COVID-19: disability benefit phone assessments to continue?

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We’re sharing the 17 June update from our friends at Benefits and Work welfare rights site.  Opinions are by Benefits and Work, we’ve added comments below.

“MINISTER REFUSES TO CONFIRM FACE-TO-FACE ASSESSMENT BAN WILL CONTINUE”
Mystery surrounds how long telephone assessments for PIP and ESA are to continue after a government minister refused to give an answer today, as the ban on face-to-face assessments expires.

Face-to-face assessments were banned for a period of three months from 17 March to June 17 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic began to grip.

Instead they were replaced by paper and telephone assessments.

On 11 June, [Benefits and Work] reported that Justin Tomlinson, minister of state for disabled people, told MPs two days earlier:

“As previously announced, all face-to-face assessments for health and disability benefits were suspended from 17 March 2020 for an initial period of three months. We are currently in the process of reviewing this measure in light of the latest public health advice and will confirm next steps as soon as possible.”

However, when asked in writing again by an MP whether there were plans to extend the three month extension of face-to-face benefits assessments, Tomlinson responded today: “I refer the hon. Member to the answer I gave on 9 June 2020.”

Given that the three months are now up, it is very surprising that no new statement has been made.

One possibility is that the DWP expect the social distancing rule to be reduced from 2 metres to 1 metre in the coming weeks, which would make face-to-face assessments possible again.

Another is that the DWP are looking at evidence as to whether telephone assessments lead to more awards of benefits or fewer, and will base any decision about how to proceed on whether it will cut the benefits bill.

Whatever is going on, [Benefits and Work] will let readers know as soon as there’s any further news.

WinVisible adds:  We always pressed for people to be exempted from stressful face-to-face interviews and for people to be assessed on paper evidence and information from professionals and others who know their needs.  Telephone interviews are also problematic for similar reasons.  Sometimes family members in the home overhearing aggressive questioning have had to intervene.  And people in self-isolation have been denied supporters to be on the call with them.  Claimants have also been unable to obtain or send GP and other reports to provide additional medical evidence so that their assessment can be done from documents.  Usually these have to be sent by post — you aren’t allowed to use email usually.  Assessors often call GPs to verify a claimant’s situation — medical professionals are bound to de-prioritise these calls under COVID-19.

“DRAMATIC FALL IN NEW PIP CLAIMS”
The latest statistics from the DWP reveal that there has been a dramatic fall in the number of people applying for PIP since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

In April 2020, there were 25,000 registrations for new claims. This is less than three fifths – 58% – of the level a year earlier and the lowest number since December 2013.

There is no explanation from the DWP for the drop.

But minister for disabled people Justin Tomlinson has suggested that difficulty in getting support from charities with the claims process during the lockdown may be an important factor.

WinVisible adds: We heard that DWP staff have been taken off PIP teams to work on processing Universal Credit claims which have surged.  This means that it takes ages to get through to the PIP team to start your claim, or notify any information, which is putting people off.  Under lockdown and self-isolation, people are also facing a lot of other barriers with functioning day-to-day, let alone claiming benefits and gathering medical evidence       

“In better news, the success rate for new claims rose from just 31% in February 2020, to 56% in April.

However, the DWP say that:

“During the first few weeks of the COVID-19 emergency measures, efforts have been made to clear residual claims in the system from before emergency measures began, giving rise to an initial spike in clearance volumes. This may have affected March 20 and April 20 Award Rates.”

So, although the award rate had increased, there is no way of knowing why this has happened.

We also can’t yet tell whether telephone assessments have led to a higher level of awards or not.

Things may become clearer in three months’ time, when the next set of statistics is released, if the ban on face-to-face assessments continues.

PIP AND ESA APPEALS SUCCESS RATE CONTINUES, BUT NUMBERS PLUNGE
The latest tribunal statistics show a continuing very high success rate for claimants, but a dramatic drop in the number of appeals being lodged.

From January to March 2020, there has been a 96% rise in UC appeals but a 77% drop in ESA appeals, as claims for ESA are replaced by claims for UC.

However, there has also been a 38% drop in the number of PIP appeals being lodged, compared to the same period last year, down from 27,000 last year to 16,700 this year.

The fall may be associated with the effects of the pandemic and the lockdown, although this did not occur until near the end of the quarter.

Success rates for claimants remain very high:

76% of PIP claimants won their appeal

75% of ESA claimants won their appeal

69% of DLA claimants won their appeal

64% of UC claimants won their appeal”

Thanks to Benefits and Work for this info.

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