More than 17,000 sick and disabled people have died while waiting for welfare benefits, figures show

Exclusive: Ministers accused of 'failing people at the most vulnerable point in their lives' after it emerges nine disability claimants die each day while waiting for decisions on disability support 

May Bulman
Monday 14 January 2019 18:51 GMT
Amber Rudd insists transfer of three million benefit claimants to universal credit still scheduled for 2020

More than 17,000 people have died while waiting to hear whether their claim for disability benefit had been successful, it has emerged.

Ministers have been accused of “failing people at the most vulnerable point in their lives” after figures revealed 17,070 disability claimants have died while waiting for decisions on their personal independence payment (PIP) claims since 2013.

One in four (4,330) of those who died were suffering from a form of cancer, while 270 had anxiety or depressive disorders. In more than half of cases (9,020), the main disability was not recorded.

Waiting times for PIP claims have risen over the last year, with the latest figures published by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) showing that the average waiting time for new claims is 14 weeks – a rise of a month since March 2018.

Shadow disabilities Marsha de Cordova accused the government of allowing a "cruel and callous" PIP assessment process to create a "hostile environment for disabled people".

“Disabled people are being forced to wait months for vital social security and all too often face a lengthy and traumatic appeals process, resulting in a system in which thousands of people die before their PIP decision is reached," she added.

Philip Connolly, policy and development manager at Disability Rights UK said the figures were further evidence that the government was struggling to deliver a benefits system which is fit for purpose.

“Disabled people shouldn’t have to wait for so long for assessments for PIP,” he said. “How vulnerable do you have to be before the government will change how things are done and ensure people get their assessments in a timely manner?

“Tax payers have a right to expect a decent service funded by their money. And disabled people have a right to an accurate and timely assessment so they get the benefits they qualify for promptly.”

Linda Burnip, co-founder of Disabled People Against Cuts, said: “It is shocking that so many disabled people have died waiting for their social security claims to be processed at a time when they need and should be able to get support.

“Sadly this appalling situation is set to get even worse with the waiting times for first payments of universal credit.”

It comes as the DWP faces mounting pressure to enable terminally ill people to access disability benefits more rapidly and without going through the “burdensome and time-consuming” standard application process.

Currently, a claimant must have a “reasonable expectation” of death within six months to be eligible for the special rules for terminal illness (SRTI) – which charities argue can exclude many people living with terminal and highly disabling conditions.

The Scottish parliament passed an amendment earlier last year which changes the definition of terminal illness to one based on clinical judgement, therefore removing the six-month restriction, and the UK government is being urged to do the same.

Madeleine Moon, Labour MP for Bridgend, is currently pushing a private members bill through parliament which proposes to replace the “arbitrary” six-month requirement with a clinical judgment made by a health professional.

“The current definition of terminal illness fails people at the most vulnerable moment in their life. Those diagnosed with a terminal condition should not have to worry about going through the arduous standard application process for benefits like PIP or universal credit,” Ms Moon said.

“We must adopt the changes developed in Scotland to allow registered healthcare professionals to make a clinical judgement about whether someone is terminally ill, and remove the arbitrary six months’ time limit.”

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Simon Jones, director of policy at terminal illness charity Marie Curie said the “outdated standard” for people with terminal diseases to able to qualify for fast-track benefits was “alienating people with complex and unpredictable” conditions such as motor neurone disease and lung disease.

“These people are dying but will regularly miss out on timely support if they are expected to live longer than six months. The fact that many of these people will then die before they are assessed by the DWP is shameful,” he said.

“The government must change the law and ensure that all terminally ill patients are fast-tracked based on their doctor’s clinical judgement and not the arbitrary six months rule that, in practice, results in dying people having to fight a cruel system when they should be making the most of the time they have left with their loved ones.”

Chris James, director of external affairs at the Motor Neurone Disease (MND) Association, said it was a “tragedy” that people living with MND had died while waiting to receive their benefits, and that the figures highlighted the urgency with which ministers should ensure people who are terminally ill can access benefits more quickly and sensitively.

He added: “MND is tough enough without people having to spend their final months fighting for access to financial support.”

A DWP spokesperson said: “PIP is claimed by people with a range of health conditions and disabilities, including those that are degenerative or life-limiting. People who are terminally ill can get their claim fast-tracked and automatic access to their benefit.

“We’re determined to continuously improve the support available through PIP, and recently met with leading clinicians to discuss how we can best support people at this difficult time.

“We understand people’s interest in this issue and are committed to listening to others’ views.”

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