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PIP Almost Killed My Wife

November 13, 2017

My wife tried to kill herself in March. She took an overdose – while I was watching TV in the next room. Cue, in short succession: 30 minutes of heart-stopping panic, a nerve-jangling ambulance trip to A&E, an admission to a secure mental health unit, and a longer stay recovering in a crisis house.

Acute episodes such as this can be a recurring reality for someone with a longstanding mental health condition. From her battles with depression and struggles to get out of bed in the mornings, to anxiety so overpowering that a trip on a bus triggers a blind panic, for my wife (let’s call her Bea) life is a titanic battle to stay afloat. She experiences overwhelming feelings of worthlessness, guilt and impulsive urges to self-harm that can flood her mind and distort her thinking. Socialising with friends is hard, while work in the past year has been out of the question. But she’s also incredibly smart, funny, kind and brave.

Mental health is complex, but something simple triggered Bea’s overdose: a devastating letter from a “decision-maker” at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), informing her that her claim for personal independence payment, a disability benefit, had been unsuccessful. She’s not the first, and won’t be the last, to experience the dismissive treatment that people with severe mental health conditions can undergo when accessing the benefits system. And PIP, as the benefit is called, is one of the worst offenders.

PIP is supposed to offset some of the extra costs of a disability. Applicants are evaluated by health workers from the private firms Atos or Capita, who forward their assessments to a DWP decision-maker – who scores you on “daily living” and “mobility” (you need at least eight points for each to qualify). Currently nearly 3 million people claim some element of PIP, and my wife expected to be one of them. As did her benefits adviser, an NHS psychiatrist and a psychologist. So, armed with a dossier of supporting medical documentation, Bea applied. That was last November. I’ve seen glaciers move faster.

The thing about accompanying someone to a PIP assessment when you have your own disability is that you’re in danger of stealing their thunder. I have cystic fibrosis, I’m undergoing a lung transplant assessment, and I’m on oxygen 24/7. Bea has a hidden disease and most people aren’t trained to recognise the signs of her inner turmoil. Which means the receptionist is staring expectantly at me, oxygen cylinder strapped to my back, rather than my wife as we approach.

The good news about my wife’s assessor is that she didn’t ask Bea why her suicide attempts hadn’t been successful – a tactic that, shockingly, several applicants have claimed their own interviewers used. The bad news was that she displayed a frostiness to put the Snow Queen to shame. Bea’s acute distress during questioning – her body rigid, lips trembling, eyes welling up – was coldly met with impatience and irritation.

Imagine admitting to a series of deeply embarrassing difficulties that you battle with on a daily basis. How, for example, venturing outside on to a bustling high street feels akin to an artillery bombardment, a barrage to your senses. Or how, on some days, your body feels so leaden and heavy you can’t even raise yourself to sit up in bed. You’d hope that they would take those difficulties seriously.

The biggest shock for Bea wasn’t that her overall PIP application was rejected, but rather the manner of that rejection: being told that her claim had been unsuccessful because, in the assessor’s opinion, she was functioning perfectly normally at the assessment – thus scoring zero points, with the pages of supporting medical evidence overlooked.

This letter struck to the very core of Bea’s difficulties. “I’ve been rejected,” she said flatly. First came disbelief, then anger, and finally a tsunami of shame. She stumbled to the bathroom and locked herself in. She went catatonic, lying on the bathroom floor in a stupor, occasionally jerking back to reality with ragged gasps of panic.

Perhaps if they had read these medical notes they might have seen how, along with a severe and complex anxiety disorder, my wife’s mental health diagnosis features a particular vulnerability towards “rejection” and “abandonment”. But in their dash to get through her case and on to the next, they did not see it – or even worse, they ignored it.

There’s nothing quite like witnessing your wife tumble through a gaping chasm, to see that there’s something rotten at the heart of a welfare assessment system. From what we experienced, the wrong people are doing the wrong assessments with the wrong tools, using incorrect assumptions. And it left me reeling: how could this happen to my wife? I discovered that her experience is just the calamitous tip of a PIP-denying iceberg.While the DWP claims it doesn’t operate quotas to save money, figures released in April, covering just six months of 2016, showed an enormous expansion in claimants receiving zero points, up to 83,000. That’s only 10,000 fewer than in the previous 12 months.

This raises huge concerns about the assessment process – especially given that, when rejected by the DWP, 65% of applicants who appeal to a tribunal get the ruling reversed. A panel of welfare experts told the work and pensions select committee earlier this year that the whole process was “inherently flawed”, with medical evidence often ignored by officials during the initial assessment.

