Credit: Paralmypicsports.wordpress.com Henshaw, has called for an over-haul of the current PIP system

The assessment taken by applicants for the disability benefit, Personal Independence Payment (PIP), makes claimants feel like ‘scum of the earth’ according to former Paralympic swimmer Charlotte Henshaw.

Nottinghamshire-based Henshaw, 32, went through the process in the winter of 2017 and said the ‘flawed’ system left her ‘completely demoralised’ despite being successful with her claim.

The three-time Paralympic medallist is a double-leg amputee after being born with bilateral tibial hypoplasia, which meant her lower legs were under-developed, and claims the process needs over-hauling to improve how claimants are made to feel when being assessed.

“When I went through my PIP process it was a really uncomfortable time – from the moment you get the

Credit: swimming.org Henshaw won bronze at Rio 2016 and has since retired to take up paracanoeing

letter you’re immediately put on edge because you feel you’re having to justify everything that you are, in a huge amount of cases, entitled to.

“You feel like the scum of the earth, that you’re being punished for being independent – it felt quite demeaning and more disabling, in fact.

“I thought ‘if I felt like that how do people feel who have recently acquired their disability and are just coming to terms with it?’.

“I think it could be really damaging to people who don’t have support around them or the right mindset to deal with it.”

PIP was introduced for those with long term difficulties living independently by David Cameron’s government in 2012, to replace Disability Living Allowance (DLA), but has been criticised for the way the application is carried out.

We’ve had to set up a mini food bank for people
JOSEPH THROSSEL, DISABILITY DIRECT NOTTINGHAM

The process consists of applicants filling in a form from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) about how they do day-to-day tasks such as getting clothed, bathing and cooking, before taking a face-to-face assessment at a health centre.

“From the moment I went to that I felt like I was being watched and it was all very strategic – maybe it isn’t but that’s how it makes people feel.

“It felt like they were trying to trip you up and catch you out for saying the wrong thing.”

It is at the assessment stage that critics have blasted the system for having ‘no humanity’  with claimants being ‘scrutinised from the moment they walk in the room’.

These sentiments expressed by Henshaw make her believe that genuinely disabled people are made to feel they’re being judged by assessors on whether or not they’re trying to dupe the system, rather than the extent of their disability.

“You get told it’s a health care professional who will be assessing you, but you’re not told their role and what experience they have with disability.

“I felt there was no real understand of disability or a condition that needs to be helped.

“There also needs to be transparency as you send your 30-odd page form but you never know what’s done with that information or who’s reading it – if there’s so much information there has to be people involved who understand what it’s like to live with a disability.”

PROCESS LEADS TO MENTAL ILLNESS AND NEED FOR FOOD BANKS

The national average for successful appeals at the tribunal stage stands at 71%, while local organisation Disability Direct Nottingham has an 89% success rate for appeals involving Nottingham-based cases leading to views that it’s a ‘complete waste of time and money’.

The charity supports those applying for PIP from the form-filling stage up to tribunals for unsuccessful applicants, which can be a wait that currently averages at around nine months due to the sheer volume of appeals.

Benefits Advisor, Joseph Throssel, has said that the ordeals faced has damaged the mental health of claimants and employees, and has led to them opening a food bank to support those waiting for tribunal.

“We’ve had to set up a mini food bank for people because if people don’t have money coming in they can’t afford to feed themselves and if they’re struggling with both PIP and Universal Credit or DSA at the same time they can find themselves with absolutely nothing.

“You see people at the start of the process really motivated but by the end of it they’re so downtrodden from having to survive by borrowing money from friends and family and pleading with landlords not to kick them out – it always has a negative affect.

“It has had an impact on my mental health – I’ve had to go from five days a week to four.”

‘I am not looking forward to this’ – Charlotte Throssel, CEO Disability Direct Nottingham sits with her unopened PIP form

Over two million people claim PIP, some with conditions had from birth that will never improve, but despite this the terms of the process mean all claimants must be reassessed every 5-10 years, up to the state pension age.

CEO of Disability Direct Nottingham, Charlotte Throssel, is physically impaired with what is believed to be phocomelia, which is a malformation of arms and legs and she has had since birth.

The 39-year old has recently received her PIP form in the post after previously being a claimant of DLA but

says she is dreading to open the envelope after the stories she has heard from clients while being at her job.

“I have had an indefinite DLA award since I was a child and I have now been invited to apply for PIP.

“I’ve got my form but I’m putting it off because I’m not looking forward to going through it or having to explain my physical limitations, go through the form and assessment and then be questioned about it by a complete stranger.

“My physical condition is quite hard to explain, it would be easier to take a photograph but they don’t accept photographs as evidence and I have no medical records since I was 16 but they’re asking for medical evidence in the last two years.

“My condition is never going to change, I’m not going to grow my limbs back but in ten years time I’m going to have to go through it again – what’s the point?

“It’s a complete waste of money, a complete waste of time. Just have a quick conversation (with an expert) – job done.

“I am not looking forward to this.”

A standard PIP form

The assessment itself is particularly daunting for Charlotte, who has heard from plenty of previously assessed claimants that seek help from Disability Direct Nottingham about its flaws.

It has been criticised for just being a ‘snapshot’ in time and is not a proper representation of how that person goes about their daily life.

She said: “It’s not a full view of their life – they’ve been watched from the minute they’ve walked in to the minute they’ve walked out but then they’ve gone home and felt suicidal or so physically unable to do something but that’s never seen, is it? That’s not viewed by the assessor.

“Who would want to go through explaining what you cannot do and why you cannot do it? I understand it needs to be done but it’s so undignifying and so impersonal.”

Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Amber Rudd, has recently bid to begin evaluating the way PIP checks are carried out, including a trial to video record assessments so they can be reviewed with a view to improving the process.

Mrs Rudd also introduced an imminent change at the start of the month (March 5) that sees claimants over the state pension age not required to be re-assessed for their benefit, unless their needs change.

These changes are meaningful in terms of issues beginning to be recognised and addressed, but are relatively miniscule in the bigger picture for Joseph who says more needs to be done.

Amber Rudd’s proposed changes:

  • PIP, Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), and Universal Credit combined into one integrated service from 2021
  • Raise Government’s target of one million disabled people in work by 2027
  • The 270,000 disabled pensioners no longer require repeated checks

He said: “She (Rudd) is still quite new in the job and she’s the first DWP minister in quite a few years that’s recognised there’s an issue with the benefit system.

“I would like to see that she’s finally readdressing the issues – some of her new changes are great but with others I have a lot of concerns.

“Combining assessments for PIP and ESA, as she’s proposed to do, means there’s a worry people will be without either benefit – more people could be suddenly completely without any money rather than just using half of it (if they fail the assessment).”