The region’s benefits claimants are being let down by the lack of coherence between agencies charged with processing their cases.
That is the message from Berwick’s Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB), where staff have seen first hand the stress caused by a system that has left some claimants with no answers to their claims – sometimes after more than six months.
The CAB’s “grave concerns” stem from delays in decisions relating to Personal Independent Payments (PIPs).
PIPs were introduced in April 2013, and are intended to replace the Disability Living Allowance by 2018. Campbell McCrae, welfare and benefits specialist at Berwick CAB, said that since the bureau began helping Berwick residents with PIP applications last year it had not yet received a single decision.
“Obviously we are very concerned,” he said. “One claim was made in July last year, and the claimant still does not know whether or not they will receive the benefit.
“Don’t forget that these are just the people we’ve been helping. There will be others.”
Berwick CAB manager Jen Hall said the problem lay in an administrative gap between the Department of Work and Pensions and Atos Healthcare, the private company that won the tendering process for PIP assessments, among other lucrative Home Office contracts.
“You’d think,” she said, “that if the government were creating a whole new part of the welfare system, then there would be people there ready and waiting with sharpened pencils.
“It’s very problematic, and one client is very concerned, to the point where they may even withdraw their claim.”
An Atos Healthcare spokesperson said the company was aware of the delays: “Both Atos Healthcare and the Department for Work and Pensions have made clear that there are delays in the end-to-end claim process for PIP, including, but not exclusively, in the assessment phase, the part for which we are responsible in certain areas of Great Britain.
“Currently consultations are taking almost twice the amount of time as was anticipated [sic]. The assessment is a key part of a person’s claim for
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benefit and it is important that when someone needs to be seen by an assessor, they are given the time they need to explain how their disability or health condition affects them.
“Atos Healthcare is taking immediate action to reduce delays in our part of the process and together with DWP we are looking at various ways of supporting customers. We are working to extend our network of healthcare partners and we are directly recruiting more staff, both health professionals and administration, to increase capacity. We are looking at how we can be more flexible on appointment times and working with DWP to see if more can be done to complete assessments without the need for a face to face consultation.”
Benefits expert Mcrae responded: “I don’t understand the difficulty in finding a venue, especially as Atos already hires a room in Berwick Infirmary to hold medical examinations for other health-related benefits.”
He was also insistent on the wider impact of these delays.
“It’s not just disabled claimants themselves that are affected,” he said. “It’s their carers who are suffering with the not knowing, as well.
“They offer up their time and forgo careers to do what they do.
“The PIP and other changes were brought in amongst a lot of talk about making a 20 per cent cut in spending.
“It is obvious that overall this will mean a loss of income for disabled people.”
Jen Hall, Berwick CAB Manager, said that in conversation with other Northumbrian bureaus, it had become evident that in the larger towns and cities, claims were “just sailing through”, whereas the opposite was true in more rural areas.
Berwick’s MP Sir Alan Beith said: “Having to wait a long time for an assessment and not knowing when or where it will take place creates unnecessary additional stress for people who are waiting to find out if they will be entitled to benefits. I am very concerned about the lack of appointments for people in the Berwick area and I have taken this up with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.