Survival of the fittest? Disability benefits in practice

Survival of the fittest? Disability benefits in practice

Survival of the fittest? Disability benefits in practice.

Personal Independence Payments were introduced back in April 2013 as a key element of the Welfare Reform Act 2012 alongside other benefit changes including the introduction of the controversial Universal Credit. Also known as ‘PIP’, the benefit replaced Disability Living Allowance (DLA) for people aged between 16 and 65 or pensionable age because, according to the Government at the time, ‘there was confusion about the purpose of DLA, it was complex to claim and there was no systematic way of checking that awards remain correct’.

By January 2020 the DWP reported that just over 2.5m people had been awarded PIP, almost 50% of claims made to that point.

Supporting the effect, not the cause

When it was being introduced as an antidote to the prevailing confusion associated with legacy disability benefits, understandably Disability focused charities supported the change. They expressed satisfaction that PIP was being described as “help towards some of the extra costs because of a long-term ill-health condition or disability. It’s based on how a person’s condition affects them, not the condition they have. It’s designed to be a more sustainable benefit and make sure support continues to reach those who face the greatest challenges to taking part in everyday life”. So essentially it would support the effect, not the cause of the disability, which in itself was a positive step forward.

So far so good.

So, one of the founding principles that were set out for the assessment of PIP claims was that claimants wouldn’t need a diagnosis (stands to reason if the benefit was geared to supporting the effect, not the cause). The application process would also be fairer as assessors in the claimant journey would really get to grips with the individual needs of the claimant, looking beyond the disability itself and determining the effect it was having on a person’s life – their daily living needs and mobility needs.

Again, all good. In theory.

Front-line Social Welfare workers were initially positive about the potential for PIP to make a real difference, particularly in their knowledge that often physical and mental health conditions go hand in hand, something that wasn’t embedded in the benefit’s earlier manifestation as DLA. A shift away from listing medications and treatments to a holistic understanding of a person’s current life circumstances would make a huge difference to being able to support people living with a disability in a more effective and person-centred way; the biggest indicator of this being that it wasn’t means tested – whether you worked or not would no longer be relevant to the assessment.

So how does the theory play out in practice?

The PIP claims process is challenging. Here are 5 reasons why we think that’s the case:

1. Handling a PIP claim requires a high level of responsiveness (robust deadlines for making claims, return of form, providing evidence) which doesn’t necessarily come easy to people at the best of times, but if you put yourself in the shoes of someone facing significant life challenges, this can be a step too far.

2. Stage two of the process requires the completion of a 33 page form which is sent to the claimant’s home address. That takes some mettle to tackle. Let’s imagine you have experienced a life changing illness and you are claiming PIP to help you to adjust. 33 pages. Not surprisingly people delay (beyond the deadline) or don’t bother at all.

3. It’s not just the length of the form that’s daunting. It’s also the information claimants need to provide in the form about how their condition affects them. It has to be said that the principle of evaluating the effect not the cause is embedded into the assessment, however if you are living with a disability and have necessarily made adjustments to do so, it’s extremely difficult to be able to articulate – over 33 pages – what that really means in practice. It is not unreasonable to need to assess these factors, but the reality is that to do it properly (in context of the complex PIP descriptors set out as the benchmark for determining the effect of a disability, the claimant really needs to be supported by an experienced third party to have any chance of presenting a true picture.

4. Albeit the principles of effect, not cause, are a central theme, there is no question that this needs to be in the form of medical evidence – the claimant’s own view of the world doesn’t hold much weight when it comes to the impact the disability is having on their life. Getting this evidence (within the deadlines) can be challenging in itself.

5. The final stage of the PIP claims process is an assessment, usually at an assessment centre (although this can be adjusted in advance if this is going to be a trauma for the person involved). The assessor may not specialise in their particular disability, and although the assessments are ‘person-centred’, in that they are about the person, they are also process driven, so attending in isolation is not the best option. Ensuring that the claimant stays calm, thinks through their responses and doesn’t forget essential information doesn’t come easy depending on the disability being faced, so being accompanied really is highly recommended to avoid a legitimate claim being passed over because of their ‘performance on the day’.

