6 May 2003
The respected Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) has published a collection of incomplete statistics and highly questionable claims purporting to show that the DWP's cost cutting Attendance Allowance (AA) trials have been a success and are fit to be adopted nationally. In publishing the article, CPAG also failed to reveal the author's own connection with the trials and with any decision to roll-out the system throughout the UK.
The article " 'Simpler, clearer and fairer': DLA claim reform' " is published in the latest edition of CPAG's Welfare Rights Bulletin, which is subscribed to by most advice agencies and many disability organisations. It covers the AA trials currently taking place in Bristol and Glasgow, which involve using a much shortened claim pack. The 20 pages previously used to gather detailed information about the claimants supervision and attention needs are reduced to just 3 boxes for answers to so-called 'filter questions'. The author compares figures from October to December 2001, before the trials, with the same period in 2002 when the trials were running. The article also looks at the DLA trials taking place in Glasgow, which involve the use of a similar shortened form combined with a brief telephone interview to decide which pages of the form individual claimants should receive. The huge reduction in evidence gathered from claimants is supposed to be made up for by decision makers telephoning claimants, carers and others in order to proactively gather the required evidence themselves.
In connection with telephone calls, the article states that in Bristol 'The number of telephone calls by decision makers increased by 40% from 2945 in the period October to December 2001 to 4117 in the same period 2002.' Sadly, this is a statistic that is so incomplete as to be worthless. For example, were all the calls in connection with fresh claims for AA? Or were some about other benefits or about reconsiderations or appeals? Who were the calls to: claimants, carers, support workers, other offices within the DWP or the local bookies? How long did the calls last: were some just a minute or two long and so of dubious value in collecting evidence? Were all the calls about claimant's attention and supervision needs? For example, were calls relating to administrative details on the forms, such as a missing bank sort code number, included in the total? If a claimant wasn't available was it still logged as a call made, even if the decision maker only spoke to someone unconnected with the claim?
We are also not told how many fresh claims Bristol dealt with in the two periods and whether an increase in telephone calls could be partially accounted for by an increase in the number of claims. Until we get more information about these calls, they provide no evidence whatsoever that decision makers genuinely are talking to claimants about their attention and supervision needs.
One in eight
Even if each call was to a different claimant and was about their attention and supervision needs, only 1,172 additional calls were made. Yet Bristol DBC say they deal with, on average, 800 to 900 AA claims a week, which we would estimate adds up to over 10,000 claims in the Christmas quarter. That means that, at the very most, only around one in eight claimants got one of these additional calls. In view of the facts that: 90% of claimants (approximately 9,000 people) filled out the much less detailed claim pack; 35% fewer reports from visiting doctors were commissioned (down from 736 to 479); 15% fewer factual reports from GPs were obtained (down from 2,527 to 2,151) it is difficult to see how a mere 1,172 telephone calls could make up for this huge reduction in evidence gathered. CPAG's Welfare Rights Bulletin leaves us none the wiser on this point.
In addition, it would be useful to know if any figures have been compiled on whether decision makers were more likely to phone claimants who did not subsequently get an award. If so, was part of the purpose of the call in many cases to explain to claimants why an award would not be made in the hope that a personal explanation from a kindly decision maker would dissuade the claimant from appealing?
In connection with appeals, the author assures readers, that the 'only possible cause for concern' in the whole pilot is the fact that the number of appeals dropped by no less than 33%. The author suggests that a possible explanation is that 'claimants who have spoken directly to a decision maker may feel that their case has been given a proper hearing and are consequently less inclined to challenge decisions.' However, no figures whatsoever are provided to show how many claimants who were refused an award had actually spoken to a decision maker. Moreover, given that almost two thirds of AA appeal hearings are won by the claimant rather than the DWP, the likelihood is that they are wrong in believing that their case has had a proper hearing from the decision maker.
An alternative explanation for the fall in appeals is that the full claim pack is very long and difficult to complete and therefore many claimants seek help from advice agencies in doing so. If their claim is subsequently turned down, these claimants are likely to have ready access to help with an appeal from the same agency. Claimants using the much shorter, and apparently simpler, trial claim pack may be much less likely to use an advice agency and therefore find it harder to get help with an appeal within the one month time limit.
Clearly, more research is needed to find out precisely why appeals have fallen so dramatically. Sadly, having noted the problem, the author does not put forward any possible solution or suggest that any further research should be done before the pilots are rolled out nationally. A thousand or so older disabled people a year who may be missing out on benefits they are entitled to is not, it seems, any reason to halt the progress of DWP cost cutting.
We're also told that 81.4% of new claims were successful in the trail period compared to 80.4% in the preceding period. Unfortunately, we are not told whether the same proportion of claimants received the higher, rather than the lower, rate of attendance allowance. This is information of such vital importance in deciding whether the trials have been 'successful' from a claimant's point of view that it is extremely surprising that it has been left out. Nor are we told whether people are still receiving AA for the same conditions as before or whether, for example, there has been a drop in the number receiving awards on mental health grounds.
