Hundreds of disability benefit claimants in Suffolk and north Essex, including terminally ill cancer patients, were forced to attend tribunals to get the support they were entitled to.
Around two-thirds of people appealing the withdrawal of their disability benefits at tribunals were successful last year in a sign that politicians and charities say shows the system is broken.
Figures obtained by this newspaper show 61% of appeals in “IP”, 59% in “CO” and 68% in “CB” post codes were successful – while charities say their clients’ success rates were as high as 79%.
One Suffolk charity leader gave examples in which benefits were stopped for a person who suffered life-changing injuries after being thrown from a horse, another with degeneration of the spine and several with mental health issues. Macmillan says even terminally ill people in Suffolk have faced tribunals. Claimants say it causes stress, frustration and fears for the future.
More than two million people have seen changes to their benefits following the 2013 welfare reforms. Claimants receiving disability living allowance (DLA) were made to reapply for personal independence payments (PIP), which the Government said would be a more “sustainable” cutting £1 billion from the welfare bill.
However costs have spiralled, according to the National Audit Office, and the process has been fraught with problems, with some claimants waiting more than a year to receive their decision.
The private companies administering the change, which in Suffolk and Essex is Atos – a company that earned £47.6m in the first four months of this year – have faced criticism over delays and quality of assessments.
Although the Government claims the reforms have given people more independence, the latest figures have raised fresh concerns that many of those refused support should have been awarded it all along.
Ipswich MP Sandy Martin said any appeal process with such a high success rate showed the system was broken. “The way benefits have been designed is to terrify, exclude and dissuade people from making claims,” he added. “The result of it is often people become even more dependent on the state, unable to get a job, in hospital with stress.”
Jenny Morcom, manager at East Suffolk Disability Advice Service (DAS), said her customers faced “great challenges” with PIP and Employment Support Allowance (ESA). “Last year we were involved in over 200 appeals and won 78 of the 99 that got as far as a decision – that’s 79%,” she added. “The process is both expensive and stressful for all concerned.”
Ipswich Disabled Advice Bureau (DAB) had a 76% success rate at tribunals last year. Manager Pat Ramsey said long-term recipients had been “set up to fail”. Having not been asked for details of their disability for decades, she said they struggled with the process.
Claimants are supposed to have four weeks to complete their PIP application after receiving a letter from the Department of Work and Pensions. However, Ms Ramsey said claimants often received nothing until near deadline. With disability charities’ waiting lists often lengthy, she said applicants were unable to get help with the 40-page form with supporting evidence. “We often find that person has never filled in a form before, and with time running out it’s like their first day of school,” she added. “People are very anxious, some get distressed, some are angry. But we tend to find that once we explain that all is not lost, they relax a bit.”
Nicola Whiteman, senior policy officer with the Papworth Trust, a charity helping disabled people in East Anglia, said reassessments could mean people felt “hounded” by the system, She said the nature of short term awards meant even claimants who won their appeal could be called back for reassessment within weeks.
“It leaves people anxious and worried that they will not get a benefit that they feel they are entitled to and in many cases rely on,” she added. “But it’s also frustration with the system and the feeling of being hounded because as soon as you jump over one hurdle, there’s another one.”
“People are left feeling like the DWP is out to get them.”
Macmillan’s benefits manager for Suffolk Cathy Cunningham Elliot said it was vital cancer patients had timely access to financial help. “Money worries are one of the most pressing issues for people affected by cancer,” she added. “Many people are entitled to benefits but the process of claiming can be long, complicated and overwhelming.”
Macmillan has helped secure nearly £2m in PIP for people in Suffolk and Essex.
To contact the Macmillan Benefits Advice Service in Suffolk email or call 0345 600 6257. In Essex email or call 0800 019 6003/6065, Call the Ipswich Disability Advice Bureau on 01473 217313 or East Suffolk Disability Advice Service on 01394 387070.
‘They are penalising the people who need it the most’
People appealing PIP decisions have spoken of their frustration with a system they believe is geared to make them fail.
Lisa Askew from Ipswich is awaiting a tribunal after she appealed the refusal of her 17-year-old son’s claim who she says suffers with severe mental ill health.
She has criticised the application process in which “whatever I put always seems to be wrong” and has lodged a complaint against the claim assessor, whom she says gave incorrect information, which led to the claim’s refusal.
“I find the whole process frustrating,” she said. “He needs that extra help and yet they keep refusing.”
Paula, from Ipswich, was approved PIP to help with arthritis and fibromyalgia but says it was removed after a year “despite my condition getting worse”. “The first months were particularly hard, because you rely on that money,” she said. I can understand why so many people end up in such a mess. Personally, I think they’ve made a lot of people worse. They are penalising people who need it the most.”
‘We are absolutely committed to providing every claimant at each stage with a professional and compassionate service’
The Government and Atos have both expressed their commitment to providing a high quality service to people claiming benefits.
A spokesman for the DWP said of the two million PIP decisions 7% have been appealed and 3% overturned.
“Where a decision has been overturned it has often been because the claimant provided further evidence,” the spokesman added. “We expect the highest standards from the contractors who carry out PIP assessments, and work closely with them to ensure PIP is working in the best way possible. “Assessment providers have to conform to a strict set of quality standards regarding staff recruitment and training, to demonstrate that their health professionals meet all of our requirements before they are approved to carry out assessments
An Atos spokesperson said: “We are absolutely committed to providing every claimant at each stage with a professional and compassionate service. We aim to carry out every assessment in line with the criteria as laid out by the DWP to whom we are also committed to deliver a consistently reliable and high quality contract.”