For disabled people, dealing with government bureaucracy is endlessly exhausting

The way disability benefits are handled tends to make Conservatives uncomfortable because it regularly produces appalling stories that upset the public and make them look thoroughly awful

Data on coronavirus deaths in mental health and learning disability units will now be published, NHS announces

In 2020 it’s almost refreshing to be writing about what I’m going to describe as Negs: Normal Everyday Government S**tiness.

Negs towards disabled people has fallen out of the spotlight lately because, obviously, the pandemic, Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Boris Johnson’s desire to impale us on the spike of a no-deal Brexit, the global conversation about racial justice after the death of unarmed black man George Floyd in police custody. And so it goes on.

“There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen,” is a quote of Lenin’s that, regardless of what you might think of the Russian revolutionary, surely holds true today.

What I’m going to look at here is the way disability benefits are handled, which tends to make Conservatives uncomfortable because it regularly produces appalling stories that upset the public and make them look thoroughly awful. Things like terminal cancer patients being told they’re fit for work or people with cystic fibrosis being told they’re too mobile to receive the personal independence payment (PIP).

Rather than overhauling the shabby system it created, one that sees thousands of cases going to appeal, the government has tweaked it, and its tactics. In some ways this is good; in others, not so much.

Let’s start with the good. Before a claimant goes to appeal, they can ask for a “mandatory reconsideration” if they’re unhappy. This is usually a good idea.

On 11 June the government issued a press notice with some intriguing figures relating to the PIP, which is paid to disabled people to assist with the costs and challenges of daily life in Britain.

They showed that from April 2013 until April 2020 there had been 5.2 million claims registered and 1.6 million mandatory reconsiderations. Some 1.5 million of those had been cleared, with the proportion resulting in a change in award “rising to 57 per cent in April 2020 reflecting a new operational approach since 2019 as well as Covid-19 impact”.

That’s a welcome development. Taking a case to appeal throws claimants into a stressful and legalistic process that leaves some feeling criminalised. If bad assessments/decisions are being corrected at an earlier stage, it reduces costs to the taxpayer, and just as importantly, frees claimants from a lot of unnecessary strain and suffering.

Given that, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the number of PIP appeals in the first quarter of this year fell by 38 per cent, according to the Ministry of Justice.

Here comes the Negs, which is to be found in the response to a freedom of information request submitted to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). It asked for “details of the policy which would have been active in the last three years up to the present in which DWP telephone claimants who have lodged a PIP appeal to offer them a higher award than they are currently getting”.

To which could have been added a piece of subtext: “to get them to drop the appeal and make our numbers look even better”.

The response was illuminating. The DWP confirmed that phone calls are made when it reconsiders decisions and makes an offer that “would not give the claimant everything they could be awarded by the tribunal if their appeal were successful”. The DWP explained the altered circumstances and the change to the award was only made with the client’s agreement.

It further noted that should the revised decision be accepted, the appeal against the original decision will lapse, but a new right of appeal is given against the revised decision.

This is where the Negs comes in. Being disabled is often exhausting. Dealing with government bureaucracy is always exhausting. It would wear down even the Mighty Thor of Marvel Comics fame.

If you have an appeal looming and you get a call from the DWP saying, in effect, we’ll give you a scoop of own-label vanilla ice cream but not the Ben & Jerry’s cookie dough you wanted and were probably entitled to, and might have got at appeal, a lot of people will sigh and say, fine, OK, where’s my spoon?

It’s a bit like plea bargaining, and it exploits the desire of many disabled people to just see the back of the process and get on with their lives. If they even get that far (many don’t).

That’s the way Negs works.

Here’s another interesting figure, also from the Ministry of Justice. It says that while the number of appeals might have fallen, the rate at which they were upheld in the first quarter of the year was an astonishing 76 per cent. If you consider that 57 per cent of the mandatory reconsiderations also result in changes it casts a very, very poor light on the way PIP assessments are being conducted.

The system clearly needs a complete overhaul. But I and others have been saying that for years, so I wouldn’t hold your breath.

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