting by Alex Williams

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