Tuesday 30 July 2013

Disabled people and the bedroom tax: update

There has been a blow today in the High Court for many disabled people who live in rented accommodation. Ten families had brought a judicial review against the new rules, and the Court made its ruling today. The ruling is mostly (but not quite entirely) bad news.

Two of the lawyers acting for some of these people have also published information about the case:


The Background

Fro April this year there has been a new restriction on Housing Benefit for people who live in accommodation rented from Social Sector landlords (i.e. Housing Associations, local councils, and the like). The law now decides how many bedrooms a household needs, and limits the Housing Benefit accordingly. 

(For a more detailed explanation, see my website http://www.benefitsowl.info/bedroom tax.html )

Clearly this doesn't just affect disabled people and their families: however the impact does appear to be particularly severe for households where someone is disabled. frequently the nature of the disability requires that a person needs a separate room, from their partner if an adult or their siblings if a child. In addition, families - and assisting agencies - go to some lengths to adapt a property to suit the particular needs, and face losing all that if they have to leave.

For a really good summary of these issues, I recommend http://www.disabilitynow.org.uk/article/bedroom-tax-and-home-discomforts

The Bad News

In order to win the case the applicants had to show that the new rules discriminated against them and that the discrimination could not be justified. The second part might seem odd, but it reflects a general legal principal about discrimination: a women's refuge who advertise for a female worker is discriminating against men, but this is plainly justifiable; a restaurant in an old building, accessible only by a narrow flight of stairs, discriminates against wheelchair users, but this might be justifiable, depending on the detailed circumstances. 

The court did agree that the rules discriminated against disabled people, but also ruled that the discrimination was justified. How did it come to the conclusion that it was justified? I don't know, because the written decision of the court has not yet been published. But when it is I will be interested to see what it says.

The (slightly) good news

In the case of applicants with disabled children, the court found in favour. This is because there has already been a court case about this, which the government lost at the Court of Appeal in May 2012 (you can see that court's decision here: http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2012/629.html ).

You may ask: if the government lost the case in May 2012 why are we still arguing about it now? That's a good question, and one that the judges in the current case were also asking. They weren't very happy. They criticised the government for failing to change the regulations to reflect the Court of Appeal's decision and for, basically, sitting on its hands since then, and required them to make regulations 'very speedily' to allow an extra bedroom where a child needs it because of disability.

What happens next?

The lawyers acting for the applicants are planning to take the appeal further, both in respect of the wider issue of all disabled people, and the issues regarding children. At the moment I'm not absolutely clear why they are challenging the ruling regarding children, as they essentially won, although it seems to relate to a lack of confidence that the ruling will actually make the government do anything, certainly in time for their own clients.

What should you do?

If you have a disabled person in your household, and you rent from a social landlord, and your rent is restricted under the bedroom tax, you should certainly appeal the decision.

It may help to provide the Housing Benefit decision maker with a copy of this document:


This is the memo the DWP sent to all local authorities in March 2013, saying that they had decided not to appeal the Court of Appeal decision further, and instructing local authorities to adjust their Housing Benefit decisions accordingly. This won't necessarily solve your problems, as local authorities all have this already, and, frankly, don't know what to do with it as the government hasn't actually changed the rules, but you never know.

Unfortunately you are likely to have a long wait before the matter is resolved.

Note that if the disabled person requires overnight care, you are entitled to an extra room for the use of the carer.

When I have more information about this I will let you know: watch this space...

Wednesday 24 July 2013

Even the DWP isn't happy with ATOS

Within 13 weeks of starting to receive Employment and Support Allowance (the main sickness benefit currently available) claimants are assessed by the DWP to decide whether they are sick or disabled enough to continue to receive the benefit. In the majority of cases this process includes attending a medical examination. These examinations are performed by a company called ATOS. 

To many claimants the name 'ATOS' signifies anxiety, powerlessness, and anger, because of the quality of the examinations and the way in which they are carried out. If you want confirmation of this, just find someone you know who is - or was - getting Employment and Support Allowance and ask them what the examination was like.

Or you could note the opinion of Dr Mark Porter, Chair of BMA, who wrote to the Mark Hoban, Minister for Employment, on 12th June this year ( http://www.pulsetoday.co.uk/news/finance-and-practice-life-news/gps-should-provide-information-for-every-fitness-for-work-assessment-urges-bma/20003444.article#.Ue--_xy22jN,  expressing concern 'that the current process is insufficiently rigorous and consistent, causing avoidable harm to some of the weakest and most vulnerable in society'.

Or you could consider the report of the Public Accounts Committee in Parliament of February this year ( http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/public-accounts-committee/news/contract-management-of-medical-services/ ). The report criticised the DWP for failing to manage the contract ATOS properly, stating (Conclusions and Recommendations, paragraph 5) that 'the lack of challenging targets for medical quality allows the contractor to conduct thousands of poorly administered tests each year without sanction."

