Saturday 14th July 2018
Marsha de Cordova, Shadow Minister for Disabled People and Labour MP for Battersea
Last month, the latest figures on social security tribunals were released. They showed that 69 per cent of Personal Independence Payment (PIP) decisions are being overturned at appeal. That number has grown every year since PIP was introduced, and 69 per cent is a record high. You could not ask for clearer evidence that this assessment system is broken.
The Tories introduced PIP with one aim in mind: to cut costs and reduce the number of people claiming social security. Instead, payments to the private companies who deliver the assessments have spiralled. Both Capita and Atos carry out assessments using non-specialist assessors, and the recent Select Committee report gave them a damning verdict, saying that: “The decision to contract out assessments in the first instance was driven by a perceived need to introduce efficient, consistent and objective tests for benefit eligibility. It is hard to see how these objectives have been met.”
The evidence collected for that report was deeply upsetting. People were laughed at by assessors, asked why they had not killed themselves yet if they were really suicidal, and were not given proper physical examinations. But, most of all, people reported that assessors did not understand their conditions and seemed to rely on informal (and often inaccurate) observations when reaching decisions. That is a long way from the objective and professional assessments that people need.
Poor decision-making also feeds into wider distrust of the PIP assessment process. The government fought tooth and nail to prevent the release of similar information about the number of Work Capability Assessments being overturned. They argued that because that information would “damage the reputation and financial standing” of the private companies who provide these assessments, we should keep them under wraps. Given all these years of secrecy, it is not surprising that people have little confidence in the Department for Work and Pensions.
Professor Paul Gray’s recent second independent review of PIP assessments shows how little progress has been made over the last few years in changing this. People are still, rightly so, sceptical about the way tests are conducted, the fairness of outcomes and whether assessors are given adequate training. But, despite those warnings, the government has refused to accept the report’s recommendations in full.
Last November, Sir Ernest Ryder, the senior president of tribunals, said that the DWP often had no real case when it tried to appeal against decisions to award people PIP. He described the evidence that they tried to advance as so poor it would be “wholly inadmissible” in any other court. He said that it is “an inappropriate use of judicial resources, it’s an inappropriate experience for the users” and that it wasted nearly £40 million last year. But, again, the government refused to recognise the severity of the situation.
We also recently discovered DWP staff being asked to rank their impact according to whether “enhanced PIP award averted”. That is an appalling development, given that DWP staff are meant to provide fair and balanced evidence of applicants’ needs. This came after freedom of information requests last year revealed that the DWP was setting targets to reject 80 per cent of social security appeals at mandatory reconsideration.
The Tories are completely unwilling to tackle the mess which they have made of PIP. As usual, their focus is on protecting corporate interests, cutting social security and demonising those with a disability. Our current assessments system is cruel and broken. A Labour Government would replace it with holistic and person-centred support to make sure that everyone can live full and independent lives. That is what social security should be for.