It’s not just the ridiculous and ignorant mistakes made in PIP and ESA assessments that should worry us

You judge whether a society is civilised or not by how it treats its most vulnerable people.  The Work and Pensions Select Committee will publish a report this week which has recommendations for the reform of social security for sick and disabled people.

If one of your relatives suffered from a debilitating, life limiting physical or mental health condition, you would want them to have the best support possible. You wouldn’t want them to have to endure a social security system that is complex, demeaning and stressful.

As a prelude to their full report, the Work and Pensions Committee published a taster of the evidence they have received which outlines the awful things that people go through.

For me, it wasn’t the absurd and ridiculous incidents that caught the headlines (people being asked why they hadn’t killed themselves yet, or how they caught Down’s Syndrome) that upset me the most. It was the clear evidence that the way the system operates is harmful to people that made me angriest.

To be fair, none of this was news to me. I’ve been aware for some time that the system is broken. It particularly fails those with fluctuating conditions, Autism and poor mental health, but it’s stressful for everybody.

Filling in the massive form is particularly difficult. For some, it is even more so. I spoke at an RNIB Scotland fringe meeting at Scottish Conference about a year ago, The RNIB Scotland Chair, Sandra Wilson, talked about her experience of the dreaded form. She has no sight. They sent her a paper copy and expected her to fill it in. They knew she had no sight when they sent her the form.

If you look at some of the examples in the report, you will see how completely flawed the process is. The mother who self-harmed as the form forced her to recount the limitations of her condition, the numerous accounts of forms taking from 20-50 hours to complete and the impact of the process on the person making the claim

A common feature which will be familiar to anyone who has supported people through PIP applications is the assessment report which bears no resemblance to anything that happened at the assessment, which refers to physical examinations which didn’t take place or conclusions that could not possibly be drawn from what was said.

The most important thing for me is that this whole process is humane, but it doesn’t even stack up on the money side. People are put through these degrading assessments to save the government money – but they don’t. 

A National Audit Office report in 2016 stated that they cost £1.6 billion and saved £1 billion. Why not put that money directly into helping those with disabilities to be supported in the community and in work if that is possible for them?

A very clear indicator that the system is broken is that well more than half of the cases that go to appeal win.It’s 63% for PIP and 60% for ESA. Behind those figures lie months without benefit, potentially losing your Motability car but at the very least causing a financial hit. That’s before you even think about the stress of forcing an ill person before  a tribunal which they are probably going to win.

So we are forcing people through an inhumane system that costs more than it saves. It’s broken on every level.

I suspect the recommendations coming out next week will be more of the papering over the cracks variety than the sort of radical reform the system needs. I’d like to be pleasantly surprised though.


* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • A lot of these problems were apparent when the new system was introduced though and could be seen then. PIP was introduced if not by the Lib Dems then certainly on their watch. The worry caused to people by having to reapply lies at their door (which was not necessary – you could introduce a policy which didn’t affect pre-existing claims). The complexity of the forms lies at their door and the fact that people had benefits cut and lost motability cars lies at their door.

    This wasn’t unexpected. They knew. When PIP was introduced the government’s own impact assessment – which would have or should have been seen by responsible ministers said:
    “Therefore, we expect around 500,000 fewer individuals to be in receipt of Personal Independence Payment by 2015/16 compared to what would have happened under DLA. ”

    So the Lib Dem ministers responsible signed off on a policy knowing 500,000 people around 22% of claimants were going to lose their benefits completely. Either they didn’t care or didn’t understand what they were doing.

  • PIP should be scrapped. It’s a dreadful system, mostly driven by an attempt to bypass the medical profession to make it easier cut payments to ill and disabled people. Sadly one of the many naive mistakes of the coalition years.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 11th Feb '18 - 1:15pm

    This article is correct in tone and attitude , in examples of cases , and in approaches to the issues.


    Those who blame the coalition need to understand this took hold in the Brown years , the ” largesse, universal like the sun “, a panic later of overspending and cuts sought.

    Yvette Cooper started the ATOS disaster.

    The very worrying aspect that Labour with its ideological obsession with public god, private bad, now, miss, whether directly employed by the state or contractually by companies, there is incompetence bordering on hideousness to some of these so called professionals.

    There is more professionalism amongst a swathe of amateur charity volunteers than at the heart of some supposedly professional organisations public or private both !!

