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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After Article 50 is triggered, what happens next?

Theresa May says Article 50 will be triggered on 29 March. The UK must prepare for years, if not decades, of negotiating. 

Back in June, when Europe woke to the news of Brexit, the response was muted. “When I first emerged from my haze to go to the European Parliament there was a big sign saying ‘We will miss you’, which was sweet,” Labour MEP Seb Dance remembered at a European Parliament event in London. “The German car industry said we don’t want any disruption of trade.”

But according to Dance – best known for holding up a “He’s Lying” sign behind Nigel Farage’s head – the mood has hardened with the passing months.

The UK is seen as demanding. The Prime Minister’s repeated refusal to guarantee EU citizens’ rights is viewed as toxic. The German car manufacturers now say the EU is more important than British trade. “I am afraid that bonhomie has evaporated,” Dance said. 

On Wednesday 29 March the UK will trigger Article 50. Doing so will end our period of national soul-searching and begin the formal process of divorce. So what next?

The European Parliament will have its say

In the EU, just as in the UK, the European Parliament will not be the lead negotiator. But it is nevertheless very powerful, because MEPs can vote on the final Brexit deal, and wield, in effect, a veto.

The Parliament’s chief negotiator is Guy Verhofstadt, a committed European who has previously given Remoaners hope with a plan to offer them EU passports. Expect them to tune in en masse to watch when this idea is revived in April (it’s unlikely to succeed, but MEPs want to discuss the principle). 

After Article 50 is triggered, Dance expects MEPs to draw up a resolution setting out its red lines in the Brexit negotiations, and present this to the European Commission.

The European Commission will spearhead negotiations

Although the Parliament may provide the most drama, it is the European Commission, which manages the day-to-day business of the EU, which will lead negotiations. The EU’s chief negotiator is Michel Barnier. 

Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Jean-Claude Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He has said of the negotiations: “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

This will be a “deal” of two halves

The Brexit divorce is expected to take 16 to 18 months from March (although this is simply guesswork), which could mean Britain officially Brexits at the start of 2019.

But here’s the thing. The divorce is likely to focus on settling up bills and – hopefully – agreeing a transitional arrangement. This is because the real deal that will shape Britain’s future outside the EU is the trade deal. And there’s no deadline on that. 

As Dance put it: “The duration of that trade agreement will exceed the life of the current Parliament, and might exceed the life of the next as well.”

The trade agreement may look a bit like Ceta

The European Parliament has just approved the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) with Canada, a mammoth trade deal which has taken eight years to negotiate. 

One of the main stumbling points in trade deals is agreeing on similar regulatory standards. The UK currently shares regulations with the rest of the UK, so this should speed up the process.

But another obstacle is that national or regional parliaments can vote against a trade deal. In October, the rebellious Belgian region of Wallonia nearly destroyed Ceta. An EU-UK deal would be far more politically sensitive. 

The only way is forward

Lawyers working for the campaign group The People’s Challenge have argued that it will legally be possible for the UK Parliament to revoke Article 50 if the choice is between a terrible deal and no deal at all. 

But other constitutional experts think this is highly unlikely to work – unless a penitent Britain can persuade the rest of the EU to agree to turn back the clock. 

Davor Jancic, who lectures on EU law at Queen Mary University of London, believes Article 50 is irrevocable. 

Jeff King, a professor of law at University College London, is also doubtful, but has this kernel of hope for all the Remainers out there:

“No EU law scholar has suggested that with the agreement of the other 27 member states you cannot allow a member state to withdraw its notice.”

Good luck chanting that at a march. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.