Citizens Advice Scotland have today published evidence showing the impact of new rules imposed on people who want to appeal against decisions made about their welfare benefits.
The report – based on real case evidence of Scottish CAB clients – is published as Scottish MP Sheila Gilmore prepares to raise the issue for debate this evening at Westminster Hall.
Publishing today’s report, Citizens Advice Scotland’s Policy Officer Beth Reid says,
“Since the new welfare reforms were brought in, many sick and disabled Scots feel they have been unfairly denied benefits and wrongly judged ‘fit for work’. The CAB service has seen thousands of such people – many of which are successful in over-turning the decision on appeal. But the appeals process can be lengthy and complex, and the claimants are left without income in the meantime.
“Last autumn the Department of Work & Pensions (DWP) introduced a new rule stating that all benefit claimants who wanted to appeal would have to first refer the decision for re-consideration by the DWP decision-maker. This rule was known as a ‘mandatory reconsideration,’ and the government said it was intended to make the system more efficient, removing the need for appeals in many instances.
“Unfortunately, our evidence shows that the system in practice is making it harder for claimants to resolve disputes, not easier, and is leaving many claimants and their families in poverty for weeks or even months.
“The problem is timescales. If claimants disagree with a decision the DWP has made about their benefit, they have four weeks to ask for a reconsideration. On the other hand, the DWP have no timescales within which they have to respond. And while the DWP say they aim to process mandatory reconsiderations within 16 working days, the cases we have seen suggest that often it takes much longer.
“This issue is not an obscure technical glitch. It is a real barrier to the rights of vulnerable people to challenge and correct a flawed decision that has left them in poverty.
“In presenting this evidence today we make a number of recommendations to the government about how they can clear up this problem. If they really do want to make the system work better for claimants, we welcome that. Hopefully Ministers will see from our evidence that the current system of mandatory reconsiderations is flawed, and will make the necessary changes to ensure a system that is both efficient and fair.”
Today’s CAS report describes a number of case study examples of people who have been hit by this problem in the last few months (see below), and lists 4 key recommendations for change:
1. The Government should review the mandatory reconsideration process in October (a year after its introduction) to assess its efficacy, its impact on claimants and on access to independent appeal.
2. The DWP must ensure that ESA claimants who have requested a mandatory reconsideration of their benefit have access to a benefit which is appropriate for their level of health.
3. The DWP should ensure that claimants receive their reconsideration decision within a set timescale. If the deadline is missed then the claimant should be able to go to appeal straightaway.
4. The DWP should ensure that notifications of mandatory reconsiderations are issued promptly.
The issue of Mandatory Reconsiderations is being debated tonight in a Westminster Hall debate called by Edinburgh MP Sheila Gilmore. The debate will be at 10pm.
Notes to editors - click to expand/collapse
A South of Scotland CAB reports of a client who came to bureau at the end of May who has been waiting on the outcome of two mandatory reconsideration requests which were made at the beginning of December – six months ago. On calling the DWP they said it looked like a decision had been made on one. The other reconsideration was still pending. The client has had no notification. The bureau asked the DWP adviser how to proceed, and he responded that they should give some more time. The bureau commented that six months was rather a long time and requested a call back.
An East of Scotland CAB reports of a client who attended bureau for an update on his reconsideration of 4 November 2013, 15 weeks ago. Because the client has requested a mandatory reconsideration he cannot receive ESA. However when he tried to claim JSA he wasn't allowed to do this as he was told he wasn't well enough to fulfil the jobseekers agreement.
A North of Scotland CAB reports of a client had attended CAB for help to request a Mandatory Reconsideration. When she was contacted later the same day by the DWP, they had recorded that 'customer did not disagree with the original decision' and was signposted to sign on for JSA. The CAB then made contact three weeks later for an update on decision. The DWP said that because of what was recorded this was perhaps why no follow up paperwork had been sent. The CAB adviser had to ask for a further Mandatory Reconsideration and agree to send reasons why client felt the decision was incorrect.
An East of Scotland CAB reports of a client who is on ESA and had requested a mandatory reconsideration of a decision about his benefit. The client has not heard from DWP since he posted the letter and he wanted number for ESA helpline, who advised that the DWP had received the CAB letter and the medical certificate on 1st April. They advised that a Mandatory Reconsideration had not been requested because the word 'mandatory' was not used in the letter. The CAB advised her that the client wants a Mandatory Reconsideration and the DWP has now registered the mandatory reconsideration and advised it takes up to 14 days for a decision to be made. This has lost time and money for the client, who has been living on porridge for two weeks because of lack of money.
A West of Scotland CAB reports of a client who applied for Personal Independence Payment (PIP) in the middle of August 2013. At the end of November 2013 she received a letter advising that she had been refused PIP. The CAB drafted a letter of reconsideration for the client on the 4 December. On 4th February the CAB called the DWP and was advised that the mandatory reconsideration decision was issued on 30 January 2014.
The client visited her CAB for advice when she received a letter of award and payment from HMRC on 10 February. The CAB called the PIP helpline to ascertain whether client has been awarded PIP following HMRC correspondence, who confirmed that PIP had been awarded following the mandatory reconsideration. The client received no written communication from the DWP about the decision to award PIP following the mandatory reconsideration. The client had had money deposited into her bank account and had no idea what it was for, and did not want to withdraw any amounts from the account. The client would have been unaware of any activity if she had not received the letter from HMRC. The client was extremely confused during the process.
A West of Scotland CAB reports of a client whose JSA was stopped on 4th January because he had a voluntary job for which the DWP considered he should have received payment. The client submitted mandatory reconsideration on 31st January. The client advised the bureau on 24th March that the decision had been reversed but by 2nd April he had still not received his JSA or arrears. The DWP cannot trace the mandatory reconsideration decision notice. They have said he will get the backdated money eventually and was originally told he could receive an emergency payment, but has now been told this cannot happen. As of the beginning of April the client has had no money since January.