Well, now it seems that even the DWP itself thinks that ATOS isn't doing the job very well, according to a press release published on 22nd July ( https://www.gov.uk/government/news/hoban-taking-action-to-improve-the-work-capability-assessment ).

 The press release follows an audit of around 400 ATOS medical reports. Reports were graded A - C. 41% of the reports were given 'C' grade. The press release does not say what a C grade means (except to say that a C grade report does not mean that an assessment is wrong), but the Public Accounts Committee did, in its report above: it stated that 'a grading of 'C' is classified as "failing to meet professional standards"' (Contract Management, paragraph 13). In other words, about 2 in 5 ATOS medicals in the audit failed to meet professional standards.

What is the DWP planning to do about this? It says 'in light of the audit we required Atos to put in place a performance improvement plan and will be bringing in new providers to increase capacity'.

The second proposal is interesting - the minister appears to be saying that ATOS will be losing its monopoly. Although he hasn't mentioned this, the need to address the monopoly position of ATOS was a major concern to the Public Accounts Committee. It is worth quoting paragraph 4 of the committee's Conclusions and Recommendations in full:

'The Department has failed to develop a competitive market for medical services. The market for medical service providers is under-developed and Atos Healthcare is currently the sole supplier for all the Department's medical assessments. It has also been awarded two of the three current contracts for the Personal Independence Payment. The Department is too relaxed about the risk to value for money resulting from a dependence on a monopoly supplier, and on the limitations this has on the Department's capacity to remedy poor performance. The Department should assess the risks associated with the use of a monopoly supplier and actively pursue opportunities to develop a competitive market through the deployment of its framework contract.'

Do I think this is good news? Yes, I do: I think anything that calls ATOS to task and breaks its stranglehold over provision of medical services is a good thing.

However I'm not getting too excited. Ultimately, the performance of ATOS reflects a cultural mindset that starts at the top, with government. That mindset is one which believes that too many people are getting sickness and disability benefits. This is why the whole structure is at it is, from the regulations that define who isn't fit for work and who is, through the way the DWP puts those regulations into practice, to the behaviour of the contractor who provides the medical services.  

Without a change in ethos from the very top, therefore, although we may hope for improvements in claimants' experiences at medical examination, it is naive to expect much else to get better.

If you want more detailed information about Employment and Support Allowance, and challenging negative decisions about it, check out my website:

Wednesday 10 July 2013

Universal Credit - Update

Yesterday I was writing a page for www.benefitsowl.info with information about the introduction of Universal Credit. However I've just realised that I need to amend it before I upload it as there has been a development.

The government has just issued a press release with more details about how it plans to proceed in October this year: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/universal-credit-roll-out-from-october-2013

At the moment Universal Credit is being piloted in a few areas in the north-west of England. The government's position has been that in October this year it would be 'rolled-out' across the UK. If this gives you, as it does me, an image of a giant carpet being suddenly unrolled over the country, you may need to adjust your metaphor. 

The new press release states that from October the following Jobcentres will be added to the pilot areas:

  • Hammersmith
  • Rugby
  • Inverness
  • Harrogate
  • Bath
  • Shotton

To me this seems less like a roll-out and more like distributing some scatter cushions.

Prospective claimants not within those Jobcentre's catchment areas therefore appear to have a bit more breathing space. They'd better not be too complacent though, because the press release also states that the Claimant Commitment will roll out to all Jobcentres from October. This means that new claimants for Jobseeker's Allowance, Income Support, and Employment and Support Allowance will now have to 'accept a Claimant Commitment' - this is a document in which the responsibilities of the claimant are spelled out, and will vary depending on the claimant's circumstances. For jobseekers this is unlikely to seem that different to having to enter into a jobseeker's agreement, but for Employment and Support Allowance and Income Support claimants this may come as a nasty shock (although it should be noted that some claimants, for example carers, will not be required to work or prepare to work).

What else can we read into this press release?

Reading between the lines, the document does seem to be a tacit admission that systems aren't as ready as the government would like. For example, it states:

"The Pathfinder exercise has shown that the IT system works underpinned by the Real Time Information system. But, in parallel, after asking major projects expert David Pitchford to review it earlier this year, ministers have accepted his recommendation that they should explore enhancing the IT for Universal Credit working with the Government Digital Service. Advancements in technology since the current system was developed have meant that a more responsive system that is more flexible and secure could potentially be built."

Translated, I think that really means:

"We've been advised that our IT systems are not fit for the job we've asked them to do, and more work is needed."

But I might be wrong...

The fact is that the government gave themselves a fair bit of wiggle room when they originally announced Universal Credit: They didn't say how fast the roll-out would be, only that it would start in October this year and be complete in 2017. And, in fairness to them, it is certainly better for everyone, claimants included, not to rush things. 

Amusingly (at least to me), they say that there current plan means that "Universal Credit will be rolling out in areas of England, Wales and Scotland". I've just checked - Shotton is in Wales, so all bases covered.