Under COVID, sick and disabled claimants are losing vital benefits due to delays with assessments and decisions. But with WinVisible’s support, Ms S finally won over £4,000 disability payments in May 2021 plus ongoing payments, after being left in limbo for 16 months stuck on Universal Credit (UC) basic rate.
Ms S has a severe auto-immune condition similar to Lupus, and anxiety. Her telephone Work Capability Assessment (WCA) interview in July 2020 by the assessor company Maximus (also known as CHDA/HAAS) was deemed “inconclusive”. She was told no decision could be made until face-to-face interviews – suspended under COVID – restarted. She contacted WinVisible in October 2020.
We initially wrote to Maximus. After our advocacy and writing to the DWP on “unreasonable delay” and a UC regulation that a face-to-face interview is not compulsory, we got her assessment reopened in April 2021. The decision to pay her disability element and backdated benefit was made within days of the second phone interview — while supporting Ms S on the interview, we conveyed to the assessor that if there was any more delay we would begin legal action. While we worked together on her case, she joined our weekly group on Zoom, and spoke at our workshop, Women fighting for disability benefit rights under COVID (March 2021).
About her experience, she says:
“Due to ill-health I was no longer able to work, that in itself was really difficult for me to accept. I was exhausted, deflated, depressed and felt like I wasn’t worth it. Having to give up work, struggle at home being a lone parent of three children and dealing with my illnesses all at the same time has been traumatic. I was advised by my Jobcentre to apply for disability Universal Credit. 10 months of literally going around in circles, back and forth with CHDA [in relation to the Work Capability Assessment] made me extremely stressed which was definitely adding to my illnesses.
I was introduced to WinVisible via a link worker at my GP surgery because my GP couldn’t understand why they still had to give me sick notes every three months especially being in the middle of a pandemic and with me being high risk, plus they had filled out and sent a report back to CHDA and the GP told me that I should have been receiving disability allowance by now.
WinVisible has been fantastic and I really wouldn’t have been able to deal with this on my own. They have helped me every step of the way and I no longer felt alone. I am so grateful for all of their help and support and have recommended them to others. When I joined the support group and after listening to other women’s stories and how badly they have been treated, who were even worse off than myself with various ill-health, i.e. cancer, MS, etc., I was absolutely mortified that they too were fighting this uphill battle not only with their health but with disability allowance which they are clearly entitled to. I felt disgusted with CHDA and my heart sank for each and every single one of those women. It’s outrageous how they treat us!
Public speaking has always been a struggle for me but I knew that I had to tell my story to help others, just as other women have supported me. I am yet still to be as courageous as them.
Thankfully after what felt like a never-ending nightmare, I have finally got what I had been entitled to. I feel so relieved that I can now afford the diet that I should have been on, I can focus on my health and my children without UC breathing down my neck about being sanctioned, me having to keep asking for sick notes from my GP and them pushing me to go back to work. I would like to continue with WinVisible support group to help others in any way that I can from my own personal experiences.”
The late Rev Paul Nicolson, Taxpayers Against Poverty and other anti-poverty organisations opposed Universal Credit. Claimant groups including WinVisible, and many others, called for Universal Credit to be scrapped from the start. The harm it causes is spreading as more and more people have no choice but to claim it. UC is less than the benefits it replaces, creates rent arrears, other debts and hunger through the five-week wait, and in other ways harms women and children especially: via the two-child limit unless you disclose rape to the DWP; and the single payment to the head of household forces women in couples to be financially dependent. The residence test discriminates against immigrant people living and working in the UK. The abolition of severe disability premium cuts benefit to disabled people living alone, including disabled single mothers. UC has many brutal and bureaucratic rules, including that even if you are sending in sick notes (“fit notes”), you have to keep doing job search and work focussed interviews or your UC will be sanctioned – until a Work Capability Assessment decision has been made.
Key points to know:
“Unreasonable delay” in benefit decisions is unlawful. This is based on a 2015 legal case brought by two PIP claimants. https://www.cloisters.com/pip-disability-benefits-delay-unlawful-1/
Regulation 44 of the Universal Credit Regulations 2013, provides clearly that a face-to-face WCA interview is not obligatory: “the claimant may be called by or on behalf of a health care professional approved by the Secretary of State to attend a medical examination.” They can do a paper-based or alternative assessment instead.
Maximus said they could not make a recommendation on Ms S at the time, they only had the power to recommend placing her in Limited Capability for Work and Work Related Activity (LCWRA) – Support Group equivalent. They said they didn’t have enough evidence for that, and they refused to take any more medical evidence as they said they had completed the procedure set by the DWP. When Ms S tried to get her assessment reopened, she was diverted to their complaints procedure. Later, their policy was changed: “Following a telephone Work Capability Assessment (WCA), Health Care Professionals (HCP) are recommending the full range of outcomes to decision makers. This includes Limited Capability for Work (LCW), Limited Capability for Work and Work Related Activity (LCWRA) and no LCW. ”
Ms S should have been placed in LCWRA (Support Group) under “substantial risk to health” UC Regulations 2013 schedule 9 (also known as exceptional circumstances) when WinVisible wrote to Maximus initially and when we quoted her: “My back is killing me, I can barely move and my anxiety levels are through the roof! Apologies for offloading onto you but to be completely honest I cannot cope with much more of this.”
Risk to self or others
4. The claimant is suffering from a specific illness, disease or disablement by reason of which there would be a substantial risk to the physical or mental health of any person were the claimant found not to have limited capability for work and work-related activity. https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukdsi/2013/9780111531938/schedule/9
Bad response from MP when DWP was breaking the law. Ms S was devastated when she received a reply from her MP (Labour):
Therefore, despite our immense support and sympathy for you under the circumstances outlined below, we unfortunately do not have the authority to intervene in, or give the DWP specific instructions regarding, your Universal Credit claim, including any specific demands about exactly how and when it should be completed, as well as any requests that it is prioritised or assisted in any way that is not part of official rules. (email, 23 December 2020)
The report sent from the GP surgery was deemed “too vague” and after that the GP surgery declined to provide a letter, citing the pandemic, saying they had already sent the report. Maximus also said they were only allowed to commission a GP report once.
A letter from Ms S’ consultant was included in her second telephone interview (you can read letters out to the assessor as part of evidence).
– Thanks to CPAG Universal Credit London Advice Project