The Independent View: ‘Benefits on Trial’: DWP Injustice Exposed

‘Benefits on Trial’ is based on my work in Cornwall since 2012 as a volunteer advocate with adults who have a learning disability. In recent years, that work has increasingly concerned benefits cases: helping people with their PIP and ESA applications; accompanying them to assessments; requesting reconsideration of decisions; and taking cases to the tribunal stage. That experience – particularly of tribunals – triggered the writing of ‘Benefits on Trial’.

The book describes how six people – for all of whom names have been changed to protect their identities – have to battle with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) whose system, with built-in hurdles, is loaded against them. Two of them – Danny who has ABI and Thomas who has Down’s syndrome – figured prominently in my previous book, ‘Austerity’s Victims’. The others are Ben, Jon, Tony and Denise: Ben has fibromyalgia and ME as well as being on the autism spectrum; Jon has Global Developmental Delay; and Tony and Denise both have an unspecified learning disability.

‘Benefits on Trial’ builds up a detailed picture of each of the six people, their current lives and events in their past which have helped to shape them. The experience of Denise described below – her early years and her application for benefits – serves as an example of the inhumane treatment suffered by all six at the hands of the DWP.

When she was eight, she had the first of what turned out to be many epileptic seizures. Because of the way in which they have affected her memory, she cannot remember either much of the detail of her life after the seizures started or what her life was like previously. A member of staff at her day centre, however, who went to the same secondary school recalls both appalling bullying there and later when she was nearly twenty a sexual assault that was taken to court.

Not the start in life that most of us enjoyed and one that cries out for compassion. Instead, from the state, the reverse was inflicted upon her. She, like all the others in this book turned down for PIP, was left with an income which no-one should be asked to survive on. Her £107.50 in 2018 was only 26.86% of the UK median per week, 28.27% of the equivalent median for the South West and 39.99% of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s UK Minimum Income Standard.

‘Benefits on Trial’ describes her prolonged fight to transfer to PIP. A key part of this was countering the distortions of the DWP. For example, her assessment and subsequent references to it misrepresented her learning disability. Even though evidence was given in the medical records we had submitted, there were three references in the pack of appeal documents which cast doubt on her disability. One of these references – ‘You do not have a diagnosed sensory or cognitive impairment’ – illustrates how distorted the DWP representation of her condition was.

At her appeal which was heard in June 2020, the outcome was successful for Denise. Having been given no points in both areas in the original decision and at the Mandatory Reconsideration stage, the tribunal panel gave her 11 points for Daily Living and 10 for Mobility, resulting in a standard award in both areas. Such success at the tribunal stage is typical of the cases described in ‘Benefits on Trial’.

The fact remains, however, that the tribunal decision for Denise came three and a half years after she had first been turned down for PIP. Over those forty-two months, she had been confronted by all the hurdles created by the DWP and had fallen initially at several of them – only to pick herself up again and again. For this long drawn-out period during which she endured acute stress that triggered panic attacks, she had been left, with no follow-up enquiries from the DWP, in a state of relative poverty. A successful tribunal decision is small compensation for what she had been put through.

The DWP stands exposed by the evidence of my book. The current benefits system, with the sort of distortions that denied any ‘diagnosed sensory or cognitive impairment’ in Denise, does not need minor tinkering; it instead needs to be replaced by one that takes fair assessment as its guiding principle. If that happened, someone like Denise would not have to wait forty-two months, deep in poverty, to overturn a DWP decision to deny her PIP.


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This entry was posted in The Independent View.


  • That’s truly awful and heartbreaking. Who performed Denise’s original assessment? Was it a medical professional working directly for the DWP, or was it outsourced and performed by someone unqualified, or perhaps somehow incentivised to reject as many claims as possible?

  • Yet more evidence that a system originally designed to help those most in need is totally broken.

    Having gone through the process of claiming ESA and Carers Allowance I can testify that the treatment I received was appalling. Already suffering with a severe mental health condition the actions of the state in the form of the DWP made things worse.

    As Liberals we need to reclaim the mantle as the champions of reform and campaign for a benefits system that puts people first!

  • As a former chair of a Foodbank with some experience in these matters, I can confirm Neil Carpenter is correct when he says,

    “The DWP stands exposed by the evidence of my book. The current benefits system, with the sort of distortions that denied any ‘diagnosed sensory or cognitive impairment’ in Denise, does not need minor tinkering; it instead needs to be replaced by one that takes fair assessment as its guiding principle”.

    I hope his book is read carefully by Lib Dem spokespersons with current responsibility for benefits and welfare. PIP (and many other welfare changes) was, of course, introduced in April, 2013.

  • Mary Fulton 11th Apr '24 - 9:28pm

    Reading an article like this makes me angry – the numbers claiming disability benefits are soaring yet those who clearly have a rock solid case to receive them appear to be the ones having to struggle to prove their need is genuine. My partner is in education and tells me that increasing numbers of parents are trying to get doctors to give their children an ADHD diagnosis as a way of claiming carer allowances – and some of these parents put extreme pressure on teachers when they do not see any evidence to support such diagnoses. We need to have a benefits system that can distinguish between those whose claims are genuine and those who are merely playing the system, and then ensure that the benefits provided for the former are at an appropriate level.

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