  • Sue Sutherland 11th Feb '18 - 1:39pm

    I collapsed with M.E. 17 years ago. It took me 2 years to find the strength to apply for DLA as it was then. The form was easier in those days but even so it took me several months to complete and that was with the help of a friend who works for MIND. It is a terrible process because you have to face up to the things you are unable to do. Some people become suicidal because of the effect of doing this. Even all that time ago OnceALibDem you had to reapply after a certain number of years but I was assessed by a lovely doctor who was very sympathetic. Now people are treated in a very rude and appalling way and this has got much worse since 2015. As Karen says the objective of saving money hasn’t been achieved. It is so sad because when I was working with people with learning difficulties PIP was something disabled people wanted to happen. Of course, as usual, the Tories have taken a good idea and created cruelty and chaos.

  • I imagine that many make applications and complete a MR alone whereas fewer go to tribunal without advice or support. Presumably that means that there is also a number who speak to an adviser, understand the system a little better and take the option of not carrying on. And it is sometimes a very tricky to understand system, for example I saw a Facebook comment recently not understanding why the tribunal were only interested in how he was several months ago and not now.

    I believe the cab touted the idea that rather than taking then off ESA for the Mr period that the claimant stays on ESA (or pip with all the perks) until the point of final decision. It would put emphasis on government recovering money rather than paying out arrears but it would seem a kinder system and may reduce admin costs.

  • @ OnceaLibDem. I’m afraid the facts are that legislation to introduce Universal Credit, Personal Indepence Payments and the ‘bedroom tax’ were all introduced with the Lib Dem M.P.s voting for all three. It was much more than just ‘on their watch’.

    As far as Pip is concerned I remember well when it was voted for, March 2011. I somehow managed to get an email of protest off to said MP,s even though I was in Edinburgh Royal waiting for a transplant. I was more than extremely unhappy at the time and still am. It was then that so many Liberal Democrat members resigned from the party.

    I’m sorry but rewriting history won’t alter the facts and any attempt to do so is, to say the very least, disingenuous.

    As far as ms Cooper and Atos is concerned, Lorenzo is correct. But that was one of the reasons she failed to win the leadership.

  • @ David Raw

    Um… It is firstly far easier to be generous on benefits when you are not facing a deficit of £100 billion a year which Labour left.

    Secondly the “bedroom tax” was introduced by Labour (for private renters).
    Universal Credit has some advantages – the real problem is the cuts made to it by the Treasury – as I understand it after the coalition years.

  • OnceALibDem 11th Feb '18 - 6:01pm

    I’m a bit puzzled that my comment seems to have been taken as a defence of the LIb Dems in coalition rather than a criticism.

    Why I said ‘on their watch’ was that my criticisms related to what happened after the passing of the act when it was brought into effect. IIRC the act didn’t include the detailed criteria which came in later regulations.

    What was so galling in the coalition was that it was frequently said that Lib Dem ministers were stopping the worst tory actions. But all to often they would implement measures than ask for changes when the impact assessments had said what was going to happen. The same applies to bedroom tax and the cuts to Housing Benefit.

    @SueSutherland – there were indefinite awards under DLA. PIP was designed to have very significantly fewer indefinite awards.

    A question for Caron – is it now Lib Dem policy to reverse PIP so that the people who lost DLA or motability cars as a result of those changes can have them reinstated.

  • OnceALibDem 11th Feb '18 - 6:07pm

    “Secondly the “bedroom tax” was introduced by Labour (for private renters).”

    Oh FFS had this argument so many times. Firstly it wasn’t there was always an appropriate size for housing benefit in the private sector, second when Labour introduced it wasn’t retrospective and only applied to new claims and third it was a cap on the amount that was actually being claimed not a reduction regardless of the acutally rent in monetary terms.

    Certainly the second point made this a hugely different change to the bedroom tax. Had that been included it would have made it a very different animal.

  • Once a Lib Dem. I’m not criticising you, I think it’s a matter of terminology. Simply pointing out the Lib Dem m.p.s actively supported Pip rather than just put up with it. It’s no good now some folk saying, “not me, sir. It was a big boy wot dun it”.

    Michael1, you’re bringing up an old chestnut about who was responsible for the deficit. If you can prove that Fanny Mae, Freddie Mac and the Lehmann Brothers were members of the Labour Cabinet then I might take your knee jerk anti-Labour throwaway line seriously.

  • markfairclough 11th Feb '18 - 6:44pm

    I have Spina Bifida, I,m a wheelchair user.
    In December2015 i lost my benenfits assessment , told I was fit to work .
    I lost ESA , income support, severe disablement allowance & invalidity.
    I was left on some DLA & some mobility benefit.
    when DLA was scrapped I had to have another assessment in June last year to if I was allowed PIPS,i did win that , so I,m on PIPS & mobility & now I,m on £492 a month which is £123 a week.

