Tens of thousands of disabled people are being left out of pocket for increasing lengths of time while they wait for wrongly refused benefit claims to be overturned, The Independent has learned.
New figures show the average wait for the first round of an appeal against a rejected personal independence payment (Pip) claim has soared from 29 days to 54 days in the year to January.
Campaigners said the surge in waiting times was a “cruel irony” as the overwhelming majority of people who take their cases to tribunal go on to win, while claimants said the process “compounded” the health issues they were suffering.
People who believe they have been wrongly denied Pip – a new benefit introduced in 2013 – can launch an appeal, for which they must first go through an internal system in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) called “mandatory reconsideration”.
In total, 292,880 mandatory reconsiderations were registered in the year to January 2019.
DeeDee Morgan, 53, had her disabilityaward reduced when she transferred from Disability Living Allowance (DLA) to Pip in 2017, and had to wait six weeks for her mandatory reconsideration to be processed – at which point the DWP reinstated her original support.
The northwest London resident, who suffers from multiple sclerosis (MS), was in hospital at the time after having a relapse, and said the long wait “only compounded what I was already suffering”.
“I was in hospital, stressed out, ill, thinking I was going to be worse off financially. I was just thinking about how I was going to cut back. Everything costs more when you’re disabled,” she said.
“Six weeks may not seem that long, but for me at the time it felt like a very long time. You have this dread of the brown envelope coming … That brown envelope has the power to wreck your life. I was just waiting with anxiety for it to come.
“I couldn’t understand how I’d gone from lifetime support to a reduced award when my symptoms had gotten worse. It was unnecessary stress. They had enough information there to make that decision in the first place.”
One in five (19 per cent) mandatory considerations for new Pip claims and 24 per cent of those for reassessed DLA claims resulted in a reversal of the decision.
Among the thousands who were unsuccessful in their mandatory reconsideration and proceeded to take their case to court, 73 per cent go on to win their appeals at tribunal – casting doubt over the accuracy of decision-making.
Labour MP Stephanie Peacock, who obtained the figures through a written parliamentary question, said: “This latest disturbing rise in waiting times as the DWP reconsiders its own decisions is yet another sign that the most vulnerable are paying the price for Tory cuts.
“People in desperate need of basic support just to go about their daily lives should not be left without it simply because of this government’s failure.”
Shadow work and pensions secretary Marsha de Cordova said the figures revealed the “shocking failure” of the system, and added: “Disabled people are being forced to wait almost eight weeks for mandatory reconsiderations that all too often fail to act as a proper check on the flawed assessment process.”
Genevieve Edwards, director of external affairs at the MS Society, said: “Pip is difficult enough without these unacceptable waiting times making it even harder.
“MS can be painful and exhausting, and when mandatory reconsiderations needlessly drag out the Pip process, the stress can actually make MS worse.
“These delays are a cruel irony when you consider eight in 10 people with MS who’ve been reassessed and take their case to tribunal after mandatory reconsideration go on to win.
“It shows how badly the system is broken, and how meaningless going through these hurdles is. Pip urgently needs to change, so people with MS can get the support they need without having to fight every inch of the way.”
James Taylor, head of policy at disability equality charity Scope, said long waits for Pip were “simply unacceptable” and called on the DWP to “urgently regain control” of the situation.
“Delays to Pip decisions can force disabled people to make more difficult decisions about what they have to go without. It’s vital that disabled people get the support they need, when they need it,” he added.
A DWP spokesperson said: “We are committed to processing Pip claims quickly and fairly, which is why we’ve recruited extra staff to ensure people get their Pip decision promptly.”
The work and pensions secretary recently said the number of people having their Pip decision overturned was too high, and that the department would do more to gather the evidence required to make the right decision earlier.