Universal Credit decision letters keeping claimants in the dark

Following a FOI request, we can reveal that disabled clients are systematically being given inadequate information as to how decisions of Work Capability Assessments are reached

Andy McCarthy, 17 June 2019

 

Work Capability Assessments (WCAs) can be extremely stressful for clients. Those who have been through the process more than once will be well aware of the anxiety of the process. Universal Credit has replaced Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) for many claimants, but the Work Capability Assessment remains despite sustained criticism since its inception.

Under ESA, clients are given a detailed decision letter following a WCA, including which points have been awarded and how the decision maker reached their decision. Although the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) often get these decisions wrong, at least we have a starting point to challenge these decisions. However, a recent FOI request has revealed that under Universal Credit the decision letters are by design far less detailed.

The ESA letter sets out which points the decision maker has considered, including what the health care professional noted during the assessment. These are by no means perfect, and are mostly compiled from a software called “LiMA”, where statements from a drop-down list are picked. However, under Universal Credit the level of detail is worryingly sparse.

If a client fails the WCA, the only reference to how the decision was made is from a tick list of what activities have been considered:

Successful WCA letters are even more opaque. Under ESA points awarded and an explanation are again detailed. Under UC, no award breakdown is present, nor is any personalised information used whatsoever other than the claimant’s name and address (and even then the DWP seem to forget to fill this in). This is particularly worrying for clients who have been placed in the work-related activity group, and try and challenge the decision further with no information relating to their placement in the group.

The letters does give clients an option to ask for an explanation of their decision within one month of receiving it, but clients are also expected to ask for a mandatory reconsideration within this same time-frame. The stress associated with Mandatory Reconsideration has been well documented and expecting claimants to wait even longer for a reconsideration of their fitness to work is unacceptable.

The Work and Pensions select committee has highlighted the claimant experience of mandatory reconsideration’s as merely a “rubber stamp” of the original decision without seriously addressing points of disagreement raised. But when clients are given no indication of how the decision was reached and which aspects to challenge, they have even less of a chance to address the relevant points which the decision maker may have overlooked.

Getting this information is invaluable for claimants, and our casework has highlighted that this information is not readily available. Requests for an explanation outside of the one month window has been next to impossible. One of our clients was placed in the work-related activity group, and her work coach was simply unable to provide this information outside of the one month window:

“We do not hold information on the descriptors you scored during your WCA. This would be held by Medical Services (Maximus).”

This information gap is extremely worrying, as the intended purpose of the work-related activity group is to ease the claimant into working by building their skills without harming their health. If neither claimants nor their work coaches are unable to have access to the information regarding what difficulties the claimant has, how can reasonable adjustments be made?

Sir Stephen Sedley, former Lord Justice of Appeal has highlighted in CPAG’s publication Computer says ‘no!’ that “it is a fundamental principle in a democracy that governmental bodies must have reasons for their decisions”. We are seeing that under Universal Credit, the information clients are given has intentionally been reduced compared to under ESA: The exact same assessment, with the exact same process, but without a competent explanation as to how that decision was reached. Disabled people are already subjugated to a gruelling assessment process, but now are not even considered worthy of an explanation. They deserve better.

 

Notes

Universal Credit FOI: https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/universal_credit_work_capability_2

Employment and Support Allowance FOI: https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/work_capability_assessment_templ#incoming-1356387