Wigan residents wrongly denied hundreds of thousands of pounds in benefits as Citizens' Advice speaks of toll system takes on claimants

Citizens' Advice Wigan Borough chief officer Lisa Kidston
Citizens' Advice Wigan Borough chief officer Lisa Kidston

Wiganers have wrongly been denied hundreds of thousands of pounds in benefits and residents have had to appeal “shocking” decisions, the borough’s Citizens’ Advice says.

The charity’s local chief officer Lisa Kidston slammed the way vulnerable people are being treated and called for major changes to the assessments determining if people are fit for work and what level of support they need.

Related: Wiganers could be on to a winner in benefits cases

Citizens’ Advice Wigan Borough says a staggering 86 per cent of the cases handled by its volunteer who deals with tribunals in 2018-19 were won by the claimant.

In a 12-month period the charity says Wigan residents have been awarded backdated payments of more than £205,000 which should never have been denied them in the first place.

Ms Kidston also spoke about some of the horrifying cases where people caring for loved ones with very serious disabilities went months without the proper financial support to which they were entitled.

The grim local picture emerges a day after research by the BBC Data Unit showed the success rate for claimants appealing benefits decisions­ at the Liverpool processing centre, which handles tribunals for the North West, was 66 per cent between April and December last year.

Ms Kidston said: “The number of requests for help with appeals and tribunals is going up and our volunteer does between three and five cases a week.

“She has had an 86 per cent success rate in 2018-19.

“We have had some shocking cases where people have been awarded zero points following the medical assessment but then at the tribunal they have been awarded 20, 25 or 30 points.

“In some of the cases we find it really difficult to understand how a negative decision had ever been made in the first place.

“We had one case where a lady had looked after her adult son, who had learning disabilities, from birth.

“She looked after all his daily needs. She encouraged him to wash and found clothes for him to dress himself, but he couldn’t do a great deal for himself.

“He was found not to be entitled to Personal Independence Payment (PIP), which meant she lost the carers’ element of Universal Credit, having a knock-on effect on her income.

“She was trying to use her basic amount of credit and a little bit of pension to support the pair of them, and she did that for a considerable number of months.

“The tribunal found immediately he should have had PIP and it was reinstated.”

Citizens’ Advice says a number of Wiganers have received backdated payments of £9,295 after being wrongly docked Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), while other residents have each been entitled to around £7,500 they should never have had stripped from them.

The shocking figure of £205,000 in backdated payments in 12 months does not include the ongoing higher payments they manage to secure at a successful tribunal.

Ms Kidston said she is in no doubt the system is in need of a comprehensive overhaul, particularly criticising the medical assessments for being unfair and riddled with inconsistencies.

She said: “I think it seriously needs looking at again. We are getting a large number of people at the moment saying their medical report bears no resemblance to what happened during the assessment.

“Sometimes claimants are wondering if the report actually relates to them.

“In one case I helped with they mentioned the claimant had normal muscle tone but they said they never removed their coat during the interview. How could they identify muscle tone through clothing and coats?

“There are discrepancies in reports. We’ve had ones starting off saying the claimant was unable to sit down but then says they sat normally three or four times.

“It seems often they use a template and then forget to change it to make it relate to the individual.

“It also seems to vary from assessor to assessor. One person was found capable of working under Employment and Support Allowance and forced to make a claim for Universal Credit but was then found not fit for work under that.

“The medical examiners are looking at exactly the same thing so how is someone told they can work only to be told by a different assessor three weeks later that they can’t?

“If so many people are being incorrectly assessed there’s something inherently wrong with the way the assessments are done.”

The higher level of success for Citizens’ Advice compared to the overall claimant victory rate for the North West suggests access to expert advice has a significant bearing on whether the government wins a tribunal or not.

However, Ms Kidston says the operation to ensure benefits claimants get the money they should faces a threat as some of its work is funded through the Access to Justice Foundation and that comes to an end in a couple of weeks.

Charities responding to the BBC data said restrictions to Legal Aid had a massive impact on claimants going through the tribunal process.

The private companies Capita and Maximus, which carry out initial assessments for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), responded to the national appeals figures by saying the majority of people were satisfied with the process and they were co-operating with charities and disability organisations to improve the services further.

The government said appeals represent only a small percentage of the total number of benefits claims it handles.