  • Peter Martin 11th Feb '18 - 7:11pm

    @ Michael1,

    You’re still hung up on the £100 bn deficit, I see. It really shouldn’t change the level of our “generousity” in the slightest.

    Maybe Prof Stephanie Kelton can explain better that I can. She explains it in terms of the US$ but the same argument applies to the pound too.

  • @OnceALibDem

    “Secondly the “bedroom tax” was introduced by Labour (for private renters).”

    On the bedroom tax: Clearly not perfect. Actually local councils were able to ameliorate the situation quite substantially.

    Most councils will tell you that there is quite a large waiting list for bigger properties.

    Social renters do benefit considerably. Low rents to start with. Security of tenure. The right to buy. And after the bedroom tax for private renters they were in a considerably better position as regards housing benefit. Some equity between social renters and private sector renters is and was justified.

    On new claims for private renters – true-ish. But people may be making a new claim for housing benefit for a variety of reasons – as regards their employment status etc.

    That is not to say that housing benefit and housing policy etc. has not been a complete and utter mess since the 1970s. It has!

    @Peter Martin
    On the deficit. I appreciate your point of view. To a degree I share it. But from memory it was Labour’s policy to cut the deficit to the same degree. To some degree, borrowing is deferred taxation. And it may be a sensible thing to do – just as it is sensible for private individuals and companies to borrow. But you do also have to pay back the borrowing and that will hit the people of tomorrow and indeed the poorer people of tomorrow – either through more tax or less spending.

    I am not saying you are wrong – although there is a debate about borrowing and about the degree. I am saying that all mainstream political parties would have cut the deficit substantially.

  • @David Raw

    “you’re bringing up an old chestnut about who was responsible for the deficit.”

    Well – it is you who are saying that the Governments and MPs are responsible for what happens on their watch! I didn’t actually say who was responsible. Just that it is a fact that the circumstances the coalition Government faced was an annual deficit of £100 billion. Leaving aside the point of view of @Peter Martin which may well (or may not be) valid – that is a very tough gig to deal with and not something that a Labour of a few years before had to face.

  • Michael1. ‘A deficit which Labour left’.

    You’ve clearly got a very promising political career in front of you if you can claim that doesn’t amount to saying they were responsible for it, Michael.

  • @ Peter Martin

    So we are deficit Owls!

    Thanks for posting the clip.

    Lots of people have commented on the form claimants are sent. I am not convinced it is always used in determining the outcome of a claim. I think the assessment is used and the form is mostly ignored.

  • Peter Martin 11th Feb '18 - 10:16pm

    @ Michael1,

    The Labour Party got it wrong on deficit reduction too. I often remind everyone that the Government’s deficit is everyone else’s savings. So, the time to worry is when no-one wants to save and therefore they spend money just to exchange it for something tangible.That’s going to lead to an inflation problem. So, ironically, a low deficit can be a sign that there’s little or no confidence in the currency and a general tightening of fiscal policy is called for.

    It’s a little bit counter-intuitive but it’s not that hard to understand. It’s not the proverbial rocket science.

    I really don’t understand this deferred taxation argument. If the economy starts to overheat then increased taxation may be part of a necessary package to keep inflation under control and maintain confidence in the currency but that’s about it. Even Margaret Thatcher’s govt ran deficits and, rightly, no one ever says we need to raise taxation to repay those debts.

    Our children and grandchildren will have a standard of living determined by what they can produce. They can’t send anything back in time to repay any debts that we may have. We can’t send anything forward in time to them but we can give them a decent education, and make sure we leave them a clean environment.

    If you buy some premium bonds you will own some National debt. You can sell them any time you like. If you leave them to your descendants they’ll be able to sell them instead. There is really no problem from the Govt’s POV. They’ll probably be other buyers for those bonds, but if not, the only reason the money would need to be raised from taxation would be to control inflation in an overheated economy.

  • “Actually local councils were able to ameliorate the situation quite substantially.”

    Not really true. DHPs can in theory be permanent but in reality are a time-limited measure. And in effect what that did was to replace one Housing Benefit application with two different applications on different forms with different rules. That might be said to be a little sub-optimal.

    “Most councils will tell you that there is quite a large waiting list for bigger properties. ”
    I’d be surprised if there were any who didn’t! What there wasn’t was a number of smaller properites for people to downsize to. When my local party were all coalicious and saying what a good idea the bedroom tax was I pointed out that the Councils housing provider had precisely one one bedroom flat available – and that was only for rent to someone over 60.

    It also didn’t apply to over 65s IIRC – I have yet to find a LIb Dem who thought that in the interests of equality it should be extended to everyone.

    Meanwhile the Government introduced help to buy so that homeowners could buy a bigger house than they need – there is no bedroom cap on applications (I think this supports your final comment!)

