DWP admits it has been wrongly pressurising disabled people to accept low benefit offers

DWP admits it has been wrongly pressurising disabled people to accept low benefit offers
Ministers concede that department has telephoned disabled claimants appealing benefits decision and encouraged them to accept offers lower than they are entitled to following legal challenge

The government has admitted to putting disabled benefit claimants under pressure to accept less welfare support than they are legally entitled to.

Evidence gathered by lawyers show staff from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) have been telephoning disabled people who have appealed benefits decision and encouraging them to abandon their appeal and accept offers that were lower than their statutory entitlement.

Lawyers say the department has continued to call claimants despite them making it clear that they had representatives who should be contacted first, and has failed to inform them of their appeal rights.

On Monday, the day before the practice was due to be challenged in the High Court, the DWP conceded and agreed to amend its guidance and settle the claim.

The disability benefits claimant who brought the challenge, a woman known only as ‘K’, has spent more than a year trying to persuade the DWP to change what she and her lawyers argued was an unlawful practice.

K, who suffers from a severe form of Bipolar disorder, made a claim for Personal Independence Payment (PIP) and was initially refused in 2017. She applied again in 2019 and was only awarded a small amount.

Following an unsuccessful internal review, K began a tribunal appeal as she was told by her GP and support workers that she was entitled to the highest levels of PIP benefit.

After her appeal process had started, the DWP telephoned without warning from a withheld number and pressurised her into accepting a bit more than they had offered before, but not the full entitlement.

They did not call K’s mother despite the fact that she was stated as her representative on the DWP paperwork.

K said the DWP told her that she had an hour to consider the offer and said “tribunals are not very nice to go to”, which dissuaded her from going through with the appeal, so she accepted the new offer.

“I felt really anxious and this got worse as I couldn’t get hold of my mum to ask what I should do as my mum helps me with my finances. The DWP called me back before I could speak to my mum, so I just accepted the offer as I didn’t know what else to do,” she said.

“I felt awful after the call, really panicked, anxious and upset. I felt like I had been pressured into making the wrong decision. I obsessed about the call for weeks. I was paranoid that I was being targeted by the DWP and again I tried to take my own life.”

K later saw a article in a newspaper reporting that other disabled people had experienced the same thing, and she resolved to take action and instructed the Public Law Project (PLP) to help her challenge the practice.

Her claim argued that the practice was “unfair, unlawful and discriminatory”, citing “confusing” guidance documents and a “lack of clarity” about the importance of contacting formal representatives to discuss awards.

Evidence gathered on K’s behalf from a range of individuals and NGOs shows that claimants felt pressure to accept new offers after receiving a phone call, were regularly not told about their appeal rights and were not given an opportunity to discuss any offer with representatives.

The hearing was due to take place on Tuesday, but the DWP conceded on Monday and agreed to re-write their policies and guidance and retrain its officials working in this area.

Following the DWP’s decision to concede, K said: “The practice of phoning people in this way just isn’t right. It’s not just about the cold calling, it’s the whole way they treat you on the call.

“It feels as though the DWP has been picking on extremely vulnerable people and using the fear of going to a tribunal or losing an award to pressure people into accepting less than they should be getting.”

According to government figures, three-quarters of PIP claimants who appeal decisions from the DWP are successful.

Sara Lomri, K’s solicitor at PLP, said: “The welfare benefits system is one of the ways the state protects and promotes our wellbeing. People who meet the criteria for benefits are entitled to welfare benefits by law.

“Unfortunately, a practice has developed over the last few years at the DWP whereby benefits decision makers have been putting pressure on eligible disabled benefits claimants to accept less than their statutory entitlement.

“Judicial review is always a last resort, and this case shows why there must be an accessible legal route for people to hold public authorities to account.”

Anela Anewar, chief executive of the Zaccaheus Trust, which has supported the case, said the charity had been “extremely concerned” about DWP’s practice when contacting disabled people who have appealed a negative benefits decision to offer a revised award.

“Based on our clients’ experiences, we know these approaches are not always in accordance with DWP’s own guidance and can result in disabled people accepting a lower rate of benefit than they are entitled to,” she added.

The DWP has been approached for comment.

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