Kerryn Hildebrand Nelson 12th June 2019
Thousands of people are being underpaid vital disability benefits, often because they’re afraid of assessment.
A total of £400m is going unclaimed because of mistakes made by both the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and disabled claimants, according to its annual findings for Fraud and Error in the Benefit System.
The DWP pays welfare benefits to over 20 million people in the UK, many of whom are disabled and unable to work.
The statistics show estimates for how much is incorrectly dished out, either in overpayments (paying people more than they’re entitled to) or underpayments (not paying the full amount they’re entitled to).
Strikingly, the report shows 84% of underpayments involving personal independence payments (PIP) – the benefit for those with a long-term disability or ill health — was due to claimant error. In other words, more than three-quarters of people who received less than they should did so because they either provided inaccurate information or didn’t report changes in their circumstances.
PIP began replacing the disability living allowance in 2013 and was designed to provide more targeted support for disabled people in the UK. But taking into consideration the large number of claimant errors as well as the recent independent government reviews of the process, these trends indicate the PIP benefit system is still incredibly inaccessible and difficult to engage with.
At a time when benefits budgets are already stretched and projected to shrink by £37bn by 2021— with some of the biggest cuts being made to disability benefits — every penny counts.
I didn’t ask for a reassessment because you’re too frightened to
Steve Hall, a solicitor with the Disability Law Service (DLS), clarifies that the underpayment of welfare benefits can have serious knock-on effects, specifically for those who are already the most vulnerable in society.
“If people are not receiving the benefits due to them, they could experience difficulties accessing work or social and recreational facilities, as well as missing out on basics such as meals, heating and necessary specialist equipment such as wheelchairs or aids and appliances in the home,” he says.
There are many reasons why claimants might not give the right information in order to get the full amount they’re entitled to.
Michelle Maher, a disabled campaigner behind the organisation WOW, says there is a culture of fear surrounding the PIP system and claimants are deliberately choosing not to report.
“Even with myself where I was really ill I didn’t ask for a reassessment because you’re too frightened to,” she explains. “This is where the underpayments come in. People are too frightened. Including myself.”
“Mass underpayments, mass confusion. A fear of rocking the boat, the fear of claiming, a fear of changing your assessment. Just fear. It’s a mass hostile environment. No one is asking for more support when you need it and that is happening across the board. It’s a total mess.”
She cried more about getting the PIP reassessment than getting her terminal diagnosis
WOW provides a platform for disabled people to share their stories and Maher explains they have been inundated with voices from around the UK, each one outlining the anxiety and distress that comes with having to navigate a system that is not fit for purpose.
“One of the earliest voices on the WOW campaign is from a girl who is terminally ill. She commented that she cried more about getting the PIP reassessment than getting her terminal diagnosis. And for me, that’s one of our hardest hitting voices,” she says.
Hall explains that the lack of advice and support are two main reasons for the disengagement with the PIP system.
“The system can be daunting and complicated, particularly for disabled people. Legal aid is non-existent. People are reliant on help from local advice agencies and small charities who are all struggling with funding and capacity,” he says.
“Simply calling the DWP PIP ‘helpline’ can be a struggle for claimants, as it is not unheard of for people to be waiting for 45 minutes or more for their call to be answered.
“There is also a genuine fear that their benefits may be reduced or withdrawn following a re-assessment. Many claimants find the assessments an extremely unpleasant experience and there are frequent problems with claimants complaining that assessors have lied, ignored evidence and reported things, which simply never happened.”
This all comes alongside other statistics recently revealed in parliamentary questions, which show complaints about the disability benefits test — required as part of receiving PIP — have jumped from 1,391 in 2016/17 to 9,320 in 2018/19. This is a 600% increase in just one year.
Phil Watkins from the Disability Forum agrees that the PIP assessment process is unfair towards disabled people, particularly because tests are outsourced, and assessors often have limited medical training when it comes to specific conditions.
For Watkins, there are also other factors at play. The extended time frames for claims, the push towards an online system, the unnecessary forms as well as the complex tier scheme for claiming welfare, all contribute to an overall lack of understanding for applicants.
WOW has worked hard at lobbying local members of parliament as well as organising multiple petitions. But Maher explains these attempts towards change have failed due to a lack of cross-party support and limited media attention.
“We got the debate in the House of Commons in 2014, but none of the pollies showed up. We got it back in December last year but it’s been blocked at every turn. And again there was barely any MP’s there and simply no media interest.”
“We have good links with Labour MPs… but we need more support. We’re running out of people to write to.”
Kerryn Hildebrand Nelson 12th June 2019