The Multiple Sclerosis Society of Great Britain produced a report about its members experiences of the test in September 2015. 1,780 participated. 42% of those who had a face-to-face assessment said the hidden symptoms of the condition had not been taken into account. More than a third said face-to-face assessments had caused their condition to relapse or deteriorate.

Points mean … PIP

So I think we can acknowledge that the PIP assessment process is a long way from a blunt instrument – it’s a multi-faceted assessment that’s then evaluated by a DWP case manager who awards points based on the evidence provided. Points determine whether a claimant receives a benefit, and whether the award is standard or enhanced.

It feels a bit like when you know a PR company has written an application for a company that wins first place in a competition – the rest had no hope because they didn’t have the right person on side articulating why they should win the prize. It’s a shameful reality that this is how PIP assessments work. We would never ever support someone claiming PIP if they didn’t genuinely qualify for the benefit – that’s just plain dishonest. However if the system is geared up to support the survival of the fittest we have to intervene.

Our call to Action

  • People need to be actively, overtly offered support before they even make their first call to DWP;
  • The system needs to be fit to support PIP claimants at every stage, and the people providing the support need to genuinely understand how to empower claimants to convey the information that will support their claim;
  • We need to be ready to support with appeals (over 75% are reported to be successful which tells a tale in itself), and able to do better than taking sometimes more than a year to get what people are rightfully entitled to in a humane social welfare system.

As it stands the PIP claims process does seem to be geared to the survival of the fittest, and the harsh reality is that some claimants simply don’t survive.

Jayne Graham MBE (Director) and Adam Matthews (Social Welfare Instructor)

If you would like to learn more about PIP claims check out our series of short videos here, and if you’d like to learn more about how to help your own clients to improve their chances of a making a successful PIP claim please get in touch today.

Gateshead businesses support local army veterans’ charity to deepen their impact

Gateshead businesses support local army veterans’ charity to deepen their impact

Gateshead businesses support local army veterans’ charity to deepen their impact

Gateshead company Geek Talent has become the first to donate to a new ‘Pay it Forward’ Charity Discount Fund Scheme recently launched by Gateshead social enterprise Society Matters cic.

The Charity Discount Fund was introduced in response to Covid19 and the increased demand on local charities to help people to navigate the complexities of the benefits system. Donations into the scheme are matched by Society Matters, so specialist training in welfare benefits such as Universal Credit and Personal Independence Payments can be accessed by community organisations that simply couldn’t afford it otherwise.

Geek Talent, a Gateshead company that has developed unique software that supports people to improve their chances of employment, commented that they are “delighted to support Society Matters with funding to enable this valuable training at such a critical time. It’s entirely aligned with our own ambitions to make a huge difference to society through helping people out of poverty so they and their families can have a better life”.

The team at Society Matters recognises that businesses often want to support their local community and voluntary sector but often struggle to know how best to help. By donating to the Charity Discount Fund they can add tangible value, helping charity staff and volunteers to be better equipped to deal with the pressure on their services.

Jayne Graham MBE, Executive Director of Society Matters cic, explained “much of the knowledge about welfare benefits in the support system is out of date, leaving staff and volunteers finding it difficult to give the depth of help people need. Training is so critical for the sector, but due to lack of funding it’s simply out of most organisations’ reach. The Charity Discount Fund puts that right, providing a direct route to helping many vulnerable people get the support they need swiftly and more efficiently”.

Through a £500 donation, matched by Society Matters cic, Geek Talent have directly supported staff and volunteers from the military veteran’s charity Walking with the Wounded to build their social welfare knowledge and undergo Society Matter’s vital ‘Get to Grips with Personal Independence Payment’ training.

Members of the Walking with the Wounded team commented that the training means they can now help veterans ‘with more confidence’ and highly recommended the social welfare training, alongside hundreds of others who have now benefited from what Society Matters cic has to offer. Feedback from Walking with the Wounded staff can be found here.

