Written evidence from Vaughan Thomas HAB0138

 

I currently work as a Welfare Rights Adviser for Norfolk Community Law Service [a registered charity] but I have worked for numerous other advice agencies in the East Midlands and the East of England over the last 22 years. Prior to that I was one of the long term unemployed. I have had extensive experience of dealing with the DWP both on a personal and professional level that has generated significant frustrations for me personally over the years.

During my period of long-term unemployment in the 1990’s I submitted a detailed proposal to the DWP [35,000 words] for a Community Discount Card for welfare benefit claimants & those in debt as the DWP was, and is now, punching below its weight in the marketplace. The proposal was to facilitate & secure for claimants’ bulk discounts on their behalf for food and everyday consumer goods by paying benefits via Bank Accounts. This was rejected by a DWP Civil Servant at the time, Mr Neil Couling [now Director General for the implementation of Universal Credit?] as he wrote ‘it would have serious implications for Social Policy’! This was at a time when the DWP were paying £millions working on a Benefit Payments [Smart] Card around 1998. This project was nevertheless scrapped sometime later in favour of paying benefits via bank accounts but did not adopt this as a way of securing discounts for benefit claimants. This could have saved some £25bn over 10 years from the DWP budget at that time. Funded by utilising market forces on behalf of the most financially vulnerable people in the UK. Profit margins for UK supermarkets being significantly higher than those in the USA. As valid a proposal now during a ‘cost of living crisis’ as it was then. Frustratingly, claimants are in a worse position now as evidenced by the growth of Food Banks. This frustration came on top of a previous proposal to the then President of the Board of Trade in April 1993 to implement a policy of Contract Energy Management [CEM] for domestic householders to pay for energy upgrades/retrofitting their energy inefficient dwellings. Saving some £6.12bn annually for householders and again, paid for from the savings secured from the private sector reorganising their operating model to one of an Energy Service Company [ESCo] for domestic householders rather than just an energy supplier. This is just as relevant today during what is for many benefit claimants, unaffordable energy price rises. What is needed is bold action to change the way we operate in order to address the ‘cost of living crisis’. Tweaking ‘the system’ will not cut it but that is what is being addressed here in calling for evidence on Health Assessments for Benefits. The ‘Elephant in the Room’ is the annual £16bn of unclaimed benefit that the DWP fail to get out to those in need which is not being addressed and who don’t any DWP assessment, health or otherwise. Some of whom will be Food Bank users. This sum is huge and needs to be addressed if we are ever to achieve any measure of ‘Levelling Up’. Supermarkets have a mutual interest in helping to correct this as it would materialise into increased sales for them. They could & should work with the Third Sector to achieve this at no cost to the DWP. The collective benefit gains for my clients over one year, has been about £380k. This money was not put into PEP’s, ISA’s or offshore bank accounts, but was spent in local retail outlets. A win-win for both those in poverty and local businesses. But frustration continues upon frustration and government appear not able to make the bold moves needed create a more equal and fairer society, certainly for those in poverty. This is the reason I am submitting evidence, but it is not enough. People are going through hell here and now, struggling to survive; many on “less than the law says they need to live on” due to paying back Universal Credit loans/advances or repaying benefit overpayments and other Third Party debts. We all have to pay our debts……….but not yet, when someone’s family can’t afford to eat properly or heat their homes.

I am making this submission because of the constant frustration of benefit claimants/appellants with the claims and appeals process that are all too often based on their less than adequate health assessments that do not reflect the level of the disabling effects of their overall medical conditions. The success rate for Benefit appeals for my advice organisations was 82.69% in 2021. In one respect one could characterize this as very good but in another, it is absolutely appalling in terms of DWP decision making. My job shouldn’t exist any more than Food Banks should. I attended an online Tribunal User Group [TUG] meeting recently for professional advisers/representatives at which four Judges attended. Discussion was around making the appeals process better for appellants, but on the basis of our appeal stats, our clients shouldn’t have had to be put through the appeals process generating so much distress for claimants and cost to the public purse. Our success is largely down to providing further medical evidence rather than highfalutin legal argument. Medical evidence that already exists with claimants’ GP’s, Hospital Consultants, Social Workers, and Therapists.

Health Assessments always used to be carried out by an Examining Medical Practitioner [EMP] a Doctor, when these were provided by the Benefits Agency Medical Services [BAMS] but now they are carried out by Healthcare Professionals who could be a Nurses, Paramedic or Physiotherapist etc as well as some Doctors. Unfortunately, a claimant can be examined by a physiotherapist when they are suffering from depression! Little wonder claimants can have a feeling of unfairness, albeit that the Healthcare Professional will have had further training on disability issues to meet the DWP’s threshold of acceptability and competence. The army of ‘Healthcare Professionals’ contracted to the DWP could be better employed in the NHS to bolster the need for nurses etc and still be able to provide the kind of reports needed to make Welfare Benefit Decisions via claimants’ own Doctors supplementing any reports with relevant medical records that are not written with any alternative agenda in mind other than the diagnosis, treatment and prognosis of the patient which is now readily accessible via electronic means. GP surgeries would appear to be appropriate venues for medical assessments with the additional staff able to transfer from a flawed outsourcing of assessments. All claimants with disabilities or long term sickness will already have been in contact with their GP and/or hospital consultant who are trusted to make decisions costing £billions through the NHS. The current health assessments are too archaic to accommodate 21st century social security system but it harks back to a bygone age where people in poverty were not looked on with any, or not much, compassion from ‘the system’. We need a radical overhaul of the current system that works closely with the Third Sector and, most importantly, the private sector that is currently in the business of selling items of food rather than healthy diets. The NHS is currently acting like the National Ill-Health Service and cannot address many of the issues that are generated out in our communities where all too many people do not understand what a healthy diet is. If they could afford one. We all need to work together to address many of the issues around disability and ill health for both the DWP and the NHS but we can’t do it without involving the private sector that forms a significant aspect of our everyday lives. This goes way beyond the less than adequate Health Assessments for benefits.

 

May 2022