The government has allocated £22 million towards recruiting presenting officers at benefit claims tribunals over the next two years. The detail was buried in the Budget announced on 16th March. They claim this is to support the department in personal independent payments and employment and support allowance tribunals. The money will pay for 180 new presenting officers.
Personal independence payments (PIPs) are gradually replacing disability living allowance (DLA), which is supposed to help with the extra costs that come with living with a disability. In January next year, the formula used to calculate PIP’s daily living component will change. 290,000 disabled people will lose the payment completely and 80,000 will have their benefit cut. The government clearly expects to be fighting more claims over reduced disability benefits in the coming years.
A DWP spokesperson said: “Presenting Officers assist tribunals by giving both the legal case for the appeal, the Department’s case for upholding the original decision but also by drawing attention to any new and relevant evidence. By increasing the number of Presenting Officers, we will help ensure the right decision is achieved at each appeal.”
But there’s a problem
In its consultation paper; Proposals for the Reform of Legal Aid, the Ministry of Justice proposes to save £22 million by removing welfare benefits matters from the scope of legal aid funding. This is part of a plan to cut a quarter of the legal aid budget, with social welfare law the main target. Social security is the largest subject area being removed from the scope of legal aid after families. From 1st April 2013 legal aid was no longer available for advice on how to challenge benefits decisions.
People with mental health diagnoses often find it hard to fill out ESA/ PIP forms let alone represent themselves at tribunals. Especially those with more severe conditions such as schizophrenia. It doesn’t take much to figure that people in these situations are going to find it harder to get the representation they need.
On top of this there is evidence that the tests themselves are leading to greater stress, either exacerbating preexisting conditions or negatively impacting on the mental health of people with other disabilities. A study published by the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health in November 2015, showed a correlation between worsening mental health and assessments under the WCA, published last week, that linked the WCA tests with a possible additional 590 suicides, increased mental health problems and hundreds of thousands of antidepressant prescriptions. Volunteers such as ours could help lessen that distress.
Here’s what we’re doing about it
We have asked Welfare trainer Tom Messere, author of the Big Book of Benefits, if he would train 20 volunteers in the basics that they will support people up to these tribunals to give them a bit more of a fighting chance. And whilst we have Tom at our disposal we are also we will be training the volunteers to help fill out the often complex and confusing forms, so that less have to go to tribunal in the first place. The training will be on ESA and PIP, form filling, getting any available medical and informal evidence correctly pitched (what the person needs to ask for), possible calls, key pointers for accompanying, and up to tribunals.
You can join us
We are hoping you can donate to help pay for the training, the venue, transport and accommodation for Tom, and as we are recruiting volunteers, many on low incomes themselves, and as we will need to have representatives in as many places as we can (sorry, we wish we could provide for everywhere) then we are trying to raise as much help for their travel as well.
As such we are looking to raise £2250.