Trading Manager of Society Matters Lee Booth, whose idea it was to launch the fund, praised Geek Talent for their donation saying “We are extremely grateful to Geek Talent for their donation to our Pay it Forward fund and we can already see the positive impact this has had on the staff at Walking with the Wounded. We would encourage any business or member of the public who want aren’t sure how to help charities in the wake of the pandemic to make a donation, no matter how small, and we’ll match it pound for pound.”

If your business would like to make a huge difference in the local community and make a contribution to the ‘Pay it Forward’ Charity Discount Fund please get in touch today.

Your employees need you to Get Business Ready for Universal Credit …

Your employees need you to Get Business Ready for Universal Credit …

The imminent end of furlough for millions of people, and the prospect of reduced work hours meaning many more people will be claiming Universal Credit to top up their earnings means that employers need to Get Business Ready for Universal Credit.

A recent article in The Guardian made us realise that it’s time to launch our Get Business Ready for Universal Credit workshop for employers sooner rather than later. We started developing the short course in response to North East baker Greggs’ experiences earlier this year, when their positive efforts to offer bonuses to staff backfired because the employees who were claiming Universal Credit were impacted negatively, actually losing money rather than gaining from the bonus. Read the article here.

This latest situation reported in The Guardian article explains that a court found that the DWP Universal Credit system unfairly penalised an employee due to the effect of their 4 week payment cycle that didn’t align with the employer’s pay period. As a result of the timing of their pay, a single mother was reported to be losing almost £500 every month from her pay.

This court case is the second in quick succession that has found DWP unlawful in their management of claims, however obviously the time and effort associated with taking a claim to court is way beyond the scope of the majority. That’s not to say we should sit back – there’s constant pressure on the Government to make changes to the way Universal Credit is calculated. However in the meantime we also think to make the system work for employees we also need to ensure that the mist can be cleared for employers, so they really understand the fundamentals of Universal Credit; how it works so they can support their employees with their claims, but as importantly to ensure that their policies and processes (that are within their gift to change) are not inadvertently impacting on staff who need to claim the benefit to top up their earnings.

Free Universal Credit workshop for employers

With literally thousands of employees newly claiming Universal Credit over the past few months, and likely many more to come as businesses make the difficult choice to reduce working hours to keep the business going, this is even more important than ever before. So Society Matters cic is launching its Get Business Ready for Universal Credit workshop with a free course for employers across the North East region to take place on Wednesday 5th August between 4 and 6.30 pm.

We know that money is tight, so we’re offering this first workshop free because we know how important it is for the business community to get this right. Participants will be encouraged to make a donation to our Pay it Forward Charity Discount Fund of whatever they can afford once they have completed the workshop if they think it will make a difference to their business – this donation will enable Society Matters cic to support local community and voluntary sector organisations to access much needed training in Universal Credit and Personal Independence Payments, to improve their own knowledge, and so improve the difference they can make to the people in need that they are supporting every day.

Find out more about the Get Business Ready for Universal Credit workshop here, and click here to get in touch to book your free place* for Wednesday 12th August 4 pm to 6.30 pm.

Covid19 has infected the very foundations of our society

Covid19 has infected the very foundations of our society

Covid19 has infected the very foundations of our society

 

As we are seeing restrictions lifted and emergency financial help from the Government eased, we take a breath and reflect on how society as we know it has evolved with the impacts of the pandemic; we need to quickly get to grips with the changing needs of society – how people and communities have already been impacted, but also the continually shifting landscape as we already see a second wave of challenges being faced.

If you think in terms of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, we really have seen the Covid-19 virus has infected society’s absolute foundations, with people’s basic physical and security needs being thoroughly tested.

 

Coronavirus has had multiple physical impacts

Many of our colleagues and clients have expressed concern with their overall health and wellbeing as a result of lockdown-related isolation at a very basic level. Layer on top of that concerns with possible and actual health issues both directly associated with covid-19 and either exacerbated by, or caused by, the pandemic, and we realise that not many of us have escaped unscathed.

Food shortages

Of course, a factor that has a huge impact on health is food and nutrition. Reduced earnings has led to a lack of food resources, and this is a really serious concern, with a huge reported rise in families that are going without this basic, fundamental, physical provision. Earlier in the lockdown this in part related to difficulties associated with accessing supermarkets, particularly for those who are at high-risk, notwithstanding the scarcity of food in the early days of the pandemic due to bulk panic buying.

