Voices: I have an important new year’s resolution for Therese Coffey – sorting out the Personal Independence Payment

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  • Thérèse Coffey
    British politician (born 1971)
The work and pensions secretary, Therese Coffey (PA Wire)
The work and pensions secretary, Therese Coffey (PA Wire)

Can I suggest a new year’s resolution for Therese Coffey? How about being the work and pensions secretary to sort out the Personal Independence Payment. I’m talking about the assessment process here. Go on, minister, say it out loud: “I’m going to fix it.” See? Felt good, didn’t it?

The Pip, for those unacquainted with it, is a non-means tested benefit paid to help disabled people with the formidable extra costs they face in today’s Britain. Scope, the charity, put the 2019 figure at nearly £600 a month. Since then, inflation has been rising at the speed of one of Japan’s bullet trains.

The payment helps people with work. It helps them to get around. It helps them to live. But applying for it is a complicated and laborious process. Decisions are ultimately made by Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) civil servants on the basis of assessments carried out by health professionals. They look at applicants’ ability to carry out various functions before making a recommendation, using a points-based system. Subjective as this is, all too often mistakes are made.

The latest figures for Pip appeals, which are considered by independent tribunals administered by the Ministry of Justice, show that more than 70 per cent went the way of the claimant. As an aside, according to Scope, the average waiting time for an outcome is 23 weeks.

Now that first figure is bad enough by itself – because it tell us that more than two-thirds of claimants are wrongly turned down. If the assessments were completely sound you would expect it to be very much lower. But it doesn’t tell the whole story. Applicants can, and often do, go for what’s called “mandatory reconsideration”, which means their application gets a second look. At which point the assessment can be overturned, the more obvious mistakes corrected. Sometimes the DWP swoops in with an offer before appeals are even heard.

But some people, left exhausted and traumatised by the process, give up the ghost before even approaching a tribunal. No wonder. While I’m sure that every effort is made to make hearings as painless as possible, they still leave some claimants feeling criminalised.

The appeals are heard by a doctor, a judge and a disability expert. An aside: that expert doesn’t have to be disabled, which I believe is a problem in and of itself. I don’t mean to impugn the work of those who are not. It’s just that, take it from me, there are things a person without a disability is never going to properly understand. I know this having experienced life without a mobility impairment before getting hit by a truck.

It’s often the little things that really get to you. The unhelpful cambers on pathways that force the wheelchair user to take to the road. The lack of dropped curbs. The ramp not turning up on the London Underground. The buses and taxis that see you waiting and drive on. “That actually happens! I wouldn’t have believed it still could,” said an acquaintance when two or three empty black cabs sped past us in Manchester city centre.

The disability expert also gets paid less than the other two. My understanding is that it’s about a third of what the judge receives. The doctor falls somewhere in between. Sorry, did someone mention equal pay there?

The last time Scope made a fuss about figures, the DWP said in response that it got most assessments right. So move along, nothing to see. Trouble is, that doesn’t address the point at all. It’s irrelevant when two out of every three decisions that get to appeal are found to be wrong.

Therese, think about it for a moment. These assessments have served as a dark blot on the government’s record for years. Every now and then a journalist will stumble upon an error sufficiently glaring that it pushes for a spot on a front page. Or a claimant with a terminal condition will die before their appeal is heard. Behind the scenes there are thousands of horror stories that never even get that far.

And yet the stock response is the same: we get most of them right. It’s all good.

It isn’t. Trying to pretend it is will only add to the government’s reputation for mendacity, something it really doesn’t need right now.

Being the secretary of state to recognise that, and act, would not only relieve disabled people of a lot of unnecessary pain and heartache, which ought to be enough, but it would also do the government a good turn by depriving people like me of some of the stones we get to throw at it. Perhaps your health and disability green paper will give you a jumping off point?

Deep down, the government knows it has a problem here, hence the honeyed words about its so-called National Disability Strategy, its claims of deep concern about the disability employment gap, even Boris bloody Johnson’s purple bloody tie worn on the International Day for People with Disabilities.

Disabled people, as a rule, view these things with deep cynicism. The figures tell you why.

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