UK government took ‘unlawful and unacceptably long time’ to pay welfare benefits to two people with disabilities
Two claimants asked Mrs Justice Patterson to declare that Iain Duncan Smith breached his common law and human rights duties to make payments within a reasonable time.
The work and pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, has suffered legal embarrassment after a judge ruled that delays in the payment of disability benefits, which left two vulnerable claimants isolated, depressed and unable to afford food, were unacceptable and unlawful.
The high court heard that failures by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), and its private contractors, Atos and Capita, left the seriously disabled claimants waiting months for the personal independence payment (PIP) support to which they were entitled, causing considerable and unnecessary distress.
Their experiences were shared by hundreds of thousands of individuals who had waited for long periods for their claims to be processed, in some cases for more than a year, because of delays and backlogs to the Pip scheme since its phased introduction two years ago, the court heard.
Mrs Justice Patterson ruled there had been a “breach of duty on the part of the secretary of state to act without unreasonable delay in determination of the claimant’s claims for Pip”.
However, she concluded that there had not been a breach of the claimants’ human rights and that the Pip system had shown “vast improvement” in recent months after the DWP and its contractors devoted huge resources to clearing the backlog.
Pip, which will eventually replace disability living allowance (DLA), is a non-means-tested benefit introduced in 2013 to help with the additional costs of disability or chronic illness. It is not an employment-related benefit. An additional 1.5 million DLA recipients will be assessed for Pip from October.
Anne-Marie Irwin, the specialist public lawyer at Irwin Mitchell who led the cases, said: “This is a significant legal judgment. A huge number of vulnerable people have been left in the lurch as a result of unacceptable flaws in the Pip system.”
She added: “While the decision is undoubtedly welcome and emphasizes the clear failings seen with this scheme, attention must now turn to rethinking the planned wider rollout in October until reassurances can be provided that the delays seen in the past are not repeated in the future.”
The minister for people with disabilities, Justin Tomlinson, said: “The court has rightly dismissed the claimants’ absurd suggestion that their human rights had been breached. As a result they are not entitled to damages.
“We have taken decisive action to speed up Pip waiting times and we are pleased the court has recognized the huge progress made. The average new Pip claimant now waits only seven weeks for an assessment.”
Between April 2013 and the end of March 2015 742,800 new Pip claims were made, of which 130,000 were still outstanding. According to Irwin Mitchell, 12,600 claimants are still waiting after seven months and 3,200 have been waiting for more than a year.
One of the claimants, known as Ms C, was diagnosed with ME in 2009 and forced to give up work three years later. The court heard that the 27-year-old, who lives alone, suffered from severe vertigo, collapses and visual impairment, and rarely left her home. She was reliant on unemployment benefit and spent just £8 a week on food.
Although she made it clear her medical conditions made it difficult to travel, Atos twice told her to go to their office for a face-to-face assessment. On one occasion it threatened to cancel her Pip application if she did not attend. After 13 months’ delay, Ms C was assessed as eligible for enhanced rates of Pip and awarded £8,000 in backdated payments.
Patterson said in her judgment: “To require [Ms C] to attend a face-to-face assessment on two separate occasions was both inappropriate, causing her considerable distress, and was irrational in her circumstances.”
Ms C said after the ruling: “While my 13-month wait came to an end, thousands of people have not had the same luck. It is vital that the government makes sure that everyone affected in the past gets help and also that the system is fit for purpose before it is rolled out further.”
Despite ministers promising that the application process for Pip would take just two and a half months, poor planning and over-optimistic assumptions about demand meant the system developed backlogs. A year after its introduction many applicants were waiting more than six months, a state of affairs a parliamentary committee described at the time as “nothing short of a fiasco”.
The DWP has since been forced to hire 800 extra staff to deal with the delays, while Atos and Capita have quadrupled the number of clinicians they employ to carry out assessments, and opened more assessment centers.
Gillian Guy, the chief executive of Citizens Advice, said: “Delays to Pip assessments are unacceptably common. Over two years since [their] introduction they are still not fit for purpose.
“People are turning to local Citizens Advice in their thousands as they are left high and dry without the financial support they need to live with their health condition or disability.
“Pip is a key part of our welfare system. It defies common decency that some people with disabilities are waiting months on end just to find out if they’re entitled to the necessary support.”