In response to a legal challenge by Public Law Project’s client, a disabled woman called ‘K’*, the Department of Work and Pensions has agreed to change its practice of pressuring disabled benefits claimants into accepting less than they are legally entitled to.

K has spent more than a year trying to persuade the DWP to change their unlawful practice. Initially, the DWP flatly refused to do so, but the day before her claim for judicial review was to be heard in the High Court (13 July), the department agreed to amend its policies and guidance and settle the claim.

You can read details of changes that the DWP has agreed to make in the Consent Order.

Evidence gathered over many months showed that:

  • Disabled benefits claimants who had appealed a DWP decision on their benefits were being called by the DWP and encouraged to accept ‘offers’ that were lower than their statutory entitlement.
  • DWP callers repeatedly telephoned claimants directly even when claimants had made clear that they had representatives who should have been contacted first.
  • The people who were called were not told about their appeal rights. 

As a result of our client’s challenge, the DWP has agreed to re-write their policies and guidance and will retrain DWP officials.

Our client

  • PLP’s client K is disabled. Like many disabled people she faces higher costs of living and is unable to work because of her disability.
  • K made a claim for Personal Independence Payment (PIP – which took over from Disability Living Allowance) and was initially refused in 2017. She applied again in 2019 and was only awarded a small amount.
  • After an unsuccessful internal review, K began a tribunal appeal as she was told by her GP and support workers that she was entitled to the highest levels of PIP benefit.
  • After her appeal process had started, the DWP telephoned without warning from a ‘withheld’ number and pressurised her into accepting a bit more than they had offered before, but not the full entitlement.
  • The DWP told her that she had an hour to consider the ‘offer’ and said “tribunals are not very nice to go to” which dissuaded her from going through with the appeal.
  • The DWP did not call K’s mother who helps her with all her financial affairs.
  • K did not think she could appeal the new ‘offer’ and the DWP did not tell her about her rights. K ended up feeling suicidal and struggled to cope.
  • When K realised that the DWP had been doing this to other disabled benefits claimants too, she resolved to take action and instructed PLP to help her challenge this practice.

The claim

K’s claim focused on the unfair, unlawful and discriminatory nature of the practice. In particular, the confusing guidance documents and the lack of clarity about the importance of contacting formal representatives to discuss awards. Evidence gathered on K’s behalf from a range of individuals and NGOs shows that: claimants felt pressure to accept the ‘offer’; were regularly not told about their appeal rights; and were not given an opportunity to discuss any offer with representatives.

K said: “The caller from the DWP told me I had one hour to think about it and said that if I accepted the offer then the tribunal appeal would be cancelled, but if I didn’t accept the offer then I could lose the whole award at the tribunal. I was imagining me in a big court room trying to argue my case on my own and with my whole PIP award at risk.

“They called me back before I could speak to my mum, so I just accepted the offer as I didn’t know what else to do. I felt I had been pressured into making the wrong decision and I didn’t know how to put it right.

“The practice of phoning people in this way just isn’t right. It’s not just about the cold calling, it’s the whole way they treat you on the call. I felt extremely pressured to make a quick decision. I wasn’t given the time I needed to speak to my mum or seek any advice, they didn’t give me the information that I needed to work out if it was what I was entitled to, and they didn’t tell me I could accept the offer and still appeal the decision if I wanted.

“It feels as though the DWP has been picking on extremely vulnerable people and using the fear of going to a tribunal or losing an award to pressure people into accepting less than they should be getting.”

Sara Lomri, K’s solicitor at PLP, said: “The welfare benefits system is one of the ways the state protects and promotes our well-being. People who meet the criteria for benefits are entitled to welfare benefits by law.

“Unfortunately, a practice has developed over the last few years at the DWP whereby benefits decision makers have been putting pressure on eligible disabled benefits claimants to accept less than their statutory entitlement. Most people would be outraged if they knew that a friend or vulnerable relative was treated this way.

“It has not been easy for our client to bring this claim. This challenge has demanded a huge amount of personal resilience and determination. Our client does not stand to gain any sort of pay-out here, she is doing this simply to make sure that nobody else has to go through what she did.

“Judicial review is always a last resort, and this case shows why there must be an accessible legal route for people to hold public authorities to account. The law is there for us all to follow, and when the state makes a mistake, acts unlawfully, and will not change itself, there must be a way to correct it.”

The case is supported by Zacchaeus 2000 Trust , whose CEO Anela Anewar said: “Z2K has been extremely concerned about DWP’s practice when contacting disabled people who have appealed a negative benefits decision to offer a revised award. Based on our clients’ experiences, we know these approaches are not always in accordance with DWP’s own guidance and can result in disabled people accepting a lower rate of benefit than they are entitled to.

“It is incredibly concerning that disabled people are all too often unaware of their right to challenge this new offer. This also further emphasises the need for DWP to get benefit assessment decisions right first time. We are delighted with this outcome which is as a result of the appellant’s bravery and the Public Law Projects brilliant work in bringing this legal challenge.”

Lisa Winterstieger, CEO of Law for Life said: “For more than two and a half years we have been gathering evidence of this practice and the impact it had on sometimes very vulnerable claimants, and we could not be more pleased to see it end. We continue to raise questions about the many ways in which the DWP do not make the payments that claimants are entitled to by law, and to support people with no or limited access to an adviser to challenge unfair decisions with our self-help tools and guides.”