Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The Government's vendetta against the sick

The government has spent almost £40m in an “appalling” attempt to stop sick and disabled people receiving the financial help they are entitled to, The Independent revealed.

The cost could also be far higher than the new data suggests because it is still unclear how much more the state spends running courts where sanctions are challenged. The costs that have been exposed so far only refer to those incurred by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and do not include money spent by the Courts and Tribunals Service, which carry out the appeals.  The vast majority of appeals were lost by the Government last year, making the expense appear unnecessary. Early indications now show the problem is becoming even worse in 2017, with a 77 per cent rise in money spent trying to stop people from getting Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) payments.

The Government lost 62 per cent of the tribunal cases in which it was attempting to sanction a claimant’s ESA – which supports people when impairments prevent them working. They also lost 65 per cent of the cases in the latter half of 2016, the most recent period for which figures are available, relating to the Personal Independence Payment (PIP), a longer-term benefit. The proportion of cases where judges found that claimants were too ill to work also increased. In the first three months of last year, judges decided in favour of claimants in 58 per cent of cases. That figure rose to 70 per cent in the same period this year, suggesting the Government is denying payments to more people who are genuinely unfit to work.

But these defeats suffered by the government's lawyers are not persuading the  DWP of the need to change tack, with the figures actually pointing to a more costly appeals process in 2017.

One woman who suffers up to 30 epileptic seizures a month, said the Government took her back to a tribunal twice after she won her appeal. Citizens Advice said it is seeing more cases such as this, where the DWP does not accept the judge’s decision. During the period when she was waiting to hear the outcome, the 38-year-old woman’s illness became worse and the frequency of her fits increased due to stress. She finally won her case after 18 months. She asked: “What was the point in that? How much money did they waste on me?”

Currently, assessments are contracted out to private firms Atos and Capita, which do not require employees performing the assessments to have relevant expertise in specific disabilities. It has led to cases where physiotherapists have assessed claimants with mental health problems. Atos and Capita had been paid £578m so far for assessing people for PIP since it launched in 2013. Their contracts were due to expire in December this year but have been extended to July 2019, according to the DWP.

Michelle Mitchell, chief executive of the MS Society, said: “These exorbitant costs point to a welfare system that clearly doesn’t make sense. We know that many people with MS aren’t getting accurate decisions the first time around. Being forced to go through the lengthy and stressful appeals process is a waste of time and money, and also harms people’s health.”

Ken Butler, who leads on benefits policy at Disability Rights UK, said inaccurate assessments too often denied disabled people justice until their independent tribunals. I think the problem is that things go wrong at the very start and then they’re hard to put right,” he said. If the assessments were better then you wouldn’t have the need for mandatory reconsiderations. The system now only functions really to put people off going any further – the whole process is quite lengthy and stressful.”

Chief executive of Citizens Advice Gillian Guy said: “Last year Citizens Advice helped people with almost 400,000 PIP issues, up 37 per cent on the previous 12 months. Many come to us concerned that the outcome of their PIP assessment doesn’t accurately reflect the support needs they have because of their health issues. The next steps can be time-consuming, distressing and even costly if people have to pay to gather additional evidence.”

One ex-civil servant who suffers from Parkinson’s explained how he won his case to receive financial help through the appeals system only to be informed he will have to be reassessed next year – despite his illness being degenerative. Jeffrey Sturt, 59, said his assessor was “hostile” and “spoke down” to him. The former civil servant said he thought “people would walk away from challenging decisions because they are aggressive”.

Minimum overheads, maximum profits – that’s what they’re going for,” he added.

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