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He knows he's in trouble: Mike Penning, shortly after removing his foot from his mouth while talking about 'mandatory reconsideration'.

He knows he’s in trouble: Mike Penning, shortly after removing his foot from his mouth while talking about ‘mandatory reconsideration’.

The minister for disabled people, Mike Penning, seemed to think he had something to celebrate this week, after official figures showed the number of benefit decision appeals dropped by 79 per cent between January and March this year (compared with the same time in 2013).

He said it means the government’s new ‘mandatory reconsideration’ process is helping people to challenge wrong decisions earlier and helping target government support on those who need it most: “Getting more decisions right the first time avoids the need for protracted tribunal appeals… This new safeguard gives claimants the chance to raise their grievance promptly, provide further evidence and have their claim reassessed without the unnecessary stress of an appeal.”

How wonderful for him.

Does the man with learning disabilities who was living on a paste made of flour and water, after his benefits were suspended, feel the same way, one has to wonder?

How about the woman with breast cancer who was forced to stop chemotherapy – putting her life in danger, one must presume – because she was assessed as ineligible for benefits?

The fact is that ‘mandatory reconsideration’ was brought in to make it harder for benefit claimants like these to challenge a decision that they are capable of work.

If a claimant is unhappy with an adverse decision, they can demand a ‘mandatory reconsideration’ and it will be revisited, usually by a different decision-maker – but the Department for Work and Pensions will not pay even the ‘assessment rate’ of the benefit that has been claimed until a new decision has been reached, and there is no time limit within which the DWP must carry it out. Once a decision has been made, and if it is favourable, there is no guarantee that the benefit will be backdated to cover the whole period since the original claim.

If the claimant is still unhappy about the decision, they may then take it to appeal. This is unlikely as, by then, they will have been forced to live without any means of support for an extended period of time and other benefits such as Housing Benefit may have been denied to them because of the DWP’s adverse decision.

This is the whole point of the nasty game – cutting the number of appeals. When a benefit case goes to court it is both expensive and potentially embarrassing for the Department for Work and Pensions. Of course it is – when a judge tells a government representative that their decision has been irrational or needlessly cruel, it’s a slap in the face for both the decision maker and, ultimately, the government whose benefit ‘reforms’ made that decision possible.

‘Mandatory reconsideration’ was brought in at the end of October last year, and the figures for January to March are the first quarterly statistics to indicate its effect.

Mr Penning said: “This new safeguard gives claimants the chance to raise their grievance promptly, provide further evidence and have their claim reassessed without the unnecessary stress of an appeal.” Would this be “unnecessary stress” to DWP employees? Claimants now have even more “unnecessary stress” to handle.

It should also be noted that we can’t trust the government’s statistics on the number of appeals it has been handling.

A Freedom of Information request by the iLegal website has revealed that, between April 2012 and June 2013, the DWP received 406,070 ESA appeals – and officially recorded outcomes of only 12,800. What happened to the rest?

It seems Mr Penning has learned to speak with a forked tongue.

Follow me on Twitter: @MidWalesMike

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