  • @Peter Martin
    “Even Margaret Thatcher’s govt ran deficits and, rightly, no one ever says we need to raise taxation to repay those debts.”

    Interestingly even in the 70s and 80s – there was a year on year decrease in the total debt as a percentage of GDP.

    Every year post-war saw effectively a decrease in the total debt as a percentage of annual GDP with some very small spikes until the 1990s and then slightly in the mid-2000s.

    So while they were running slight nominal deficits – effectively they weren’t really because there was much higher inflation. A bit like the difference between nominal interest rates and real interest rates after deducting inflation. The taxpayer is obviously paying the interest on the total borrowing pile. AIUI effectively the taxpayer is “repaying” debt even if the total debt in nominal cash terms is getting larger if it is decreasing as a percentage of annual income as it is becoming more affordable. And for many of the years post-war debt was repaid in cash terms.

    While the coalition is criticised for “austerity” – there was the biggest peacetime deficit boost to the economy – about 40% of annual GDP over 3-4 years. But the shock to the economy was big.

    There are arguments over borrowing. I think that most even massive “small government” hawks would accept the need for counter-cyclical borrowing during a recession. And there are quite a lot of mechanisms that make that happen. Tax receipts go down (by more than the reduction in the economy) and spending on things like benefits goes up.

    The issue becomes one of Government borrowing when the economy is at or near full capacity. And for this you pick your favourite economy theory and to a degree political outlook.

    Personally I favour some borrowing but below the nominal increase in GDP.

  • Peter Martin 12th Feb '18 - 11:20am


    You might want to take a look at the sectoral balances of the late eighties which you can see on the first graph in this link:

    The Thatcher/Lawson Govt managed a small surplus around 1990 as you can see from the blue blocks. But look at yellow. All that happened was that the burden of borrowing to support the trade deficit was switched temporarily to the private sector. That bubble burst and we had a recession a few years later.

    And that was a good thing?

  • If we’re all being honest, all mainstream parties had claimed they had a plan to reduce the deficit, and Labour know full well that a time out of power meant it would be someone else having to implement the cuts they were on board with. Not being in power allowed those people who promised to make cuts to complain loudly about the cuts without worrying about what would happen if we didn’t have cuts.

    We can ponder the pros and cons of austerity versus investment, and I think that we (collectively as a nation) have been too quick to think that cuts are an easy way to balance the books, but theoretical investment is much harder to get right than actual investment. Which ties us back neatly to one of Caron’s main points, which is that this policy wasn’t properly implemented and so hasn’t resulted in savings. There are a great many policies that come from a good place, and that are ideologically sound, that don’t pan out because it wasn’t properly trialled, there wasn’t proper investment, someone tried to do it on the cheap, or it was taken over by someone else’s ideology. In this case, I’d say there were a number of problems with the implementation phase, but a lot of it was caused by having politicians who were ideologically driven by wanting to reduce welfare payments having too much involvement in a process that should have been about improving efficiency.

    We’re left the political hot potato of whether or not we try to improve the existing system so that it works properly, or if we have to scrap it and start again. I’d favour the former, but think it will be easier to sell the latter, and it suits the Labour party to be against the whole thing, rather than admitting that it had some good ideas at the heart. The problem with starting again is that it’s time consuming and wasteful and treats the people who need help as political footballs.

    I hope politicians of all persuasions will think of the needs of claimants and work out how to make the existing system work properly, instead of putting all of their energies into using it as a stick with which to hit political rivals.

  • Neil Sandison 12th Feb '18 - 1:08pm

    The concepts behind all of these new /amended benefits were right but the projects were high jacked by George Osbourne and every positive aspect of the proposals was squeezed out ,cut after cut,after cut which is why Ian Duncan Smith who wanted to encourage social mobility and options into employment found he was being asked to defend the impossible and resigned .The forms to claim this support were not designed by a rational human being but a committee led by a camel .But i can show you plenty of simular examples going back over many different parliaments and governments where the questions are loaded to deliverer the outcomes the minister or secretary of state wanted at the time.

  • @ Fiona

    If the purpose of PIP was to remove people from receiving benefits then we should scrape it.

    We should also scrape Universal Credit. The idea that the government should impose on people payments every four weeks rather than the existing two was wrong. The idea that unemployed and ill people have to apply via their computer and can’t talk to someone locally about their benefit was wrong. Universal Credit means that the conditions for school meals have to be changed. The idea that one benefit should replace all other benefit was wrong. So we should scrape Universal Credit and apply the same removal rate to the exiting benefits as well as restore the amounts people can earn before they lose any benefit.

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