The most concerning impact is a lack of funds, leading to exceptionally high demand for food bank supplies to mitigate this crisis. The Trussell Trust reported a 175% increase in requests for emergency parcels in May, and the struggle continues to worsen. Many who are still shielding and who have lost pay or, in many cases, their employment, face an uncertain future, and those that are still on furlough will be understandably worried that they may be next in line for redundancy as the impending recession looms. The reality is that some people are now putting themselves and their families at risk as the only way they can find to put food on the table. For these people’s lives, coronavirus has served a terrible blow.

 

The pandemic has impacted on people’s security in so many ways

 

We are hearing a lot about the predicted economic recession that Government is now attempting to avert, but if we look at the impacts at an individual family level, personal security has taken a massive nose-dive, driven by serious impacts on financial stability.

Universal Credit

The Government uses the increase in the number of Universal Credit claimants as a proxy for measuring reduced income. On that basis the shocking reality is that there have been over three and a quarter million new claims for the welfare benefit since the start of lockdown, with the Government now being forced to invest close to £7 billion extra in the welfare system since the pandemic began, money which is now supporting approximately 10 million families in the UK. This would have been beyond comprehension earlier this year.

Payment delays

As well as claimant numbers soaring, the impact of the well-publicised issues associated with Universal Credit pre-Covid-19 have now touched millions more people, massively impacting on their financial security. The 5 weeks waiting period before the first benefit payment is received has understandably been a major problem area experienced by families who have found themselves ‘locked down’ with extra outgoings, no income and an uncertain financial future. And this really is lose, lose situation. For those who choose to take an advance they then need to pay it back, resulting in reduced benefits for an extended period once their payments actually start, with resulting difficult choices about which creditor must come first; for those who choose not to borrow, the impact comes that much sooner – 5 weeks can equate to 2 months’ arrears in rent, utilities, and a hole in the pocket when it comes to feeding the family. In other words dire straits.

Power and heat

Another basic physiological need is heat – staying warm and being able to cook in our homes. The clement weather has at least been an antidote to heating bills, but with people being at home for longer stretches of time over the months of lockdown, energy use has rocketed. Citizens Advice had  already been warning that 6 million people were behind with household bills, and although energy companies were offering a temporary amnesty on chasing arrears while lockdown was at its peak, they’ve now been given the go-ahead to start chasing payments. This really is going to get very messy.

Debt

All of these impacts have a high chance of leading to debt, but there’s more risk to come in the second wave of impacts as mortgage holidays come to an abrupt end and more people lose their jobs after being furloughed. Rent and council tax arrears are already rife. Citizens Advice has estimated that around 2.6 million tenants had expected to fall behind on their rent because of coronavirus just last month, so debt is looking like it will be the new pandemic for society to deal with.

Housing and shelter

Whilst the Government’s ban on evictions during the height of lockdown has eased people’s fears of losing the security of their homes, once this ends on 23rd August a housing crisis is looming. Our team of social welfare advisers and caseworkers with our parent charity Citizens Advice Gateshead are bracing themselves for this next wave, concerned about their own and other charities’ capacity to cope with what homeless charity Shelter have predicted to be “a tidal wave of homelessness after the end of August”.

Job security

The increase in claims for Universal Credit is a clear indicator that jobs are disappearing fast. Employment Is a major pillar of society and critical to long term personal stability. When the number of people on employers’ payrolls has dropped by 612,000 between March and May, this gives the clearest sign yet of the looming crisis.  The services sector which covers a range of businesses from law firms and accountants to travel agents and restaurants represents 80% of UK economic output, and it’s the service sector that has been hit the hardest. It saw its steepest downturn in activity since records began in July 1996, almost entirely due to the closure of non-essential businesses and the cancellation of orders.

