Disabled people left in limbo while vital benefit decisions drag on

Of the 229,700 new claims made since the Personal Independence Payment was introduced in April last year, only 43,800 decisions have been made.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has released new statistics on the number of completed applications for Personal Independence Payments (PIP). Out of a total 229,700 new claims made since the benefit was introduced in April last year, only 43,800 decisions have been made. Many disabled people are being left in limbo as they wait to find out whether they will receive this vital benefit.

These statistics reveal a woefully low decision rate and suggest that we will see an even bigger backlog as more claims are added to the mix. Although some of these claims may be recent, a large number are not being decided within a reasonable time frame. Many of these cases will also be new applicants to the system, young people who have just turned 16, waiting to find out if they will get any support or not.

PIP is the benefit that is replacing Disability Living Allowance and affects everyone with a disability of working age, whether they are able to work or not. The purpose of DLA was to contribute to the extra costs faced by disabled people with care, supervision or mobility needs.  This might have been in the form of a communicator guide to allow a deafblind person to go shopping or attend appointments, or for a family to have a specially adapted car to accommodate a wheelchair. PIP will still contribute to these extra costs, but the Government want to focus the benefit on people with the ‘greatest needs’. In our experience, determining this need isn’t always as clear cut as the DWP might hope.

The needs of deafblind people and those with other disabilities are often complex and make it difficult for them to play an active role in society without support. DLA was key in helping many disabled people overcome these barriers and it would be damaging if the changeover to PIP made lives more difficult for deafblind people or left them without support and cut off from their own communities.

This is not the first time that disability charities, including Sense, have expressed concern over PIP and the adequacy of the assessments being carried out by Atos and Capita. During pilot testing there were worrying examples of unacceptable practices and evidence that assessors were making ill informed decisions. For example, one deafblind person could not be provided with an interpreter meaning that they were left unable to answer questions or participate in the assessment. Another was asked to copy what the assessor was doing – despite not being able to see. When your independence is on the line, you can’t afford for mistakes like this to be made.

The fact is that ten months since PIP’s introduction only around 1 in 5 applications for PIP have not yet been completed and it demonstrates that the DWP is not prioritising this as an issue. There seems to be very little emphasis or resources going in to working through these cases.  As these delays pile up we are going to be left with a system in crisis and one that cannot easily be fixed. We need a greater understanding of what the problem is; the assessments are being made, so what is it that is holding up these decisions?

Being assessed for benefits is often extremely stressful for disabled people. I am also concerned about the level of stress placed on disabled people and it now looks like they face an unduly long wait to find out if they are eligible. The DWP and the assessors must do everything they can to provide clear information and ensure they make the right decision initially so that disabled people do not have to appeal and face even further delays to get the benefit they are entitled to.

Over the past year the impact of benefit reform has been far reaching. Many disabled people and their families have suffered financially as a result of the bedroom tax and have been badly impacted by cuts to social care. PIP should not be contributing to this pressure.

In the last few days we have seen Defra and the Environment Agency locked in battle over who is responsible for the floods. This can’t become another battle of who is to blame for the backlog between Atos, Capita and DWP. Instead we are calling on the DWP to deliver on their end of the bargain and intervene to unblock the delays between disabled people applying for and then awaiting decisions regarding PIP, and prevent more disabled people being left without this crucial benefit.

Richard Kramer is Deputy Chief Executive of deafblind charity Sense

Richard Kramer is Deputy Chief Executive of deafblind charity Sense.

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Empty highs: why throwaway plastic goes hand in hand with bankrupt consumerism

We are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff.

A University of California study revealed this week that mankind has produced more than nine billion tonnes of plastic since the 1950s, with almost all of it ending up in landfill or the ocean. With the terrible effects of our decades-long addiction to throwaway packaging becoming increasingly apparent, it’s clear that a fresh approach is needed.

In April 2010, David Cameron set out his vision for Britain in the Conservative Party’s manifesto. Keen to show that the Tories had turned away from the "I’m Alright Jack" individualism of the 1980s, Cameron sought to fashion a softer, more inclusive brand.

The good society, Cameron argued, embraced much higher levels of personal, professional, civic and corporate responsibility. There was such a thing as society, and we’d all do well to talk to our neighbours a bit more. The Big Society, however, was roundly derided as a smokescreen for an aggressive tightening of the Government purse strings. And on the advice of his 2015 election fixer Lynton Crosby, Cameron later dropped it in favour of well-worn lines about economic security and jobs.   

While most would argue that the Big Society failed to amount to much, Cameron was at least right about one thing. We are happiest when we are part of something bigger than ourselves. No matter how much the credit card companies try to convince us otherwise, mindless individualism won’t make us nearly as contented as we’re led to believe by big conglomerates.

By any measure, we are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff. As a nation, we have run up unsecured debts of more than £350bn, which works out at £13,000 per household. Fuelled by a toxic mix of readily available credit and interest rates at historic lows, we cripple ourselves financially to feel the empty high derived from acquiring yet more stuff.

Purchasing has become a leisure pursuit, ensuring the rate at which we acquire new stuff exceeds the rate at which we can find somewhere to put it. Burdened with ever increasing amounts of stuff, consumers are forced to outsource their storage. The UK didn’t have a self-storage industry 30 years ago, but now it is the largest in Europe.

With the personal debt mountain soaring, we’d all do well to realise that we will never have enough of something we don’t need.

The growth of rampant consumerism has coincided with an explosion in demand for single-use plastic. Like the superfluous possessions we acquire, throwaway plastic packaging helps satisfy our desire to get exactly what we want without having any thought for the long-term consequences. Plastic packaging is easy and convenient, but ultimately, will do us immense harm.

In 1950, close to 1.5 million tonnes of plastic was produced globally. Today, the figure stands at more than 320 million tonnes. The vast majority of our plastic waste either ends up in landfill or the ocean, and our failure to kick the plastic habit has put is in the ludicrous position where there is set to be more plastic than fish in global seas by 2050.

There is also growing evidence that our penchant for endless throwaway plastic might be storing up serious health problems for our children later down the line. According to a University of Ghent study published earlier this year, British seafood eaters risk ingesting up to 11,000 pieces of plastic each year. The report followed UN warnings last year that cancer-causing chemicals from plastic are becoming increasingly present in the food chain.

Something must give. Unsustainable as our reliance on fast credit to finance ever more stuff, our addiction to plastic packaging is storing up serious problems for future generations. The instant gratification society, high on the dopamine rush that fades so quickly after acquiring yet another material asset, is doomed unless decisive action is forthcoming.

So what is to be done? The 2016 US documentary Minimalism points to a smarter way forward. Minimalism follows the lives of ordinary people who have shunned the rat race in favour of a simpler life with less stuff and less stress. The most poignant bit of the film features ex-broker AJ Leon recounting how he chose to forgo the glamour and riches of Wall Street for a simpler life. After a meteoric rise to the top of his profession, Leon decided to jack it all in for a more fulfilling existence.

While challenging the view that to be a citizen is to be a consumer is easier said than done, there are small changes that we can enact today that will make a huge difference. We simply have no choice but to dramatically reduce the amount of plastic that we can consume. If we don’t, we may soon have to contend with the ocean being home to more plastic than fish.

Like plastic, our bloated consumer culture is a disaster waiting to happen. There must be a better way.

Sian Sutherland is co-founder of campaign group A Plastic Planet which is campaigning for a plastic free-aisle in supermarkets.