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Amber Rudd MP our new Minister for Work and Pensions © Chris McAndrew

Amber Rudd MP our new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions © Chris McAndrew

A Welfare Benefit Specialist Adviser’s point of view of the current crisis of the benefit system

Becky Polain (not pictured above) has worked since leaving college, solely in benefits, over twelve years for the DSS/DWP and over nine years for a local charity, HARC, that specialises in welfare benefit advice and representation in one of the poorest and most deprived areas of the country. She has witnessed the systematic destruction of a support system, designed to help those that need it most, to create a widespread situation of poverty, ill-health and despair. She shares her thoughts below.

Systematic destruction of a support system may sound overly dramatic, but it is exactly what has been happening, especially since the introduction of ‘austerity’ and the disastrous ‘welfare reforms’. Arguably, the hardest hit have been those with illness and disabilities.

The bulk of our work currently revolves around the benefits Personal Independence Payment (PIP), Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), and Universal Credit (UC). Of these cases, the majority are concerning poor assessments that need to be appealed. Over 95% of the cases we take on are won at Tribunal with an increased rate of benefit.

Inaccurate reports

We are finding that the Health Care Professionals who carry out these assessments, under the umbrella companies of ATOS (for PIP) and Maximus (for ESA and UC) are completing reports that are regularly inaccurate at best, and contain lies at worst. They twist the claimant’s words and write down things that were never even said or happened. The DWP, who send out the decision letters, have to base their decision on these reports and are given very little leeway for ‘adjustments’.

This process and the devastating decision have left people feeling desperate and undervalued. They are made to feel as if they are lying or being targeted. Despite most appeals being successful, a claimant may have to wait over a year from the initial decision to their case being heard at a Tribunal. The knock on effect of this cannot be underestimated. HM Courts and Tribunals Service who hear these appeals, have seen their caseloads triple over the last few years, with little or no extra resources to process them.

In-house assessments will save time, money and misery

There needs to be a complete overhaul of the assessment process. Both ATOS and Maximus profit through their contracts with the DWP. These assessments need to be brought back in-house, rather like they were 20 years ago, when the Benefits Agency Medical Service carried out the assessments. There would be accountability and a much better monitoring process, as well as saving money, something the Government is always keen to do.

Better assessments mean fewer appeals, costing the Government less. Also, despite the majority of unfavourable decisions being won at appeal, and therefore negating any ‘savings’ as people are being paid what was owed to them anyway, many of these decisions are more favourable when heard at appeal than a basic quick decision, due to more detailed evidence and a chance for the claimant to be heard fully.

The human cost is the greatest, as people’s health deteriorates due to such poor assessments. They suffer financially, having to make decisions between rent, food and bills with what little they have, often falling into debt or becoming homeless. This puts greater strain on already overburdened services that have all seen cuts in their budgets, in all sectors. Some people will resort to crime, or turn to self-medication with legal and illegal drugs. It is widely reported that many people have committed suicide due to these decisions, leaving behind bereft families and friends.

Austerity cuts impact most on the most vulnerable

The impact is also felt by the NHS, Police, Local Authorities and Social Services, to name but a few. The cuts in funding to the voluntary sector means that fewer people can be assisted through advice centres, homeless charities and food banks. Therefore creating a downward spiral of poverty, illness and deprivation. The demand ever increases for the services, which constantly receive less in funding. It is no coincidence that the demand at the Hastings Food Bank has increased by 87% over the last few years!

Public awareness is rising with regards to issues such as this, but more people need to get involved. Many articles detailing specific experiences of claimants tug at the heartstrings of those already with a social conscience, but will have no effect on those that simply do not care, that have no empathy, and view people claiming benefits as ‘scroungers’. Those are the people we need to target. If they are made aware of how much of the tax they pay is being spent on repeated unnecessary assessments, the appeals process, the emergency services, the NHS, etc. maybe they would feel as passionate about this problem as we do.

If you are concerned about these assessments and the impact they are having on all our lives, please contact your MP, the new Secretary of State for the Department for Work and Pensions, Amber Rudd. She needs to hear your experiences. It is time for change!

Becky Polain
Welfare Benefits Specialist Adviser
Hastings Advice and Representation Centre

Link to related HOT articles:
Austerity and Cuts Advice and Support Group
Chowney challenges Rudd

Posted 09:05 Wednesday, Nov 21, 2018 In: Politics

Also in: Politics

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