A recent article in the Independent, The story of the UK’s coronavirus jobs crisis in six charts, presents a pretty stark reality when it comes to the employment market. Some 8.7 million British workers have been furloughed since the current crisis began – around a quarter of the UK’s workforce. Under the terms of the furlough scheme, employees receive 80 per cent of their usual wages, up to £2,500 a month, from the government. A further 2.5 million claims have been made under the “Self-Employment Income Support Scheme”. Both schemes are welcomed and have been vital in supporting society through the challenges faced so far, but they are currently only in place until October, and employers are being asked to cover some of the costs from August as the scheme starts to taper.

It is inevitable that many employers who have been able to maintain their staff so far are going to have to make cutbacks and many jobs are still to be lost. The employment advice and law sectors are facing a perfect storm of unfair dismissals and discrimination cases with a spike already appearing in maternity discrimination cases since lockdown began. Will the Government make the decision to extend the furlough and protect businesses and employees’ rights? Balancing the books is going to be difficult and people will inevitably fall through the cracks that are widening in job security.

 

So has lockdown rocked society’s status quo?

 

Let’s be honest, not everyone has faced economic impacts on a personal level, yet, as a result of the virus. Some families have managed to cope better than others. Physical exercise has gone up, credit card balances have gone down and, although on a smaller scale, the heartbeat of normal life for many has continued to beat. However despite people’s personal financial security being robust enough to see them through the worst of this crisis, its psychological and social impacts are far reaching.

The nation is reeling from losing almost 45,000 loved ones, neighbours, colleagues, carers, family members. The horrible reality of not being able to say goodbye, and the suspension and minimalisation of funerals has devasted so many people.  The estimated 30% rise in reported domestic abuse cases since lockdown started is symptomatic of the pandemic. Refuge reported a 700% increase in calls to its helpline in a single day in April as families felt the pressure and victims have become trapped in their homes. PTSD is already starting to emerge across key workers and children, and a recent survey found that some 14 per cent of people aged 16 and above are experiencing a mental health problem “much more than usual”. Extrapolating these findings to the whole of the population indicates that a massive 7.2 million people have experienced problems with their mental health in recent months. The second wave of issues we have identified as being on their way will only add to this.

People’s lives are being damaged. No one will escape the impact of the pandemic altogether – because it has rocked society’s status quo.

Society does matter, and this will be our saving grace

Amidst all of the bad, however, there is still a shining light, because people recognise that society matters. Communities have rallied to protect the vulnerable; hundreds of thousands of volunteers have helped to deliver groceries, pick up prescriptions and check in on neighbours. They have organised local mutual aid groups, helped through existing volunteering networks and offered their time in a host of different ways. Then there’s the overt support we have seen for the NHS and frontline workers, people showing their gratitude in many ways, from donations to clattering pans; we are showing that we care.

This humanity has demonstrated that society does matter, and this will be our saving grace.

But we must still recognise that Covid-19 has infected the very foundations of our society. People need to have their basic needs met to be able to move on in other areas of their lives, so it’s clear that the Government will need to do more to make this happen than an attempt to focus on medium term economic recovery.

Goodwill and friendship can only stretch so far …

 

Adam Matthews, Social Welfare Instructor

 

Will the pandemic help us to get a grip of Universal Credit?

Will the pandemic help us to get a grip of Universal Credit?

Will the pandemic help us to get a grip of Universal Credit?

Nearly a million people awarded UC over just 2 short weeks

It’s hard to believe that nearly a million successfully applied for Universal Credit in the two weeks between 16th and 31st March alone. Coronavirus has triggered a rise of more than 500%, from 60,000 to 371,000 claims a week. The surge in applications dwarfs the impact on the benefit system during the last recession triggered by the 2008 financial crisis. It’s hard to avoid using that over-used word we’re hearing at the moment ‘unprecedented’;  we really have never seen anything like this before!

