Social Justice

How government blows tens of millions in taxpayer cash fighting disability benefit claims

The Big Issue has discovered how many millions the government is spending to "defend the indefensible" and fight people who are appealing PIP, universal credit, DLA and ESA decisions

dwp

Disabled people are left without support because of failures of the benefits system. Illustration: Lou Kiss

The government spends tens of millions each year fighting disabled and ill people who are appealing a benefits decision – only to have the majority of those overturned in favour of the claimant.

The DWP has forked out more than £350 million over the last decade in staff costs in an attempt to uphold decisions about personal independence payments (PIP), according to a freedom of information request obtained by The Big Issue.

That is enough to cover the highest level of PIP payments for 39,000 people for an entire year. 

Around 90% of initial challenges (mandatory reconsiderations) go in favour of the DWP, and it spent £22.8m of taxpayers’ money to make sure of this last year alone.

But the vast majority (68%) of these decisions are then overturned in favour of the claimant when the appeal is taken to tribunal. The DWP spent £24.5m on this last year.

Anela Anwar, Chief Executive of anti-poverty charity Z2K, said: “The DWP continues to waste tens of millions of pounds of public money trying to defend the indefensible, money that could be far better spent elsewhere. 

“And that’s not counting the additional costs to the court system of the appeals, or to the NHS if a lack of income causes someone’s health to worsen. 

“Most importantly, DWP’s poor decisions mean months of uncertainty and financial difficulty for disabled people, as they have to not only manage their disability or condition, but also get by on inadequate basic rates of benefit until their appeal is heard.”

Here’s a breakdown of how much the DWP has spent on staff costs for benefits appeals over the last decade – including universal credit, employment and support allowance (ESA), disability living allowance (DLA) and PIP.

The DWP has spent a total of £352m on PIP mandatory reconsiderations and appeals since the benefit was first introduced in April 2013.

During this time until December 2022, there were 5.1 million claims for PIP and 63% of people were awarded it the first time round. Around 1.2 million then challenged their decision at mandatory reconsideration, and then 440,000 people took it further and appealed at tribunal.

Aidan, an amputee who was refused PIP but later had the decision overturned at appeal, said: “It is an act of neglect because they haven’t done things properly. In my instance, it has caused psychological trauma. I’m not the only person who has gone through that. I am on a mission to shout it from the rooftops.”

The DWP has previously said: “We support millions of people with disabilities every year and in the majority of PIP cases we make the right decision. 

“Our disability assessors are qualified health professionals, and we are investing in their skills so that everyone has a positive experience when claiming PIP.”

It’s been a similar story with ESA over the decade. The majority of ESA mandatory reconsiderations (83%) go in favour of the government, while 66% of appeals go in favour of the claimant.

Phil Wayland, an ESA claimant, has had to appeal the government’s decision about his benefit every time it’s come up for review. And every time he has been successful.

“It is not coincidental,” Wayland previously told The Big Issue. “It is policy. Where else in society would you keep your job if you failed 60 to 70 per cent of the time? It wouldn’t happen. They continue to employ these people to deal with the most vulnerable people in society and fail at that spectacular rate. How this has not been a bigger scandal, I don’t know. It’s just deliberate cruelty.”

The DWP has spent £221.6m on ESA mandatory reconsiderations and appeals since 2012, of which more than half went on tribunal appeals.

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“It’s a torturous process,” Wayland added. “At that time, it was difficult for me to understand my own problems and what I was going through, and the government’s putting you on the spot to describe it. Your existence and your money rides on it, and I couldn’t even understand it myself. I needed counselling to work through my problems. I think it’s disgusting to do that to people with mental health issues.”

Interestingly, the DWP has spent less than a third of the amount spent on PIP appeals and mandatory reconsiderations than it has for universal credit.

On average, there were 43,000 claims for universal credit each week in July 2023. As universal credit is based on a person’s income, the clearer eligibility criteria may explain why the government has spent less on fighting appeals.

There has been, however, a steady increase in the amount spent over the years.

DLA, much like ESA, is a legacy disability benefit which is gradually being replaced with PIP. The government has spent less money on fighting people appealing DLA decisions, most likely because there are fewer claimants.

The grand total spent on all of these benefits appeals is nearly £750m – that’s hundreds of millions of pounds of “public money trying to defend the indefensible, money that could be far better spent elsewhere”.

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? We want to hear from you. Get in touch and tell us more.

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