photo Ryan Melaugh/CC

photo Ryan Melaugh/CC   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Becky Polain, welfare benefits specialist adviser, Hastings Advice and Representation Centre

I have worked, since leaving college – 22 years – solely in benefits. I have witnessed the systematic destruction of a support system meant to help those who need it most, creating a widespread situation of poverty, ill health and despair.

The bulk of our work currently revolves around three benefits: Personal Independence Payment (PIP), Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), and Universal Credit. Of these cases, the majority concern poor assessments that need to be appealed. Over 95% of the cases we take on are won at tribunal with an increased rate of benefit.

We are finding that the private companies who carry out these assessments – Atos for PIP, and Maximus for ESA and Universal Credit – regularly complete reports that are inaccurate at best, and contain lies at worst.

They twist claimants’ words or write down things that were never even said or done. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), which sends out the decision letters, bases its decisions on these reports.

This process, and the devastating decisions, leave people feeling desperate and undervalued. They are made to feel as if they are lying or being targeted.

Despite most appeals being successful, a claimant may have to wait over a year from the initial decision to their case being heard at a tribunal. The knock-on effect cannot be underestimated.

HM Courts and Tribunals Service, in charge of hearing appeals, has seen its caseload triple over the last few years, with little or no extra resources to process it.

There needs to be a complete overhaul of the assessment process. Both Atos and Maximus profit through their contracts with the DWP. These assessments need to be brought back in-house, like they were 20 years ago when the Benefits Agency Medical Services carried out the assessments.

That could be a step towards accountability and a better monitoring process, as well as saving money – something the Tory government claims it is keen to do. Better assessments would mean fewer appeals, costing the government less on that front at least.

Many decisions are more favourable to claimants when heard at appeal, due to more detailed evidence and a chance for the claimant to be heard fully.

The human cost is the greatest. Health deteriorates due to poor assessments. Claimants suffer financially, having to make choices between rent, food and bills with what little they have, often falling into debt or becoming homeless.

This puts greater strain on already overburdened public services that have all seen cuts in their budgets. Some will resort to crime, or turn to self-medication with legal or illegal drugs.

It is widely reported that many have died by suicide due to these decisions, leaving behind bereft families and friends. There is a downward spiral of poverty, illness and deprivation.

It is no coincidence that demand at the Hastings foodbank has increased by 87% over the last few years. It is time for change!

The Socialist Party says

  • Universal Credit means universal misery: scrap Universal Credit now!
  • Reverse all benefit cuts: for living benefits without compulsion
  • Kick out the privateers: bring all outsourced and privatised public services back in-house
  • End austerity: for fully funded, publicly owned public services
  • For a minimum wage of at least £10 an hour, as a step towards a real living wage for all