It's exhausting enough being disabled, without the government fighting claims we are entitled to

The current payments system is Iain Duncan Smith’s toxic legacy: a system that hasn’t changed much despite a steady stream of critical parliamentary reports and a ready supply scandalous stories

James Moore
Tuesday 01 September 2020 13:36 BST
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The figures revealed by my colleague May Bulman concerning the amount of money the government is wasting by tormenting disabled Britons beggar believe. A total of £120m of taxpayers’ cash has been flushed down the toilet fighting mostly entirely legitimate disability benefit claims in just the last two years.

And that’s just the half of it. Beneath those figures is an ocean of tears, mostly of frustration, but there’s fear and grief and not a little anger in there too, not to mention stress and humiliation.

This is Iain Duncan Smith’s toxic legacy. He was the secretary of state for work and pensions who created this appalling system, one that hasn’t changed much despite a steady stream of critical parliamentary reports and a ready supply scandalous stories.

The two main benefits, Personal Independence Payment (PIP), which assists with the costs of daily living, and Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) require claimants to undergo an assessment.

These are carried out by private, profit-driven companies, and, as happens when governments outsource sensitive functions to private, profit-driven companies (the incumbents recently had their contracts renewed), these don't always go very well.

A woman with terminal cancer told she was fit to work, a man with cystic fibrosis losing his car because his condition meant he had good days where he could walk a bit too far. They’re just a couple of examples of the horror stories the system has coughed up. I wasn’t short of choices. But you probably knew that.

When you're playing a numbers game (aimed at keeping them down) rather than assessing on the basis of need, when people are incentivised to rush things through, if not to actively turn claimants down, you are bound to get bad recommendations that lead civil servants, the ultimate arbiters on claims, to make bad decisions.

This isn’t rocket science and this is why, as Bulman reported, the latest figures show 76 per cent of PIP and 75 per cent of ESA appeals are overturned in favour of the claimant. This simply wouldn’t happen if the system were working well.

It has been tweaked. Claimants can ask for what’s known as a “mandatory reconsideration” before the claim gets to appeal. The success rate for these has been rising.

Another tactic that’s emerged is to offer something – not everything a claimant applied for and could have been entitled to but something – on the eve of an appeal.

Many accept, however reluctantly, because it removes a Sword of Damocles from their heads. Being disabled is exhausting enough, without being tangled up in a legalistic process that leaves some people feeling criminalised simply for applying for what the law says they are entitled to.

It speaks volumes that even after these tweaks, obviously designed to reduce the number of successful appeals, three in every four of them are found in favour of the claimant.

A sensible government, a government that viewed disabled people as equal rather than second class citizens, and as people capable of making a valuable contribution to the life of the nation, would have recognised that there is a problem here, and acted.

Instead of tweaking the appeals process and its tactics, it would have got to the heart of the matter. It would have asked why the assessment process was getting things so badly wrong in the first place and worked to reform it.

But no. As Ken Butler, benefits policy adviser at Disability Rights UK says: “These are huge sums of money being wasted by the Department for Work and Pensions which would be better spent supporting disabled people to live independent lives.

“Instead, disabled people are having to fight for benefits the law says they are entitled to, because the government’s assessment and decision making processes are broken.”

It won’t surprise you to learn that DwP doesn’t see it that way: “ESA and PIP complaints have dropped by a quarter in the last two years, indicating increased satisfaction with our services. The data on expenditure has not been quality assured to national statistics or official statistics standards and should be treated with appropriate caution.”

Translation: Your numbers are dodgy, and we’re going to ignore the the multitude of ones that have been quality assured, and all the critical reports, because it doesn’t suit our narrative. Disabled people are happy with being dumped on. Did you miss the happy smiles on the faces of the ones the minister was pictured with last week?

Happy is something we are not. It’s frankly Orwellian to suggest there is “increased satisfaction with our services”.

But at least this disabled person has something to be grateful for. It looks like I’ll have plenty more scandal to be writing about.

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