When a person wishes to dispute a benefit decision, they can lodge an appeal, which ultimately results in a Social Security Tribunal. Most of these tribunals are face-to-face hearings. Due to COVID-19, hearings were suspended when lockdown began in March 2020.
As of the end of October 2020, there was a backlog of 8351 appeal cases with approximately half of these being Personal Independence Payment (disability benefit) cases. A significant proportion of the rest of these cases will be people appealing decisions that found them fit for work.
East Belfast Independent Advice Centre (EBIAC) provides a tribunal representation service. The majority of the people we represent have mental health problems or a combination of mental and physical health problems. In our experience, people find the whole process of appealing difficult and stressful as they are already suffering due to their health problems. In most cases, due to chronic ill-health or disability, they find themselves unable to work and are dependent on social security income to survive. Pre-pandemic, appeals already took several months to be resolved and we know the waiting put people under immense stress as well as financial hardship.
According to the Department for Communities, in 2019/20 the success rate for Personal Independence Payment (PIP) appeals was 67.4%. This is the overall rate and we know that when a person is represented this figure is significantly higher. In EBIAC, we rarely had an unsuccessful PIP appeal. At times, the independent tribunal panels have apologised to people for the fact that they have had to attend an appeal given the extent of their illnesses/disability.
It is not uncommon for people to be awarded zero points at their DfC/Capita assessment only to have an independent tribunal panel award them enough points to qualify for the highest rate of the benefit at the tribunal hearing. The issues with assessments by Capita are well documented; we are delighted that Minister Hargey has committed to looking at bringing the assessments back in-house. A small number of social distanced tribunals took place before they ceased again for the present lockdown. There have been some remote and telephone hearings but they fail to deal with present demand never mind the backlog. The number of people waiting for an outcome of their appeal continues to grow. For those who do not qualify for a mitigation payment this means that some of our most sick and disabled citizens are being denied full access to their statutory entitlement to social security resulting in poverty.
This is unjust, inhumane and makes no economic sense. In 2015, the First, do no harm’: are disability assessments associated with adverse trends in mental health? a longitudinal ecological study found that the ESA assessments “were linked to an additional 590 suicides, 279,000 extra cases of self-reported mental health problems and the prescribing of an additional 725,000 antidepressants between 2010-13. This is equivalent to a 5% rise in total suicides, 11% increase of self-referred mental health problems, and 0.5% more antidepressant prescriptions.”
We can extrapolate from this research that PIP assessments are causing similar adverse impacts for people and our health service. The pandemic is difficult for everyone but especially so for those among us who are sick and/or disabled. There also can be no doubt that this backlog of appeals is placing an unnecessary extra demand on health services during a global pandemic. As well as causing financial hardship for individuals and families, this is also money that could be circulating in our local economy. Social security income has an economic multiplier of 1.6 meaning that every £1 that an individual receives is worth £1.60 to the local economy.
In November, the Right to Work/Right to Welfare Group met with Minister Ní Chuilín and raised the issue of the appeals backlog. The Minister committed to co-designing a process with us to tackle this backlog and introduce an urgently needed human rights checklist into our social security assessment process. One solution is for DfC to work closely with the advice sector to identify as many cases as possible that can be reconsidered without the need for a tribunal.
We understand that due to the pandemic there are significant pressures on the Department for Communities. However this is an urgent matter and needs to be resolved as soon as possible. Each one of those 8351 cases represents a person who is suffering needlessly. We look forward to working with the Minister to tackle this backlog.
Mary McManus is a member of the Right to Work/Right to Welfare Group. She has worked in a community welfare rights setting for over 20 years and is currently manager of East Belfast Independent Advice Centre. She is interested in social justice and alternative economics. In 2020, she completed Master’s research at QUB, which looked at the anti-poverty potential of Community Wealth Building, comparing Belfast City Council’s economic strategy with that of North Ayrshire and Preston.