28 October 2002
What appears to be the biggest assault on entitlement to DLA and AA since these benefits were introduced is taking place without a single influential voice being raised in protest.
Plans to drastically alter the way in which people claim DLA and AA were signalled by Maria Eagle, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, in an adjournment debate on 16th October. The changes include: an end to taking detailed evidence from claimants; initial claims for DLA being made by telephone; Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) staff placing restrictions on which parts of the DLA claim pack individual claimants are sent and old medical evidence being used where available.
The result is likely to be a much faster, cheaper decision making process and a reduction in the number of successful claims for DLA and AA. This, in turn, will reduce the cost to the government of these benefits, which the minister claims, has "increased by 23 per cent. in real terms, to some £6.5 billion" in the last five years. Astonishingly, the government claims to have support for the changes from a wide range of national disability organisations.
The changes are being presented as claimant friendly by the DWP, because the process will be quicker and easier than filling in the very long DLA and AA claim packs. According to the minister:
'. . . we are currently developing a new claiming process both for attendance allowance, which is being trialed, and for disability living allowance. In tests, we have managed to reduce the claim pack for attendance allowance from 44 to 16 pages. We are hoping to be able to replicate that for disability living allowance, although DLA is slightly more complex because of the mobility component. The trials on the AA claim pack for very elderly people have been fairly successful and we hope to apply the lessons that we have learned from that to DLA.'
Judging by the AA claim pack being trialed in Bristol, however, the result is likely to be 'fairly successful' only in preventing claimants proving that they are eligible for disability benefits.
The Bristol experiment
Attendance Allowance is a benefit for people aged 65 and over who have difficulty with everyday activities like washing and dressing. Claim packs are long, very complex and time consuming to complete. An extremely simplified pack to make claiming easier for 'very elderly people' over 75, whose claims are generally less likely to be rejected anyway, was piloted by the DWP in Bristol. Earlier this year the pilot was quietly extended to cover all AA claimants in Bristol. Now, it seems, this shortened claim pack, or one very similar to it, is to be introduced nationwide.
Far from making the process more claimant friendly, however, the Bristol AA pack almost totally removes the claimant from the process of providing information about their own life. No fewer than sixteen pages of the current AA pack are devoted to gathering very detailed evidence about difficulties with everyday tasks. In the Bristol claim pack, on the other hand, these sixteen pages have been reduced to just two.
This means that claimants in Bristol are now asked to sum up all of their daytime attention and supervision needs, including difficulties with: getting in and out of bed; sleeping; using the toilet; washing and bathing; dressing and undressing; eating and drinking; medical treatment; being safe when alone; fits and blackouts; falls and stumbles; mental health problems; communicating and social and leisure activities in a single A4 box just 8.5 centimetres (3.5 inches) high. Bizarrely, claimants get twice as much space to explain their night time needs, in spite of the list of activities being very much shorter. In all, the 40 tick boxes and 100 boxes for giving evidence in the current pack have been reduced to a token four tick boxes and two evidence boxes in the Bristol pack.
In both the current and the Bristol claim pack there is an additional page for giving more evidence, but even this has much less guidance about what to include in it in the Bristol pack. Moreover, the inclusion of just one evidence box on the daytime help and night-time help pages will clearly encourage claimants to believe that they need provide very little information to support their claim. In fact, the reverse is true.
Even less evidence
By far the commonest reason why people who are eligible for AA and DLA are turned down is that they fail to provide enough detailed evidence about the way their condition affects their everyday life. A huge 61% percent of AA and 66% of DLA appeals are successful. This is almost never because complex legal arguments are presented on their behalf by legal experts, claimants are often not represented at all, but simply because the claimant finally gives all the evidence about their condition that they should have given on their claim pack in the first place.
To try to encourage people to give this detailed evidence, the current AA pack contains no fewer than 78 examples. The Bristol pack, on the other hand, has virtually none. For instance, in the current pack a whole page deals with 'Do you have problems washing, having a bath or shower or looking after your appearance?' It explains that 'Some examples might be getting into or out of the bath or shower; cleaning your teeth; washing your hair; shaving; checking your appearance; personal hygiene or something else'. By contrast, the Bristol pack has a single bullet point asking if you need help from another person with 'taking a bath or shower'. No guidance whatsoever and not even a mention of washing or looking after your appearance. The likelihood is that claimants using the Bristol pack will provide even less useful evidence than current claimants and be even more likely to be turned down as a result.
No more mental health
Not only is there less space and less guidance in the Bristol pack, some activities have simply been removed altogether. 'The way you feel because of your mental health' occupies a whole page of the current AA claim pack, along with seven examples. To further encourage mental health related evidence, most pages in the current pack ask 'Does someone have to tell you, remind you or encourage you to . . .' wash, eat, take medication, etc. All mention of the term 'mental health' has, however, been removed from the Bristol pack. People over 65 living in Bristol are made aware that they may be able to claim AA if they need someone to supervise them because they get 'aggressive with other people', 'confused and might wander off', or 'forget to 'feed or wash' themselves. But simply having difficulties with everyday activities because of such things as depression, anxiety, phobias, panic attacks, poor concentration, hearing voices or having disruptive thoughts receives not a single mention.