And it gets worse. New PIP guidelines were added this year, whereby mental health claimants whose mobility is limited due to “psychological distress” are now in effect barred from gaining the mobility component. “We want to make sure we get the money to the really disabled people who need it,” George Freeman, the director of Theresa May’s policy unit, said on the subject of anxiety on BBC radio in February. Bea may not be on oxygen 24/7, as I am, but her condition – and her symptoms of acute psychological distress – can be just as disabling. Acute anxiety that leads to dissociation is a physiological response: your body shuts down.

Many MPs have concerns too: the Tory MP Peter Bone declared in a Commons debate in February that “I am fed up with seeing [constituents] who clearly should have been awarded PIP.” Bea’s outraged welfare rights adviser recalled a previous PIP rejection by letter of another client, when it was crudely stated that as the individual wasn’t rocking backwards and forwards during the assessment, there was clearly nothing wrong.

After Bea’s discharge, I found myself constantly checking on her, terrified she had taken another overdose. But one weekend when I was away, visiting my sister, it happened again. A close friend came to her aid. There’s no time for fighting the benefits system when your wife is in a psychiatric unit. When Bea was finally home once again, and felt ready, we slogged through the DWP’s internal “mandatory reconsideration” appeal stage, with help from her adviser. Here the rejection rate is 80%. Bone himself has called these reviews a complete waste of time.

After several months Bea’s appeal was looked at, and rejected out of hand. I want to thank the decision-maker who saw fit to nudge her up from a derisory zero points to an even more offensive one point. At this point it might be stating the obvious that there seems to be a PIP agenda against people with mental health difficulties, and it’s harming the most vulnerable. The government may be trumpeting how mental health needs to be invested in, but its core approach is fatally flawed. Why, for instance, is there no consideration for how anxiety disorders can be just as crippling for mobility as those requiring a walking stick?

I’ve asked Bea what she thinks. She tells me about the other people she’s met at the crisis house. How most of them are repeat visitors with an array of serious mental health conditions, and many can’t work. They’re considered ill enough by the local authorities and A&E to require supported living, but too well by the DWP to be in receipt of PIP.

She believes a lot of things could make a difference. Better-trained PIP staff would help: Bea’s assessor didn’t believe her claims, as she didn’t understand Bea’s condition. And changing some of the underlying DWP guidelines about mental illness would make a big difference, such as rolling back the recent PIP changes on mental health and the mobility component.

And of course, writing to your MP with your own experiences and difficulties: Bea had written to hers, on another government benefit called ESA, and they intervened. Our PIP complaint letter is up next. She also wanted me to write this article, despite the unwelcome attention it might bring her. I think she is very courageous.

There is another thing claimants can do: persevere. Some time after Bea’s second emphatic DWP rejection, we filed a motion to go to tribunal. Tribunals are independently assessed. They carefully read through the supporting medical notes, and they don’t have political agendas: most people who go on to appeal here win. The DWP doesn’t like to be made to look like an idiot so, lo and behold, with the full weight of a tribunal imminent, they finally had a thorough look through Bea’s case. I spoke to a DWP official on the phone who finally acknowledged my wife’s difficulties and offered an avalanche of points and an award of the daily-living component if we withdrew the appeal. I expressed my frustration at an utterly broken process. But at last Bea had her offer of PIP. That’s the difference perseverance can make.

The true measure of any civilised society is in how compassionately it treats its most vulnerable members. Judged by how PIP claimants such as Bea are being treated, ours is failing.

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The 7th Minister For Disabled People In 7 Years Is…

November 13, 2017

With many thanks to Benefits And Work.

 

The Conservatives today proved once again how unimportant the post of minister for disabled people is by removing yet another incumbent before they have been in post long enough to achieve anything.

Following the high profile resignation of Priti Patel as Secretary of State for International Development, Penny Mordaunt has now been moved into her post after less than 16 months as a DWP minister.

Few claimants will mourn the passing of Mordaunt, who most will feel did nothing to fight their corner.  But the fact that the government sees no need to allow any degree of continuity in the post demonstrates that the rights of disabled people are not even on their radar.

The new minister for disabled people, Sarah Newton, thus becomes the seventh occupant of the post in as many years.

Previous ministers are:

  • 12 May 2010 – 4 September 2012 Maria Miller
  • 4 September 2012 – 7 October 2013 Esther McVey
  • 7 October 2013 – 15 July 2014 Mike Penning
  • 15 July 2014 – 8 May 2015 Mark Harper
  • 8 May 2015 – 15 July 2016 Justin Tomlinson
  • 14 July 2016 – 9 November 2017 Penny Mordaunt

Whether Sarah Newton will last any longer than her predecessors remains to be seen.

Senior Tribunal Judge Says DWP Keeps Wasting His Time With Pointless Benefit Appeals

November 10, 2017

Poor decision-making, Personal Independence Payments (PIPs) and PIP appeals

November 10, 2017

Henry Brooke

Last night I spoke at an event in Gray’s inn which bore the title: The Citizen and the State: Poor decision-making and the role of the pro bono Bar.

