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Why fundamental reform to disability benefits can’t wait

Purple money in hand
Purple money in hand

Author: Marc Francis, Z2K

Next year it will be a decade since changes to disability benefits were made, introducing Employment Support Allowance (ESA) and Personal Independence Payment (PIP). In that time, assessments for these benefits have caused 1000s of Disabled people problems, frequently been labelled as inhumane and, often, prevented people from accessing benefits they need to live. But reforms to these assessments have been consistently delayed. In this article Marc Francis from advice charity Z2K looks back on the history of these assessments and argues why reforms cannot wait.

I repeated several times how much pain I was in, which was visible. They still asked me to do physical 'tests' leaving me in tears and in severe pain

Z2K service user

Overwhelmed advice services

A decade ago, Z2K saw barely a handful of people struggling to secure their entitlement to a disability benefit each year. But the replacement of Incapacity Benefit and Disability Living Allowance with Employment Support Allowance (ESA) and Personal Independence Payment (PIP) changed that.

By 2015 we were already helping over a hundred disabled or seriously unwell people to appeal against decisions to refuse their applications to ESA or PIP. In the following year we were supporting so many people with these appeals that we took the decision to establish a new bespoke Tribunal Representation Service. Since 2019, we have supported over 1,100 people to appeal a DWP decision. Consistently, over 90% of these result in our client winning their entitlement. Other advice agencies achieve similar rates of success for clients they represent. Overall, 83% of appeals lodged are either conceded by DWP before a hearing or lost by DWP at a hearing.

Barriers to justice

During this period, DWP’s questionable approach was exposed time and again in the media and in Parliament. The names of the private companies contracted to carry out the assessments for these benefits became notorious. But in truth it was as much DWP’s failure to manage those contracts properly that was the cause of this injustice. Z2K played a part through our qualitative research report, Access Denied, in which some of the people we had helped talked about their experience of the assessment. Some of those clients spoke out on BBC London and Channel 4 news as well, and we also gave evidence to the Work & Pensions Select Committee.

By now, hundreds of thousands of disabled people across the country had been forced to appeal to the independent Tribunal to get the Social Security benefit they are entitled to. The Tribunal Service was overwhelmed. Some people had to wait up to a year or more for a hearing. By the time they had won, DWP had already sent them another letter warning they would be up for reassessment again within months. Many others didn’t know how to appeal anyway and simply lost out.

DWP then established a compulsory internal “Mandatory Reconsideration” stage - but barely 10 per cent of its initial decisions were overturned. This left many people thinking that this had been their actual appeal, so they didn’t pursue their challenge. “Mandatory Reconsideration” had become an obstacle to justice.

A breakdown in trust

By 2019, these discredited and demeaning assessments and DWP’s own poor-quality decision-making became so notorious that the new Work & Pensions Secretary, Amber Rudd, admitted that they had led to a breakdown in trust between many disabled people and DWP. She demanded improvements at the “Mandatory Reconsideration” stage and announced she would be bringing forward a Green Paper with proposals for reform to make the assessments regime less of an obstacle course and improve the quality of decision-making. This was very welcome news.

But a few months later Ms Rudd left her post as Secretary of State, and the wheels in Whitehall progressing this agenda slowed. With the outbreak of the pandemic, the ground to a shuddering halt with the outbreak of the pandemic. Z2K gave evidence to the Work & Pensions Select Committee about the lack of progress but, understandably, the committee’s mind soon turned to the extra Social Security support needed to protect those struggling to make ends meet during the pandemic.

A year later, and with the Green Paper still nowhere in sight, Z2K undertook a survey of disabled people to see if their experiences had gotten any better. 1,420 people responded. More than two-thirds of those who responded told us the person who carried out their assessment didn’t seem to understand their disability/condition and that the assessment report they were then sent didn’t reflect what they had said in the assessment. Nearly nine out of every ten said they had no confidence the Green Paper would include the reforms needed to fix this system and no confidence DWP would listen to their views.

Insufficient reforms and more delays

The Health & Disability Green Paper was finally published in July 2021 – just before the summer Parliamentary recess. It did include some useful operational changes, like the provision of audio recording of assessments and the creation of a “Severe Disability” category of applicant who will be reassessed less frequently. It also included a commitment to extend the use of written evidence from healthcare professionals, which has resulted in an increase in the number and proportion of Mandatory Reconsiderations going in favour of the applicant. But this was far from the reforms to fix a broken system that the former Secretary of State Amber Rudd had promised - let alone the kind of fundamental change needed to restore many disabled people’s trust in the Department.

Z2K responded in detail to the consultation. And we also encouraged our own clients and other disabled people to respond themselves as well. Over 800 did so - many taking the opportunity to describe what they were put through in the assessment, the inaccuracies in the assessor’s report, the further failures of DWP’s Mandatory Reconsideration stage and how they had to struggle to win their entitlement back through an appeal to the Tribunal. Z2K also gave evidence to the Work & Pensions Select Committee for a third time as part of its own inquiry into the problems with these assessments and what needs to change.

What next?

In February this year, Battersea MP Marsha de Cordova secured a debate in Parliament on this issue. She and a dozen other MPs recounted experiences their disabled constituents had been put through and demanded change. The Minister for Disabled People, Chloe Smith, could only ask MPs to wait for a White Paper later in the year, which would set out if and how DWP would move these reforms forward. It is now more than a year since the consultation on the Green Paper closed and the White Paper seems no nearer. It seems it has been the victim of the ministerial merry-go-round over the summer and early Autumn. But as our experience over the last decade show, these reforms cannot wait.

That’s why Z2K supports an Early Day Motion Marsha de Cordova MP has tabled in the House of Commons. This challenges the Government to deliver the fundamental reform to these assessments that disabled people need. Over the past few months, 7,000 people have taken our e-action asking their local Member of Parliament to support this motion. Nearly a hundred MPs have backed it already, but we need to keep the pressure on. Please do join us in demanding fundamental reform of these discredited and demeaning assessments by asking your local MP to sign up.