Rita* has now been awarded nearly £11,500 in backdated benefits after a year-long struggle with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and the private assessment company Capita.
Her case will give hope to other disabled people who have had their entitlement to benefits stripped away because they were unable to attend face-to-face assessments.
Disability News Service (DNS) has been unable to confirm the details of the case with DWP, because Rita did not want to share her personal details.
But DNS has seen a redacted copy of correspondence from DWP, which confirms the award of the backdated PIP payments, and has been briefed by the user-led grassroots organisation WinVisible**, which has years of experience in supporting disabled benefit claimants.
Rita’s ordeal follows the case of another disabled woman, Jane*, who spent two years fighting for her benefits to be reinstated after they were removed for failing to attend a face-to-face assessment, and which again involved Capita.
Like Jane, Rita was supported by WinVisible.
WinVisible warned earlier this year that disabled people who cannot attend face-to-face assessments for health reasons or after surviving trauma or even abuse or sexual violence had become “easy targets” for DWP.
Rita, from Cambridgeshire, had previously been receiving the highest rates of disability living allowance for more than 10 years, before being moved onto the new personal independence payment (PIP) in 2015.
She was awarded the standard daily living and enhanced mobility rates of PIP, but decided it was too stressful to appeal against the standard rate decision.
When she was diagnosed with cancer in August 2018, she informed both DWP and Capita about the diagnosis, and that she was too unwell to attend a face-to-face assessment.
She said this week: “In August 2018, I developed cancer, the effects of which were crushing fatigue and bouts of depression.
“In shock, for I thought nothing worse could happen, I found it difficult to cope with the treatment, worsening pain, angina and had no strength to do anything.
“From September till March 2019, I was unable to leave my home.
“I was sent appointments by Capita, but explained to them that I couldn’t attend because of the effects of cancer, and its treatment.”
But in June 2019, DWP stopped Rita’s PIP – without notice and without sending her a letter explaining the decision – for failing to comply with the assessment process.
She says she had never been sent a form to allow her to explain why she had been unable to attend the assessments, and that Capita failed to note her explanations on its system.
The decision to remove her PIP – which also led to her severe disability premium being cut – left her in debt.
A year ago, she tried writing to the then work and pensions secretary, Amber Rudd, but received no reply.
Last November, she contacted WinVisible when she was facing the threat of losing her Motability vehicle.
She needed the car to attend radiotherapy appointments, which took place in another city.
But she was appalled when a DWP mandatory reconsideration rubber-stamped the decision to remove her PIP.
WinVisible was able to contact the DWP official who had helped with the other “failure to attend” case and he arranged in January for Rita’s PIP claim to be referred back to Capita.
In March, following a complaint to its customer relations team, Capita finally agreed to carry out a paper-based assessment of Rita’s claim.
She has now finally learned that she will be awarded the highest rates of PIP, for both daily living and mobility, and will receive backpayments of more than £8,000 for PIP and more than £3,300 for severe disability premium.
Rita said she had been through “a year-long ordeal”.
She said: “While some of the staff were kind, most couldn’t care less.
“I was close to a complete breakdown, and if it weren’t for [WinVisible’s] help, I don’t know how I would have survived.
“I would not have managed to get the result without their help. Nothing was too much trouble for them.
“At times, I would feel very down, but they were always there for me.”
Claire Glasman, from WinVisible, said: “Rita was cruelly cut off when she needed benefits the most.
“We don’t know whether racism was a factor as well as sexism and disability discrimination, as officials often assume women are exaggerating illnesses.
“Being labelled uncooperative and cut off for ‘failure to attend’ interviews when we are ill, in mental distress or in hospital treatment is a huge problem.”
She pointed out that Capita was “slammed” for its assessment performance by the Commons work and pensions committee in a report in early 2018, which also criticised the other assessment providers, Atos and Maximus.
Glasman said: “That inquiry received thousands of angry testimonies from claimants, but Capita’s contract has just been extended for the third time, along with Atos and Maximus, who were also criticised [in the committee’s report].
“People are furious that the assessment companies and DWP are brutal to sick and disabled people in their time of need.”
*Not her real name
**WinVisible is based in London but is often contacted by disabled women across England, Scotland and Wales, and welcomes volunteers, with its casework and advocacy financially supported by the Oak Foundation and the National Lottery Community Fund