Unwitting volunteers and hard sellers
The author also claims that 'Although participation in the AA trials has been voluntary, and claimants still have the option of using the longer AA claim form if they prefer, it is estimated that over 90% of AA claims received by Bristol DBC have been made on the shorter claim forms'. Unhappily, the author doesn't explain how claimants can exercise an option if they don't know it exists. I phoned Bristol Disability Benefits Centre (0117 971 8311) on Monday 28th April and asked for an AA claim pack to be sent to my fictitious grandfather. His name and address were taken and I was told a claim pack would be sent out. As the DWP worker attempted to hang up I shouted, 'Oy, hang on a minute, aren't there two sorts - a long one and a short one?' and was told 'Yes, it's the short one we use here' and was then hung up on. The real surprise is that the DWP have only managed 90% participation in Bristol.
The author also claims that 'take-up' of the shortened DLA forms in Glasgow has been good. I phoned Glasgow DBC (0141 249 3500) on the same day, and asked for a DLA claim pack for an imaginary me. My Glasgow name address and NI number were taken by a 'customer claim adviser' and then I was asked if I had five minutes to answer a few questions? I wasn't told that I had a choice or that it was part of a pilot testing new claim forms. Nor was I told that it might make it harder for me to provide detailed evidence, that I might be phoned without warning at home by a decision maker or anything else that would have allowed me to make an informed choice about whether to ''take-up' the offer.
I rang again on the following Friday, using a different name, and this time said I didn't want to answer any questions. I was told that the questions were part of a 'new, improved' way of claiming and that I could be sent a much shorter claim pack if I did answer the questions. I still declined. I was then told that even if I didn't answer any questions I could still have the shorter claim pack if I preferred. 'Take-up' or hard sell, many people might wonder?
Cuts and inadequacies
Two things are certain in relation to these trials. The first is that that the new system offers huge savings for the state: claim packs a fraction of their former size; 35% fewer medical reports commissioned from SchlumbergerSema; 15% fewer factual reports from GPs; a one third reduction in appeals. And the only additional cost under the new system is around 20 extra phone calls a day from Bristol DBC.
The second certainty is that decisions on AA are currently being made on wholly inadequate evidence at Bristol DBC. In many, perhaps most cases, the only evidence is the answers to the so called 'filter questions' on the exceedingly short claim form. For the moment decision makers continue to allow eight out of ten claims, but will they still do so once both the DLA and AA pilots have been rolled out nationally? Because in the future it would be very easy to reject a much larger proportion of claims where the only evidence is the new mini-claim pack.
Modern Service Working Group
One last matter is worthy of note. The sub-heading to this article states that 'Duleep Allirajah describes official attempts to make attendance allowance and disability living allowance less difficult benefits to claim.' At the end of the article it states that 'Duleep Allirajah is Welfare Benefits Policy Officer at the Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID)'
When we first covered this issue back in October 2002, Duleep was a member of the Modern Service Working Group (MSWG) and we have no reason to believe that he has since resigned. The MSWG is a collection of civil servants and representatives of disability organisations. According to Maria Eagle, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions:
'At every stage, development proposals on claim forms are presented to a forum of disability organisations, the modern service working group, to ensure that the changes meet the needs of and are in the best interests of disabled people and are not just administrative expedients. Those organisations can tell us whether we are on the right track.'
If the minister's statement is correct, then the author has been involved in considering and making recommendations about these radical changes to the way that people claim disability benefits. So when the author tells us that: 'Given the positive results from the Bristol trial it seems likely that, unless the Glasgow extension throws up dramatically different outcomes, the shorter claim form will be rolled out nationally.' many readers might feel that the part he has played, and may go on to play, in that very decision is worthy of mention.
Mum's the word
Neither the Editor of the Welfare Rights Bulletin nor the Director of CPAG were prepared to be interviewed in relation to this article. We also phoned the DWP Press Office to ask for clarification of some of the issues raised. Whilst they were aware of the trials and of the MSWG, they did not have access to any statistics. Indeed, so little information did they possess that they had to ask us to fax them a copy of the CPAG article to give them a lead.
The MSWG may well hold a good deal of information that did not appear in this article and which make the author's conclusions more justifiable than they currently appear. But if that is the case, not only are they not sharing this information with the disabled people whose best interest they apparently represent, they don't even seem to be sharing it with the rest of the DWP. It's now five days since we contacted the Press Office . . . still no word.
Members of the Modern Service Working Group, October 2002
Citizens Advice (formerly National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux)
Disablement Income Group
Rethink (formerly National Schizophrenia Fellowship)
Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation
Royal National Institute of the Blind
Royal National Institute of the Deaf