A government minister has claimed that in the future there will be fewer and shorter assessments for disability benefits, more access to specialist assessors, audio recording of all assessments, more mandatory reconsideration success for claimants and more access to free advocacy services.

DWP minister Justin Tomlinson, gave evidence to the Commons Work and Pensions committee earlier this month.

Fewer assessments
He told them that “as part of the health and disability Green Paper, we want to explore the principle of removing unnecessary assessments.”

One way of doing this, he explained, would be to ensure that where a claimant gets an award from a tribunal, the length of their award should be extended to take into account the fact that the tribunal had access to recent evidence. At present, it can take so long to get to a hearing that claimants can find themselves filling out a review form shortly after a tribunal victory.

In addition, Tomlinson talked about ‘triaging’ as a way of reducing the number of full assessments that some claimants have to endure.

There is also the principle of triaging. Pre-Covid, if I had received your written evidence at the beginning, then I could be 95% certain of what award I am going to give you or what level of support, but because I am missing 5% the only option to me was to trigger a full assessment. During Covid, because we had such limited capacity, we then started doing triaging where we said, “We know 95%, so let us now have a telephone assessment, or even just a telephone conversation, to get that final 5%.” In my preconsultation, triaging is very popular with stakeholders. It is also very popular with assessors, who say, “There is nothing more soul destroying than knowing I have to ask 55 questions, which I already know the answers to, to get to the very last question at the end of this one-hour assessment.”

Telephone and video assessments to stay
Tomlinson said that telephone and video assessment are likely to be here to stay.

We then rolled forward the telephone and video assessments. We are very encouraged by how they have been received by claimants and we will be exploring further in the Green Paper how they can become a permanent part of the mix of assessment options. Certainly, they will continue as we return to normality.

Specialist assessors
He claimed that one advantage of being able to have telephone and video assessments as well as face-to-face is that it would be possible to have specialist assessors carry out the assessment for people with some conditions:

“. . . by having a menu of telephone and video assessments, we can explore, for the first time, having more specialist assessors. If you are not physically restricted to your nearby physical assessment centre, then we may be able to explore, for some conditions, a more specialist type of assessment.”

Mandatory reconsideration successes
The minister claimed that phone calls to claimants at the mandatory reconsideration stage had led to an increase in the number of decisions being changed in favour of claimants from 21% up to 44%.

We have also brought in holistic decision making at the monetary consideration stage, where for the first time—and again this goes to the core of trust—we will phone a claimant and say, “Tell us in your own words why you think we have made the wrong decision.” Sometimes that is enough, and sometimes that identifies what will ultimately be the additional evidence that is needed and we then help them gather that. To put this into context, making these changes about six months before Covid, 21% of decisions were overturned at appeal at the monetary consideration stage. That had moved up to around 44%. With Covid—we are not in normal circumstances—as we return to normality, I expect that to go higher yet.

Free advocacy
In spite of the massive cuts to support for the voluntary sector and to legal aid, Tomlinson claims to be in favour of more access to free advocacy. He points out that some people already have friends, family or charities that can advocate for them, but goes on to say:

There is also a “other” cohort of people who may not have advocacy support. It could be somebody with health or disability but, for example, if you are an ex-offender, if you are a care leaver into a new community, you do not necessarily have established advocate support. Can we evolve the help-to-claim scheme? We currently provide about £42 million a year to Citizens Advice as a trusted independent agency. Can we evolve that scheme so that they can provide that advocacy support? That can help in the application processes, explaining the system.

Recording assessments
The idea that all assessments should be recorded as a matter of course appears to be gaining ground, if the minister is to be believed.

We are committed to providing audio recording, as a given. At the moment you can get it but you have to bring your own equipment and provide a copy for somebody else. We also had a stakeholder request for video recording. We piloted that and it transpired that almost nobody wanted it. It is likely that it will be audio. We have also, because of the telephone and video assessments, started to do some audio recording on that. Our plan is that audio recording will become a given because, you are absolutely right, when you are reviewing a decision, to have that to go back to is helpful for claimants and the people doing the review

Too good to be true
If everything the minister is promising comes to pass then it should lead to at least a small level of improvement for claimants of disability benefits.

But we have heard talk like this before. So, we suspect many claimants will wait to see what the green paper says and, much more importantly, what the government actually does, before they start throwing their hats in the air.


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