Government officials who attend benefit appeal tribunals seem to be judged by how well they do. Success is when they prevent high-level awards to disabled people.
This affects appeals for both personal independence payment (PIP) and employment and support allowance (ESA). These are benefits claimed by many with disabilities such as those caused, as in my case, by multiple sclerosis.
Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) information shows that the officials, presenting officers (PO), must report back to their bosses.
They must say whether they persuaded tribunals not to grant enhanced PIP awards. They also required to report if they persuaded tribunals not to award claimants eligibility for the ESA support group.
Indeed, each PIP PO’s report has to include an answer to: “PO impact – was enhanced PIP award averted?”, or for ESA: “PO impact – Was SG award averted?”
The facts were released, reluctantly, in response to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request made by the Disability News Service (DNS), last September.
Marsha de Cordova, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, described DWP’s admission as “truly appalling”. And that probably echoes the mildest reaction that I could give. Does it mean that the POs are rewarded for success in tribunals? We deserve to know.
A civil servant inside DWP told DNS: “With (the) government trying to subvert justice by restricting enhanced payments, then it is something I must try and highlight and fight.”
He said this attempt to restrict enhanced payments was placing an “immoral pressure” on POs.
De Cordova said: “The idea that the ‘impact’ of DWP staff is being assessed on whether they managed to get ESA support group or enhanced PIP awards ‘averted’ is truly appalling.
“Presenting officers are supposed to be there to provide fair and balanced evidence of a claimant’s needs.
End to privatized assessments?
“In May last year, freedom of information requests revealed that the DWP was setting targets to reject 80% of social security appeals at mandatory reconsideration. They clearly haven’t changed their approach.”
She added: “The whole system is broken: from assessments where, for example, only 8% of claimants think assessors understood their mental health, through to appeals where judges are overturning over 67% of initial ESA and PIP decisions.
“Labour will scrap the current PIP and ESA assessments, bringing an end to the Conservatives’ failed, privatised assessment system.
“Instead of enforcing a culture of distrust and cost-cutting, we will work with disabled people to ensure that they have personalised, holistic support to live full and independent lives.”
Disability campaigner John Slater said: “Surely the only concern for POs or any civil servant within the DWP is that a claimant gets the social security benefits they are entitled to, paid at the appropriate rate for their specific circumstances.
“People’s behaviour changes to meet the targets/measures that they believe they are being monitored against.
“If POs specifically have to report about enhanced PIP or ESA support group being awarded, then any reasonable person must conclude that the DWP sees it as their job to stop that happening.
Interestingly, according to DNS, information published by DWP states that the role of a PO is both:
· to present the department’s case,
· to “draw the [first tier tribunal’s] attention to new points in the appellant’s favour”.
“Instead of providing balanced information that is fair to the claimant, the department’s freedom of information response appears to show that POs are being told to prevent as many enhanced awards as they can for PIP and ESA,” it says.2
DWP: PO is not there to prevent an award
Photo: The Independent
A DWP statement said: “The role of the presenting officer (PO) is to present at first tier tribunal (FtT) hearings and support the FtT in making the right decision.
“At the tribunal the PO is able to set out why the department has reached the decision it has based on the evidence supplied to date.
“Frequently more evidence is supplied on the day of the tribunal, and by having a PO in attendance the department is able to consider this new evidence alongside the tribunal and, if appropriate, change the original decision.
“A PO is not there to prevent an award being changed, but to ensure that the award is correct.”
Yeah, right. We all believe that, don’t we?
The statement continued: “For example, judges have recently commented on the improved appeal responses, which are more personalised and better focused on areas such as mobilising descriptors.
“We have improved our feedback processes and in many cases our POs have actively supported people to increase their awards when further evidence is presented at tribunals. This includes applying new descriptors in favour of the claimant.
“At a recent tribunal, a PO was able to point out that case law had changed in the favour of the claimant, and this resulted in the judge and PO jointly agreeing on an increased award.
“This demonstrates our commitment to law and instructions whilst understanding the complex needs of some of our customers.
“In addition to making sure the right entitlement of benefit is awarded, the PO is also able to provide valuable feedback on why a decision may have changed.
“This is fed back to decision makers and forms part of any improvements we can make to our processes.”
DNS has submitted a fresh freedom of information request to DWP. It asks whether the number of enhanced and support group awards that POs prevent at tribunals affects bonuses they receive. Good question!
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50shadesofsun.com is the personal website of Ian Franks, a freelance medical writer and editor for various health information sites. He enjoyed a successful career as a journalist, from reporter to editor in the print media. He gained a Journalist of the Year award in his native UK. Ian received a diagnosis of MS in 2002 and now lives in the south of Spain. He uses a wheelchair and advocates on mobility and accessibility issues.
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Note: Health-related information available on 50shadesofsun website is for your general knowledge only. It is not a substitute for medical advice or treatment for specific medical conditions. I am not a doctor and cannot and do not give you medical advice. You should seek prompt medical care for any specific health issues. Also, consult a doctor before starting a new diet or exercise programme. Any opinions expressed are purely my own unless otherwise stated.