Judge Robert Martin, the outgoing president of the social entitlement chamber which deals with benefits tribunals, has claimed that the work capability assessment (WCA) process has virtually collapsed and that DLA claimants are having their awards extended, rather than looked at again, as the DWP goes into a welfare reform induced meltdown.
The judge was writing his final article before retiring, in the April edition of the Judicial Information Bulletin which goes out to all tribunal members . As a result, he has taken the opportunity to make a number of allegations and disclosures about the DWP that might be regarded as astonishingly forthright in a serving tribunal president.
In the article, Judge Martin tries to get to the bottom of why the tribunal service went from its highest ever number of cases heard in a month – over 50,000 – in July 2013, to a record low of just 8,775 in March 2014.
He makes it clear that he blames the DWP for the difficulties caused by this wild fluctuation in workload. The judge appears particularly angry because the tribunals service had taken on a large number of new staff after the DWP predicted a prolonged period of extra appeals.
Judge Martin is in no doubt that the biggest single cause of the drop in appeal numbers is a huge reduction in the number of WCAs being carried out.
He explains that in July 2013 Lord Freud announced that, due to a reduction in the quality of written reports, all Atos health professionals were to be retrained.
Initially, the DWP warned the tribunals service that there was likely to be an increase in the number of appeals as previous assessments were reworked and then challenged by unsuccessful claimants. However, at the same time the number of assessments carried out by Atos dropped from 200,000 to 100,000 per month.
As a result the DWP changed its advice, saying that there would be a drop of 9,500 appeals from September to December 2013 whilst remedial measures were put in place. Following this there would be a big surge of appeals as Atos regained its former rate of assessments and worked on the backlog caused by the slowdown.
In fact, the recovery in the number of appeals has still not happened and, as Benefits and Work exclusively revealed, the DWP stopped referring most existing ESA claimants to Atos for reassessment from late January 2013. In addition, Judge Martin claims that:
‘Anecdotally, it appeared that an increasing proportion of ESA claimants both on new claims and IB-ESA reassessments were simply being assigned to the support group without a face to face assessment.’
Judge Martin concludes that:
‘The virtual collapse of the WCA process is the biggest single factor in the decline of the appeals intake.’
However, the judge lists many other important factors, including the extremely small number of universal credit awards and the botched and halting introduction of personal independence payment (PIP).
The judge reveals that:
‘As late as June 2013, the DWP was forecasting that HMCTS would receive over 40,000 PIP appeals by the end of March 2014. The actual PIP receipts by the end of March were just over 1,000.’
Judge Martin also has deep suspicions about what is happening in relation to disability living allowance ( DLA). He explains that the number of DLA appeals in March 2014 dropped by 80% compared to March 2013, from 5,568 down to 1,202.
He argues that this drop cannot be explained simply by the introduction of PIP, especially given that reassessment of DLA awards under the PIP rules has only been introduced in 30% of the country and that DLA claims do not require a medical assessment from Atos or Capita.
‘It becomes even more curious’, he suggests, when you realise that the DWP has recently ‘revised the level of DLA appeals expected in 2014-15 - upwards from 29,200 to 33,150.’
Judge Martin points to a possible explanation. The PIP regulations introduced a power for the DWP to extend DLA awards that were about to run out, even if the claimant is not about to be transferred to PIP. The judge claims that:
‘There is anecdotal evidence from welfare rights advisers that claimants whose DLA award is running out have simply received an extension. DWP has not disclosed the extent to which this may be happening’
Whatever the reason for the fall in the number of appeals, there seems little doubt that the DWP have made an enemy out of a man who knows – or suspects - where many of its skeletons are buried. They must be hoping very much that nobody goes and digs them up.
Judge Martin’s article, ‘Dark matter’ can be downloaded from the Rightsnet discussion forum.