When the National Association of Welfare Rights Advisors (NAWRA) put out a call to its members for evidence about 'mandatory reconsiderations' - a new step introduced to the benefits appeals system in 2013 - it had one of the biggest responses it's ever had.
Mandatory reconsiderations are intended to reduce the need for appeals being heard at a tribunal. If a claimant has their application for a benefit refused they must then ask to have the decision reconsidered by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) before they are able to move on to a full appeal. Around half of the reconsiderations received, relate to Employment Support Allowance (ESA) claims. As with so may of the government's welfare reforms, this new step in the process has been characterised by long delays and confusion.
In February, the Social Security Advisory Committee (SSAC) opened a consultation on decision-making in the DWP. The evidence submitted to them by NAWRA is damning. Members reported that confusion was prevalent in the new process and often led to "insurmountable challenges" and "additional barriers for vulnerable claimants".
One of the biggest concerns raised by NAWRA members was the use of verbal explanations by DWP staff. Most respondents reported that these were used to deter claimants from proceeding with an appeal.
"The DWP telephoning the claimant could be so useful but it tends to be just a phone conversation to shut the door on the process," said one.
"Many claimants are told during the verbal explanation that they have 'no chance' of winning an appeal so should not proceed to that stage. They then tend to drop their challenge," another member reported.
The organisation says this has led to an "abhorrent level of unfairness" and is deterring vulnerable people from accessing justice. Many of the people NAWRA members work with often have poor telephone communication skills because of language barriers, cognitive or behavioural problems, or mental health issues.
It's a concern shared by Nick Dilworth, who has been a welfare advisor for 20 years. He also blogs about welfare reforms and analyses government statistics on the popular online forum illegal.org.uk.
"I see many cases where there has been no written letter but instead a telephone call to the claimant which has made it sound as if they may as well give up," he says.
Dilworth believes mandatory reconsiderations are overly bureaucratic and are often used as a delaying tactic. "Since it was introduced, ESA appeals have massively dropped off in our advice clinic. There were only 3 cases listed at the centre yesterday, there used to be around 14 each day."
Indeed, the drop in tribunal hearings has been dramatic. According to NAWRA's report, appeal receipts plunged 78% between October 2012 and October 2014. The DWP argue this is because they are now making better decisions but this is very hard to know for sure because the information it releases on mandatory reconsiderations is limited to say the least. At the end of 2014, following pressure from the Work and Pensions Select Committee, an ad-hoc release of statistics was published. But it failed to include arguably the most important data, on the outcome of reconsiderations. Without this, it's almost impossible to know for sure the real impact the new system is having.
The evidence by NAWRA members highlights how vulnerable claimants are often the worst affected by the process, with some reporting that clients are missing out on the right to appeal.
There were also issues reported about barriers to supplying the evidence required for the reconsideration to have a chance of success.
"With failed Work Capability Assessments (WCAs), you are supposed to submit supporting evidence, but you generally don't get to see the full ESA85 [medical report] in time, so cannot submit any meaningful evidence that can directly challenge the assessor's opinion," one member said. Respondents also highlighted the cost of obtaining medical evidence as an issue, with many GPs charging up to £125 per letter.
Crucially, respondents raised widespread concerns that mandatory reconsiderations add "confusion, obstruction and complexity to the appeals processes" with" little or no added value compared with the older automatic revision process". The final line of the NAWRA's summary to the SSAC consultation is perhaps the most damning of all:
"The appeals system has effectively been decimated with the introduction of mandatory reconsiderations. Due to the obstructive nature of MRs in practice this is arguably the single most significant blow to the administrative justice system of recent times."
As with so much of the DWP's behaviour over the last few years, the message it puts out is often incredibly different to the experiences of those working on the front line of the benefits system.