30 July 2008
In his final report released this month, the President of Appeal Tribunals has slammed the DWP for having made no improvement in the standard of decision making in the last ten years and criticised ATOS doctors for failing to listen to claimants.
Robert Martin, the final President before the reforms coming into place in November of this year abolish his position, uses his last report to look back at the changes introduced by the Social Security Act 1998, which was supposed to revolutionise DWP decision making. In particular, the introduction of a reconsideration stage was intended to ensure that all the necessary evidence was collected and carefully looked at by the decision maker. The result was going to be that only the most complex legal issues would end up at tribunals, rather than disputes about facts or medical evidence.
In reality, the President reveals that the number of appeals has gone up from 217,000 a year to 229,000 and the proportion of appeals that succeed has remained at around 37%. (It should be noted that this includes all benefits and child support cases and all paper hearings, the success rate at DLA and incapacity oral hearings is considerably higher). What is more, the President bemoans the fact that the same problems and errors are repeated year after year with no sign that anyone takes any notice of feedback from tribunals.
Among the main failings of the DWP are:
- A continuing decline in the number of presenting officers attending hearings to put the department’s case and pass on feedback to decision makers.
- Failure to collect all the necessary evidence, especially by simply talking to the claimant.
- Failure to carry out proper reconsiderations when a decision is challenged.
- Medical reports underestimating the severity of the claimant’s disability.
- Failure to listen, or give credibility, to the evidence provided by claimants.
- Decision makers lacking the necessary understanding of how to decide how much weight to give to a medical report.
- Failure to set up systems that allow people with particular disabilities, such as sensory impairments and mental health problems, to make effective use of the claims and appeals process.
In relation to DLA, out of a sample of 365 successful appeals, medical evidence was supplied by Atos in 302 cases. Sixty one of the medical reports were considered to have underestimated the severity of the disability whilst thirty eight did not address all the issues. Tribunal chairs also criticised medical reports that ‘did not coincide with reality’ and considered that it was the fact that tribunals took time to question appellants about their history and care and mobility needs which led them to a different conclusion from the decision maker’s.
In relation to the personal capability assessment of incapacity for work, tribunal chairs told the President that the major problem was an even greater likelihood than with other benefits for both examining doctors and decision makers to refuse to believe evidence given by the claimant.
In addition, they highlighted the inability of the system to deal with mental health conditions effectively. In particular:
‘Criticism was made of ATOS Healthcare medical practitioners who did not appear to pay sufficient attention to the appellant at the medical examination and who produced findings in medical reports based on observations that were inconsistent, or recorded in the medical report findings that were contradictory.’
The continuing frustration with the failure of the DWP and ATOS Healthcare to produce consistently reliable evidence and decisions shines out in the President’s report. With the introduction of even more complex medical tests under the work capability assessment from late October 2008 there is every likelihood that the situation will get worse, rather than better, in the coming months and years.