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It’s Time For The Government To Get A Grip On PIP

November 9, 2017

Imagine living with a condition that is only going to get worse but being told you are going to lose the support you rely on. That’s the reality facing thousands of people as a result of the move from the disability living allowance (DLA) to personal independence payments (Pip), and it’s having a disastrous impact on people with long-term conditions such as Parkinson’s.

I started as a welfare rights adviser in 1986 and, while the situation wasn’t ideal back then, it was far better than now.

I help people appeal against Pip decisions. This year I have worked on 34 appeals, with five more pending. I have won every one so far because the process is flawed. People are being presented with barriers from start to finish, and the assessors’ knowledge of conditions is simply not good enough.

Analysis by Parkinson’s UK shows it will cost the government £3m to reassess everyone with the condition for Pip. About £1.3m of this will be spent on people previously identified as having the highest need under the DLA. With a condition such as Parkinson’s they will not have improved so to put these people through another assessment is completely unnecessary.

The new system is not working. We know that 25% of people with Parkinson’s have lost some or all of their award under Pip. One of my clients went from the highest rate under DLA to nothing – he lost his money and his car because it was said he failed to attend an appointment. In reality, he had never received the letter asking him to go. His wife was looking at cheaper houses because they couldn’t afford to stay where they were. Eventually, after medical evidence was reviewed, he was awarded the highest rate again.

But it can take nine months for an appeal to be resolved – and while payments are backdated for successful appeals, you cannot give people back the sleepless nights or repair the damage the stress has caused to their personal relationships.

People are frightened; some stop eating, while others have to repeatedly go back to their GP for extra medication because of the stress.

Another of my clients was diagnosed with Parkinson’s as a teenager. It is advanced and he struggles to walk but has managed to stay in work thanks to a supportive employer. While his wife was on maternity leave, he was reassessed from DLA to Pip, his award was reduced and he lost his Motability car. He couldn’t afford to pay the bills; how could he get to work if he couldn’t use public transport? It took months to force the Department for Work and Pensions to reassess him using the evidence we had already provided.

It’s not unusual for clients to say they don’t want to live any more; the majority have to be encouraged to appeal against decisions. The process makes people depressed and feel like they are exaggerating their condition, which in turn increases the stigma of applying for benefits. I’ve helped people from all walks of life, including pilots and former doctors.

Parkinson’s UK set up a support service for benefit applications in 2015. We have gone from a team of two to a team of five, who could easily work day and night to meet the demand for the service. I shudder to think how many people don’t know where to go for support and just give up.

They say money can’t buy happiness, but happiness is demonstrated by the people we support when their Pip claim is successful. Actually, it’s not just the money; it’s the realisation that finally someone has acknowledged they are living with a condition that has affected every area of their life and they do need the support Pip is supposed to offer.

It is time for the government to get a grip on Pip.

Third Of NI DLA Clamants Get No PIP

November 9, 2017

More than a third of Disability Living Allowance (DLA) claimants in Northern Ireland have had their benefit stopped after being reassessed for the new Personal Independence Payment (PIP).

The figures were provided to the BBC Northern Ireland Spotlight programme.

PIP is paid to people aged 16 to 64 to help with extra costs they face due to ill health or disability and is gradually replacing DLA.

Just over 21,000 reassessments had been completed by the end of July 2017.

Seven thousand, seven hundred and four claimants were ‘disallowed’ after the initial PIP decision.

That is higher than the disallowance rate in Great Britain which stands at 27%.

The Department for Communities said the process was still in “very early days” with the majority of around 125,000 claimants still to be reassessed.

It added that to date the “vast majority” of claimants assessed were those who had a fixed term award or who had reported a change in their care or mobility needs after the introduction of PIP.

‘Urgent review’

The charity Advice NI said they were “shocked” by the high disallowance rate when compared to GB

Chief Executive Bob Stronge said: “The Department for Communities may say that we are at the early stages of DLA reassessment, but we have to wonder is there a problem with how the PIP system is operating in NI.

“These are significant numbers and they do not bode well. We would ask that an urgent review be carried out with a view to correcting any anomalies in our system.

“Advisers are already seeing increased demands on advice services following the introduction of PIP, so much so that PIP enquiries now represent over half of all social security enquiries dealt with by the independent advice sector. “

Northern Ireland is the region of the UK which has consistently had the highest rate of DLA claims.

DLA was commonly based on self-assessment, whereas eligibility for PIP includes a test carried out by a company on behalf of the government.

The criteria for PIP are stricter than for DLA

Money is allocated according to a points system and eligibility is kept under regular review.

Claims Closed Almost Instantly For Failing To Attend First JobCentre Appointment

November 8, 2017