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.

Campaign pictures/Office of Jorge Sharp
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Meet Jorge Sharp, the rising star of Chile’s left who beat right-wingers to running its second city

The 31-year-old human rights lawyer says he is inspired by Jeremy Corbyn’s alternative politics as he takes the fight to the Chilean establishment.

Bearded, with shaggy hair, chinos and a plaid shirt, 31-year-old Jorge Sharp does not look like your typical mayor elect. But that does nothing to stop him speaking with the conviction of one.

“Look, Chile is a country that solely operates centrally, as one unit,” he says. “It is not a federal country – the concentration of state functions is very compact. In reality, most of the power is in Santiago. There are many limitations when it comes to introducing significant changes [in local areas].”

In October, Sharp upset Chile’s political status quo by defeating establishment rivals in the mayoral election of Valparaíso, the second city of South America’s first OECD country. He is taking office today.

Often compared to Podemos in Spain, Sharp’s win was significant – not only as yet another example of voters turning against mainstream politics – because it denied Chilean right-wing candidates another seat during local elections that saw them sweep to power across the country.

As the results rolled in, Conservative politicians had managed to snatch dozens of seats from the country’s centre-left coalition, led by President Michelle Bachelet, a member of Chile’s Socialist Party.

Sitting in one of Valparaíso’s many bohemian cafes, Sharp accepts the comparison with Podemos gracefully but is keen to make sure that Chile’s new “autonomous left” movement is seen as distinct.

“What we are doing in Chile is a process that is difficult to compare with other emerging political movements in the world,” he says. “We are a distinct political group and we are a modern force for the left. We are a left that is distinct in our own country and that is different to the left in Spain, in Bolivia, and in Venezuela.”

Sharp’s Autonomous Left movement is not so much a party rather than a group of affiliated individuals who want to change Chilean politics for good. Considering its relatively small size, the so-called Aut Left experienced degrees of success in October.

Chilean voters may have punished Bachelet – also Chile’s first female leader – and her coalition after a number of corruption scandals, but they did not turn against left-wing politics completely. Where they had options, many Chileans voted for newer, younger and independent left-wing candidates. 

“We only had nine candidates and we won three of the races – in Punta Arenas, Antofagasta and Ñuñoa, a district of Santiago,” he says. “We hope that the experience here will help us to articulate a national message for all of Chile.”


Campaign pictures/Office of Jorge Sharp

For Sharp, the success of Jeremy Corbyn, Donald Trump and the pro-Brexit movement are due to people fed up – on a global scale – with their respective countries’ mainstream political parties or candidates. Given that assumption, how would he describe the cause of his own election success?

“The problem in Chile, and also for the people in Valparaíso, is that the resources go to very few people,” he says. “It was a vote to live better, to live differently. Our project for social policy is one that is more sufficient for all the people. It’s a return to democracy, to break the electoral status quo.”   

Sharp – like many – believes that the United States’ Democrat party missed out by passing up the opportunity to break with the status quo and choose Bernie Sanders over the chosen nominee Hillary Clinton. “They would have been better off with Sanders than Clinton,” he believes. 

“The [people] in the US are living through a deep economic crisis. These were the right conditions for Trump. The people weren’t looking for the candidate from the banks or Wall Street, not the ‘establishment’ candidate. The way forward was Sanders.”

Turning to other 2016 geo-political events, he claims Brexit was a case of Britons “looking for an answer to crises” about identity. Elsewhere in South America, the tactics of former Colombian president Álvaro Uribe – who led the “No” vote campaign against peace with the Farc – were “fundamentally undemocratic”.

In the future, Sharp hopes that he and the rest of the Autonomous Left will be better-prepared to take power in higher offices, in order to further reform social policy and politics in Chile.

“For these elections, we weren't unified enough,” he concedes. “For 2017 [when national elections take place], we will have one list of parliamentary candidates and one presidential candidate.”

And while Sharp clearly sympathises with other left-wing movements in countries throughout the world, this is not a call for a unified approach to take on the rise of the right.

“Every country has its own path,” he finishes. “There is no single correct path. What we need to do [in Chile] is articulate a force that’s outside the political mainstream.”

Oli Griffin is a freelance journalist based in Latin America.