A person with Down’s syndrome being asked when they “caught” it. A suicidal woman questioned over why she hadn’t killed herself yet. This is not the beginning of a bad taste joke but a description of this government’s treatment of disabled people.
The work and pensions select committee has released a report into the experiences of people being assessed for disability benefits – a 39-page rundown of a system plagued by basic errors, disrespect, and ignorance of health problems.
While it’s expected that the overwhelming majority of responses were negative – people with bad experiences are more likely to want to speak out, after all – it would be hard for even the staunchest supporter of the government to ignore the evidence on show: fundamental mistakes over people’s conditions, no record of relevant information, references to “invented” aspects of the assessment (for example, reporting that someone was able to stand up, when that never actually happened).
As the MPs concluded, while the system functions “satisfactorily for the majority of claimants”, it is “failing a substantial minority”.
For many disabled people, this will come as little surprise. I hear weekly from people seen by untrained assessors – say, someone with complex mental health problems assessed by an occupational therapist – wheelchair users sent to inaccessible test centres, or even assessors allegedly fabricating reports in order to turn people down for benefits.
But at a time in which campaigners are continually fighting for reforms to the failing system –complaints about one key benefit, personal independence payment (PIP), rose by nearly 880 per cent last year – this report adds more pressure on the government.
All this has been revealed ahead of the committee’s much-anticipated full investigation into the disability benefit system due for release this week. The number of disabled people who wrote in shows the scale of the problem; 4,000 submissions is an “unprecedented” number for a select committee inquiry. So many that it published a separate report about them first.
It couldn’t come soon enough. While Universal Credit has been dominating the headlines in recent months, the disability benefit system has been causing damage for the last six years.
The mass rollout of PIP and the out-of-work sickness benefit, the employment and support allowance (ESA) – first started by the coalition government – were in many ways the centre of the Conservatives’ anti-welfare drive, with ministers handing out hundreds of millions to private companies to run the assessments while claiming there are hordes of scrounging disabled people whose benefits should be withdrawn to get the “welfare” bill down.
It’s resulted in a system so inept that vast numbers of disabled people are having their support removed incorrectly: since 2013, of 170,000 PIP appeals taken to tribunal, 63 per cent won, while 60 per cent of the 53,000 ESA appeals succeeded.
Bear in mind this is at a time when legal aid cuts and the closure of welfare advice centres means many disabled people forced to appeal have no help to do so (imagine what the appeal rates would be if these were healthy people given legal support).
The impact of this is brutal. More than a third of those who have had their benefit cut say they’re struggling to pay for food, rent and bills, while 40 per cent say they’ve become more isolated as over 50,000 disabled people lost access to Motability vehicles.
The recent appointment of Esther McVey – famed in her role as Minister for Disabled People for her punitive attitude to benefit claimants – as the new Work and Pensions Secretary does not bode well for hopes to reform the system.
But the past month has shown with enough pressure, the government can be forced into a climb-down: in January, the Department for Work and Pensions announced every person receiving PIP – that’s 1.6 million people – will have their claim reviewed after a court challenge.
This week’s coming report could be another nail in the coffin in the Conservatives’ disability benefit agenda. In the meantime, cancer patients and people with severe depression are being left without the money they need to live.