Last week’s reports in the news about the rate of success for challenging appeals against the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) in Wales will, unfortunately, come as no surprise to those who are familiar with the welfare benefit system. The transfer from Disability Living Allowance (DLA) to Personal Independence Payments (PIP) has been fraught with difficulties for all involved. For the politicians, an ongoing battle between budgetary pressures and equity in welfare reform which has led to some high profile casualties, most notably perhaps the resignation of Iain Duncan Smith in 2016. For those who receive disability benefits, months spent on lengthy applications and subsequent appeals; financial uncertainty and emotional distress.
The intentions of the Government in reforming the welfare benefit system are seen by some as simple cost-cutting measures. However, historically, many people have fallen into the category of long-term benefit dependants and this was an issue that welfare reforms were presented as targeting. This is not an inherently negative position to take; people living with disabilities should have the same opportunity to contribute to the economy and enjoy a career that provides them with a financial reward as those without a disability do. This right should be supported by a welfare system that provides help when it is required, rather than placing claimants onto a benefit that gives no support for a return to work.
However, is this the role of PIP? A disability-related, non-means tested benefit? Arguably not. The role of PIP surely is to provide funds for disability related expenses, regardless of a claimant’s work status, income or financial situation. Therefore, to make cuts to the budget for PIP, the only option available to the Government was to change the eligibility criteria. Simply devising a better system which supported people to achieve financial independence would have no effect.
This leads us, to the core of the issue. There are a growing number of appeals against unsuccessful benefit applications and an increasing proportion of those appeals are successful. According to the BBC, three quarters of disabled people who challenged a decision to stop or reduce their main benefit were successful. Figures revealed by DisabledGo News in January 2018 showed that for PIP claims, more than one in eight rejected PIP claims were overturned.
Do we conclude from this that the DWP is not competent in applying its own eligibility criteria? It argues that individuals provide additional information at the tribunal stage, presumably its defence therefore is that if this had been received at the initial stage of the application, the decision would have been different. However, when a PIP claim is submitted, the DWP asks for details of health professionals that can be contacted to discuss the claimant’s needs and even asks for permission to do so. A reasonable claimant might assume therefore that the DWP will gather the information it knows is required to assess the claim properly, which it does not appear to do.
An alternative conclusion might be then, that the DWP does not want the claimant to be successful in their application. Rather than providing a supportive, fair application system that ensures that those who require state support receive their entitlement, the DWP offering is to run the gauntlet and chance your luck. The implication that those making applications need to be whittled down is strong, and it’s hard to ignore the feeling that the ‘scrounger’ narrative has infiltrated the DWP processes at a very central level.
It is not just the application system that stacks the odds against the claimant. The legislation which sets out the eligibility criteria for PIPs is fundamentally different to that which the DLA eligibility was based on. This puts the claimant at a further disadvantage. For those expecting to be judged against the criteria they were previously judged against, the outcome is likely to be disappointing. The eligibility criteria have changed so significantly that the benefit is not what it was once, and not what many people understand it should be. To qualify for assistance, the level of disability that must be proven is far higher than it has been before. Even for those able to provide the required evidence, the likelihood is that reassessment will be required every three years, possibly less in only very exceptional circumstances. For many people this could mean 15 assessments over a lifetime on PIP; a huge burden to be placed on anyone, but especially when it is considered that this is just one element of the person’s life that will be subject to continual reassessment and scrutiny.
Whilst a number of challenges to PIP and its implementation are completed or ongoing, some with success that has resulted in the DWP promising review and reform, the system is here to stay. As part of the obligations of being a property and financial affairs deputy, understanding this system and how to best navigate it is essential to managing a client’s finances in their best interests. We cannot change the legislation that set the eligibility criteria, but we can at the very least ensure that where our clients are eligible they are not missing out on necessary income because of the onerous systems implemented by the DWP.