No more social and leisure activities
Mental health is not the only thing to disappear from the Bristol pack. Being able to claim DLA and AA in connection with social and leisure activities was a hard fought right won initially by deaf claimants, who had to take their case all the way to the House of Lords. The decision was at the time, and remains, bitterly unpopular with the DWP. Nonetheless, they were obliged to add an 11 page additional section to DLA and AA claim packs to gather evidence about help needed in relation to these activities. This was reduced to just two confusingly worded pages in a revamp of claim packs last year. In the Bristol claim pack, however, all references to social and leisure activities have been purged and a House of Lords ruling has thus been cynically set aside.
Out of date evidence
A second major reason why claims fail is because of inaccurate reports completed by visiting doctors paid by the DWP, via their sub-contractors, SEMA. These reports are frequently rejected as incomplete or incorrect by appeal tribunals. Yet the new system places much greater reliance on DWP doctors' reports and will even rest heavily on the use of out-of-date evidence collected in relation to claims for entirely different benefits. As the minister explained:
'We hope that medical evidence relating to previous claims, already held by the Department, will be used to speed up the decision process.'
This means that a claimant may have their DLA claim turned down on the basis of a report into their capacity for work compiled a year or more ago. In addition, it may be difficult to prevent the DWP from only retaining evidence that will undermine a claim for DLA and shredding any reports that might be helpful. Under their current procedures the DWP are free to shred any evidence they choose that is more than 14 months old and they have already been found guilty by the Information Commissioner of destroying evidence that should have been retained for a claimant's appeal.
Call centre claiming
The governments intends not only to shorten DLA claim packs, but also to let the DWP decide which bits of the cut down packs claimants are permitted to receive. The minister explained that:
'Features of the first stage of the process include a shortened interactive claim form completed through discussion with the customer on the telephone . . . We hope to be able to tailor questions to the customer's needs rather than them having to answer all the questions that might be useful.'
According to a DWP spokesperson, a pilot is already taking place in Glasgow in which claimants have to ring up for a DLA claim pack and are then asked a series of questions. Based on their replies a DWP employee partly completes the claim pack and then sends it out to the claimant with only the sections that the DWP employee considers appropriate included. For many people with mental health conditions just having to make a phone call and talk to a stranger will be enough to prevent them ever making a claim. The same may apply to people with physical health conditions that are hard to talk openly about, such as bowel and bladder incontinence. Even people who do manage to make the call may find that ill-informed, insensitive or incomplete questioning by a call centre worker results in them being sent an inappropriately reduced claim pack, making it much less likely that their claim will succeed.
Experience of Jobcentre Plus, the amalgamation of Jobcentres with social security offices currently being rolled out across the country, suggests that the DWP will be quick to abuse a process that involves the claimant having to telephone them. Claimants calling Jobcentre Plus office for claim packs for incapacity benefit or income support because they are carers or too ill to work are, nonetheless, likely to find themselves being told to get a job. As publicity for Jobcentre Plus proudly proclaims:
"We will encourage our customers to make their first contact with us by telephone. We will take their personal details immediately and assess them in terms of their job readiness. If we think that they are job ready, we will wherever possible submit them to a job. That will apply to all of our customers; not just those claiming jobseeker's allowance."
There is a real possibility that unemployed people phoning for a DLA claim pack will be 'assessed for job readiness' and advised that they should get a job and claim Disabled Person's Tax Credit instead.
Jobcentre Plus offices have also, through incompetence, inflexibility or deliberate policy, frequently refused to allow advice workers to ring up for claim packs on a claimant's behalf. Indeed, on some occasions advice workers have been told they must give their name, date of birth and national insurance number before staff will even speak to them. This squeezing of advice workers out of the initial claims process will increase the likelihood of vulnerable people being prevented from claiming the disability benefits to which they are entitled.
The proposed changes to the claims system are likely to be particularly attractive to the DWP because they allow it to entirely sidestep any democratic scrutiny. As these are purely administrative changes in the way claims are handled, they will not have to be submitted for approval to either house or to the Social Security Advisory Committee (SSAC).
At the moment, however, far from opposition the minister is claiming to have the complete backing of disability organisations for the new measures. As she explained to the MPs:
'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.'
The Modern Service Working Group is a collection of civil servants and representatives of disability organisations. (There is a complete list of the organisations the DWP say are on the Modern Service Working Group at the end of this article). It was originally set up as a sub committee to report to the Disability Benefits Forum, a large group of disability organisations working with the government on welfare reform. However, the Disability Benefits Forum folded in 1999 after most of the disability organisations walked out in protest at government cuts to incapacity benefit. They were particularly angry that the DSS, as it then was, had under Alistair Darling ignored their ". . . detailed and constructive proposals during the consultation process and have managed to give the impression that our membership of the DBF indicates our support for those unacceptable cuts".
The Modern Service Working Group remained, however, now reporting directly to the DWP and including many of the same organisation that had resigned from the Disability Benefits Forum. Now either history is repeating itself or, incredibly, organisations including the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, Disability Alliance, Age Concern, MIND and Mencap are enthusiastically supporting a process that is certain to result in equally unacceptable cuts to entitlement to DLA and AA.
If such reputable organisations really are supporting such apparently disastrous reforms, they need to make public the reasons why they are doing so. If, in spite of the minister's claim, this is not the truth then they need to protest loudly, clearly and before it's too late.