27 November 2002

Controversial trials beginning in Glasgow will oblige people to take part in a 15 minute telephone interview in order to prove their right to claim DLA. Many callers will then be sent only part of a new shortened form, limiting which components and rates of DLA they can apply for. The process is almost certainly in breach of the Disability Discrimination Act, yet the DWP claims the support of major advice and disability organisations for the new system.

How it works
From late November 2002 until late March 2003, people who ring the Disability Benefits Centre in Glasgow and ask for DLA claim pack will be put through to a Customer Claims Advisor (CCA). They will then be asked a series of questions, beginning with contact details and then moving on to the following:

Do you have any difficulties during the day?
Do you have any difficulties preparing a cooked meal?
Do you have any difficulties during the night?
Do you have any difficulties getting about?

Based on their answers, the claimant will be sent a claim pack which already has some of their details, but not their care needs, typed into it.

Misleading questions
The new claim pack will be much shorter. Instead of the current 20 pages provided to give evidence about difficulties with everyday activities it will have a maximum of 4, one for each question the caller gave the 'right' answer to. If they fail to convince the CCA that they have problems with, for example, getting about they will not be sent the page on difficulties with walking. Instead, there will be a box saying 'We were told that you do not have any difficulties with getting about'. The form will tell them that if they now realise they have needs, they can write about these on the additional information page - but many people will simply accept that they are not eligible.

This may, however, be quite wrong. For example, the legal criteria for getting lower rate mobility is that you reasonably require guidance or supervision from another person most of the time when walking outdoors on unfamiliar routes. This can include people who, because of panic attacks or phobias, are unable to walk in unfamiliar places alone but who may be fine walking to and from places that they know well. If people in this position are asked 'Do you have any difficulties getting about?' they may well answer 'No, not really' and effectively disentitle themselves.

Less means less
Whilst a shortened claim pack may sound like an improvement, it is likely to make it much more difficult to claim DLA successfully. The current claim pack has many examples and explanations to help people understand what they need to give evidence about. The Glasgow claim pack has many fewer, particularly in relation to mental health. If people are encouraged to give less evidence themselves, then they have to rely on the DWP to actively collect the necessary evidence by contacting their carers and health professionals or by telephoning the claimant with yet more questions. Whilst this may happen during the pilot period, because the DWP are anxious for the new system to be adopted, there is no guarantee they will continue to take the trouble once the system has been taken up nationally.

Fast money
The DWP has invested huge amounts of money in new IT equipment and is currently reducing its workforce by thousands. Many people believe that the new claims system has nothing to do with making things easier for claimants and everything to do with reducing the amount of paper that the DWP deals with. More than 800,000 new claims for DLA and AA will be made next year: the more of these claims that can be processed on disc rather than paper the cheaper and quicker it will be. As an incentive, the DWP has announced bonuses of up to 2% of annual salary for teams which speed up their decision making times. If having to phone round and collect evidence on behalf of claimants slows down the decision making process, staff will risk forfeiting their bonus.

Conscripted volunteers
The DWP say that participation in the Glasgow trial is voluntary. However, people calling for a claim pack will be told that they need to answer some questions before it can be sent. They will not be told that they are taking part in a trial or that they have the option of refusing to do so. Nor will they be asked if they would find it difficult to give information over the telephone or cope with a 15 minute interview.

Telephone discrimination
There are real fears that having to give evidence over the telephone to complete strangers will discriminate against some people with mental health conditions which involve for example, feelings of anxiety or shame.

The Disability Discrimination Act makes it unlawful for service providers to treat people less favourably for a reason related to their impairment and to fail to make reasonable adjustments to allow disabled people to use their services. At the moment, hugely imperfect as it is, the DLA claim system allows those who wish to give their evidence on paper to do so. A reasonable adjustment, via a telephone forms completion service, is provided for those who are put at a disadvantage by having to provide written evidence.

The Glasgow trial makes no such adjustment for people who, because of their impairment, are unable to give accurate and effective evidence over the phone. They are put at an enormous disadvantage in that they may not even receive a complete claim pack to fill in. The trial further discriminates against people who, as a result of their condition, are particularly isolated and thus may have no-one who knows them well enough to give evidence on their behalf. Finally, the claim pack itself, with its heavy emphasis on physical impairments, further discriminates against claimants with mental health conditions.

National support
Given all these facts, it seems remarkable that the government can claim that at every stage the new forms have been put to a committee of national 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'. Yet exactly this claim was made by to parliament by Maria Eagle, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, in an adjournment debate on 16th October 2002. The organisations, including MIND, Rethink (formerly NSF), Disability Alliance and the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux have yet to make any public comment on whether this is so.

Just say no
If you live in the Glasgow area you have the right to ask not to be included in the pilot and to be sent a claim form in the ordinary way. If you have already become involved in the pilot and feel you have been disadvantaged as a result, contact an advice agency for help to give detailed evidence relating to your claim. You may also wish to get advice about whether you are in a position to take action under the Disability Discrimination Act - don't act without getting advice first. If you live elsewhere, you may want to contact your MP and voice any concerns you have before the pilot is adopted nationally.

Many thanks to Chris White, a mental health service user and welfare rights advisor in Glasgow, for providing much of the information on which this article is based.

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