The case against the Department of Work & Pensions
The legal case that triggered the DWP about-face was brought by a disabled woman who was given just one hour to accept benefits worth much less than she was claiming through her appeal. The woman, known only as K to protect her anonymity, was appealing her claim for disability benefits because her doctor had advised her the amount of Personal Independence Payment (PIP) she was receiving, was far lower than the highest amount she should be getting because of the severity of her mobility condition.
Applicants for PIP can get between £23.60 and £151.40 a week from age 16 up to state pension age. Anyone can appeal a decision if they think it’s unfair.
The caller from the DWP offered K an amount which was more than she was receiving, but £1,500 a year less than the full amount she was claiming for through the appeal. She also said she was told that ‘tribunals are not very nice to go to’ and that she risked losing all her benefits, as they tried to put her off pursuing her appeal for the full amount.
K’s mother was not contacted by the DWP even though she looks after K’s finances; K herself was not made aware that she could appeal the new offer. K said: “I was imagining me in a big court room trying to argue my case on my own with my whole PIP award at risk.”
“They called me back and made me decide before I could speak to my mum, so I just accepted the offer as I didn’t know what else to do. I felt I had been pressured into making the wrong decision and I didn’t know how to put it right.”
The Public Law Project (PLP) helped represent K and said she was left feeling suicidal as she struggled to cope. Their solicitor, Sara Lomri, said: “Unfortunately, a practice has developed over the last few years at the DWP whereby benefits decision makers have been putting pressure on eligible disabled benefits claimants to accept less than their statutory entitlement.”
As well as accepting the need to change, the DWP has agreed to improve its guidance to staff on how people are contacted.
A DWP spokesperson said: “Our overarching aim is that claimants are paid the correct amount of benefit at the earliest opportunity. We contact people if we can revise a decision and increase their benefits award as a result of new evidence becoming available after their appeal was lodged – and they always have the option to continue with their appeal or challenge a revised decision.”
“We have addressed the PLP’s concerns by improving our guidance on telephone calls so options and appeal rights are always clearly set out, as well as stopping making contact when a tribunal is imminent, and we are pleased they have withdrawn their case.”
The new guidance will now see the DWP clearly set out the claimant’s appeal rights when calling about a revised decision. It is not clear how many people had already been contacted via high pressure cold-calls before the change to guidance.
Lisa Winterstieger, the boss of Law for Life which supported the case, said: “For more than two and a half years we have been gathering evidence of this practice and the impact it had on sometimes very vulnerable claimants, and we could not be more pleased to see it end.”
Cold-calling, which often involves high pressure tactics, has been banned in relation to pensions and claims management firms in recent years to protect consumers. That’s why this story is so alarming, given that a government department has been doing exactly this up until this month!