As a result of this hike in numbers, DWP had no option other than to make the Universal Credit application process easier, with appointments over the phone and a less stringent application process where people are (understandably) not having to attend work-focused interviews with a nominated work coach at the job centre. This change has – temporarily at least – made it less complicated to apply for UC for applicants facing barriers to access (you have to ask yourself why it couldn’t have been made a bit simpler before now) …

The UC claim system has been simplified but still far from simple

 But last week’s statistics published by the Citizens Advice network tell us that the network of charities delivering the Citizens Advice service helped 90,000 people with their UC claims since lockdown started on the 23rd of March. So the process may have been simplified but it’s still definitely not simple. Ok maybe it should never be really easy – the right checks and balances must be put in place when it comes to accessing benefits, but at the moment the system is still really problematic.  So let’s cast our minds forward. What happens when we revert back to the pre-pandemic claim process with more people now losing their jobs through sectors like the hospitality  industry not being able to carry staff financially through the crisis?

We’re in trouble.

Food banks in the Trussell Trust’s network are reporting their busiest time ever, with an 89% increase in emergency food parcels given to people across the UK in April 2020 compared to the same period in 2019.

As the impact of coronavirus continues to unfold, a lot of people facing financial difficulties will be waiting for their first payment of Universal Credit for 5 weeks, and will already have taken the ‘advance payment’ which will cover bills and essentials temporarily. But it’s also recognised that, before the pandemic struck, in every area Universal Credit has been rolled out, food bank usage figures have shown a rise up to to 48%.

UC claimants too often end up in debt

We also need to be aware of the worrying issue of debt for Universal Credit claimants. A recent survey showed that 70% of people fell into debt during the 5 weeks wait for their first payment. Step Change said that since the beginning of lockdown in late March, as many as 1.2 million people had fallen behind on utility bill payments, 820,000 people on council tax, and 590,000 on rent. They also estimated that 4.2 million people had borrowed to make ends meet, mostly by using a credit card, overdraft or a high-cost product such as a payday loan.

People clearly need more financial support whilst they are waiting for their first payment. This is an issue that is going to continue to get worse as more people are losing their jobs and having to claim Universal Credit.

Radical change needed in housing and homelessness for UC claimants 

If we look at the Housing situation in context of the Coronavirus, we have seen some positive measures brought in by the Government. The Eviction ban has just been extended for a further two months and there was a huge drive (the biggest since the second world war) to get the homeless of the streets during the peak of the pandemic.

Many ‘street’ homeless are now on Universal Credit for the first time and are being supported by DWP staff and given the Job Centre as a ‘care of address’ so they can overcome the barrier of not being able to claim the benefit because they aren’t able to provide a permanent address. Again, this is very positive, but this needs to be upheld as restrictions are lifted.

Surely it is morally wrong to protect people and give them accommodation because of the pandemic, but then turf them back onto the streets once it is over?

Let’s hope that doesn’t happen. Local housing authorities face a huge task, and will undoubtedly need support from the Government, charities and the community and voluntary sector to get this right – we need to work together and be absolutely determined to make sure people don’t fall through the cracks at all costs.

This is going to be a challenge. Housing is already a big issue when it comes to Universal Credit.  The Trussell Trust found that housing was the primary problem for 56% of claimants, citing the 5 weeks wait as the reason because people were pushed into rent arrears with either a private or social landlord, making it difficult then to recover. People on Universal Credit have also said they have found themselves being discriminated against by landlords who have lost confidence in the benefit due to late payment of rent or arrears due to complications with Universal Credit. If you’ve looked at local houses for rent adverts recently you’ll see they’re still proclaiming no DSS! This is a vicious circle.

If we’re to get a grip of Universal Credit there’s a lot to do

Coronavirus and lockdown has really made a bad situation significantly worse. More people are now claiming Universal Credit, and have just had to adapt. 

However, now we have an opportunity to get it right and this is our call to the Government and DWP. There’s a lot to say, but if we were only able to make one challenge, it would be:

Please accept that the 5 week wait is simply too long.

Society Matters cic is doing its bit to make its mark, and thousands of charities working hard on the front line are saying the same thing. Let’s stop people losing their homes, getting into debt, reaching crisis point, for the sake of a system that can be changed. Social welfare matters. Society matters. Let’s call to Government to invest what has been learned through the pandemic to get a grip of Universal Credit once and for all.

This window of opportunity may never arise again.

Adam Matthews, Social Welfare Instructor at Society Matters cic

We’d like to know what you think. Please post a comment below.