Survey reveals evidence of ‘systemic dishonesty’ in Universal Credit benefits means testing by Emma Harwood

“Draconian” reforms to the welfare system introduced by the Conservative government are failing those who need it and driving some to the brink of suicide, a survey by a local benefits advice agency has revealed.

The survey – carried out on behalf of Hastings Advice and Representation Centre (HARC) by an independent consultancy – revealed ‘systemic dishonesty’ in health assessments carried out by the Department for Work and Pensions to determine eligibility for benefits.

Assessors working for the DWP were shown to have lied and purposely downplayed or omitted the health problems claimants described when making their final reports, often ignoring doctors’ and claimants’ evidence of ill health.

The survey also reveals that routinely, where this had been the case, claimants had challenged their decisions and subsequently won their appeals.

However, the appeals process – which typically takes up to a year – has meant that people who have received inaccurate assessments of their eligibility to work have been forced to live on drastically reduced incomes while their appeals progressed. One such claimant, whose inaccurate health report showed his assessor had lied nine times, won his appeal because he had taped his assessment interview.

More disturbingly, seven of the 100 people interviewed told the survey that without support from HARC they would have committed suicide, and a further nine said they believed they would have had a breakdown or ended up in hospital.

The survey was conducted by independent East Sussex consultant, Julie Eason, who interviewed HARC clients from across the county.

“I initially thought there were just one or two rogue advisers, but once we started asking clients about the assessments it became clear to me that there was systemic dishonesty in the assessment process”, she said.

“People who had been dropped outside the centres because of mobility issues were described in reports as having walked in from elsewhere.

“GP and clinical evidence was typically not making it into  reports and what clients told the assessors was often twisted and inaccurately described in order to show they had made miraculous recoveries.

“Clients typically had a number of serious and complex health issues which were trivialised and understated, and the evidence they provided was inaccurately reported.”

Hastings Advice and Representation Centre is now advising anyone who needs to undertake a health assessment to insist that the session is taped, so they can prove the inaccuracies should they need to appeal.

The Health and Welfare Reform Act came into effect in March 2016 and included the introduction of Universal Credit (UC), a new single system of means-tested support for people of working age who are either in or out of work. As it has been rolled out to gradually replace Employment and Support Allowance it has come under criticism for pushing the poorest and most vulnerable deeper into poverty.

Jackie Everard, Chief Executive Officer of HARC, which provides free confidential advice, support and representation to over 10,000 people, said: “We are not an emergency service, yet on best estimates, we believe we saved at least nine times as many lives as the local RNLI last year. Our welfare system is supposed to be a safety net for people in desperate times, yet instead it is pushing people to
the brink.

“This is not right and we call on all politicians locally to stand up for the people they represent and to take action on behalf of their poorest residents.

“We ask them to advocate for an end to these draconian welfare reforms and to challenge the DWP who have created what is clearly a failing system of health assessments.”

The survey also showed that 51 percent of people receiving benefits under the new Universal Credit system are unable to make their money last the month. 21 percent of people have been unable to turn on their gas and electricity due to financial hardship. 50 percent of  parents surveyed described sending their children to school in shoes that were too small or had holes in, while 44 percent of parents said they were unable to afford basic Christmas or birthday presents for their children.

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