That’s the number one ask for the next Government, set out by the national Citizens Advice body. Here at Citizens Wandsworth we couldn’t agree more with that call. In particular we believe that the system of sickness and disability benefits is broken and must be fixed – fast.

In common with local Citizens Advice services throughout the country, enquiries about welfare benefits have always made up about one third of all demand in Wandsworth. But recently we have seen a rise – from 34% in 2015/16 to 38% in 2016/17. And that is 38% of a huge rise in enquiries we have dealt with overall.

In 2015/16 we advised just fewer than 9000 local people. This shot up to 12,500 in 2016/17 due to increases in service opening hours and the addition of several new projects. Welfare benefits and tax credit enquiries have risen steadily since 2014 as figure 1 below shows. Universal Credit (UC) is yet to be fully rolled-out in Wandsworth. That will begin in March 2018. The experience over the river in Hammersmith & Fulham, where full UC was piloted, is that demand for advice about the new benefit is likely to be very high. We’re bracing ourselves.

Figure 1 Welfare benefits and tax credits enquiries dealt with by CAW

The underlying reason for the rise in calls for help with benefits to date is the difficulty local people are having with the sickness and disability benefits Employment Support Allowance (ESA) and Personal Independence Payment (PIP).

As a percentage of all benefit enquiries dealt with by our team of staff and volunteers at Citizens Advice Wandsworth (CAW), ESA and PIP have shot up from 33% in 2014/15 to 56% in 2016/17. Figure 2 shows the trend in ESA and PIP enquiries.

Figure 2 ESA and PIP enquiries dealt with by CAW

The majority of help we give is with calculating eligibility and entitlement, challenging decisions and helping people with appeals. Requests for help to challenge or appeal are now the bulk of our ESA and PIP work.

In the first 6 weeks of 2017/18 we have already dealt with 250 enquiries about PIP and ESA out of over 550 benefit enquiries in total. The trends show no sign of abating.

Wandsworth Foodbank’s Hunger and Poverty in Wandsworth 2016-17 report also highlights the failures of the benefits system. We’re proud partners of the Foodbank, providing advice for their guests and training their volunteers with the help of City Bridge Trust funding. The Foodbank helped nearly 5000 people in 16/17 (16% up on 15/16) and in 39% of cases the cause of food poverty was benefit problems. Foodbank has asked the next Government to “urgently improve the benefits system and fix the gaps that cause hunger”.

Luckily, our service has been strengthened during the past year by the addition of the Disability and Social Care Advice Service (DASCAS). This vital local service transferred to CAW in October 2016. The team focuses on helping local disabled people with benefit claims, so we are better equipped now – but our service is still struggling to cope with overwhelming demand.

So what’s going on? Why are so many local people needing to turn to us for help?

We believe the system has some fundamental flaws that the next Government must address.

Reconsiderations and appeals: Firstly, claimants who disagree with a Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) decision must ask for it to be reconsidered. Only 20% of decisions that are reconsidered are actually changed. A recent freedom of information request found that DWP’s performance target is that 80% of decisions are upheld. It’s no surprise then that only 1 in 5 requests succeed and surely a perverse incentive to disallow benefit – especially when around 60% – 70% of the appeals that follow this initial request for reconsideration are successful. (65% of PIP appeals and 62% of ESA appeals were found in the claimants’ favour in the quarter to Oct 2016.)

Assessments: Secondly the work capability and medical assessment system needs an overhaul. Problems in the quality of assessments by contractors Atos (for PIP in London) and Maximus/CHDA (for ESA) affect claimants’ lives dramatically: benefit may be stopped completely and the process of disputing it takes months. When ESA is stopped, housing benefit may also be affected and rent arrears begin. People with mental health problems often find their health deteriorates during this time. Repeat assessments for disability benefits for people with a lifelong severe condition are surely unnecessary. They cause stress and uncertainty at a time when secure income is needed. (See our self-help guide to complaining about an assessment.)

In June we will be launching a report on research into local disability benefit advice needs, carried out by the DASCAS team. It will describe the difficulty people have with the system and why they need expert advice. The following case study illustrates the problem:

Nadine [not the claimant’s real name] received a letter explaining the DLA to PIP changeover in November 2016 and inviting her to apply for PIP. In the past, she found communication with the DWP difficult and so she requested an application form rather than applying over the phone. She described how the form felt vague and formulaic and didn’t give her an adequate opportunity to fully outline her conditions. She also felt that she had to overplay her conditions and present her situation in a very negative light which she felt was insincere. She also felt the form did not take into account the fact that her condition constantly fluctuated – on good days, she is able to leave the house and even volunteer but when her condition is at its worst, she is housebound and in large amounts of pain.

Once her form had been sent off, an Atos assessment was automatically generated for the next possible date. The location was in Barnsley which Nadine said was impossible for her to get to and so she had to request this to be changed. Unfortunately, her conditions also mean she suffers from memory loss and as a result, she missed her appointment. There was no automated message to remind her of her appointment which she felt was wrong, as many disabled claimants suffer from memory problems and the introduction of such a service may lead to a decrease in missed appointments. She was told she had to give a reason for missing the appointment and that this would be considered. In the meantime, she has been left in the lurch and is anxious about what will be decided.

CAW picks up the pieces of this broken system. Change is needed further upstream to fix the problem.

Whether or not the next Government heeds our calls, the next few years are likely to involve further changes in welfare systems and policy that will have an impact on local people. Hence the fifth ask from Citizens Advice: Invest in advice to support people through change and uncertainty.

Phil Jew

Chief Executive

Citizens Advice Wandsworth

19 May 2017

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