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Reforming Benefits Decision-Making: creating a fair and accessible system that works well for everyone

12 July 2021

A new report, Reforming Benefits Decision-Making, has been published by a joint Administrative Justice Council (AJC) and JUSTICE Working Party.

The report considers initial DWP decision-making, through to appeals, to ensure that the system works well for everyone, regardless of their health, their disabilities or their digital capability.

The AJC and JUSTICE say that:

“Our vision is of a system that prioritises dignity and respect and that places the user at its heart: a procedurally fair, efficient, accessible and robust system that works well for everyone, regardless of their digital capability, their health, their disabilities or their vulnerabilities, and which provides claimants with the support they require.”

The report makes 44 recommendations aimed at improving the administrative and procedural aspects of the benefits system.

Key recommendations include changes to improve the quality of the health and disability assessment process including:

  • opt-in audio recording of assessments;
  • greater clarity over who will obtain medical evidence;
  • claimants being assessed by assessors with specialist knowledge of their condition;
  • a copy of the assessment report should automatically be provided to the claimant along with the decision; and
  • an end to the outsourcing of assessments to private companies.

Other Key recommendations include:

  • Improved and increased training as well as clear policy and guidance for decision makers, to ensure that they understand their obligations and the administrative processes. This includes training on the duty to make reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act 2010, and on how and when additional evidence should be obtained;
  • To help ensure that claimant commitments are properly tailored to individual claimants, reasonable adjustments are made where required and easements are applied where appropriate together with specific information on reasonable adjustments that may be available at each stage of the process should be provided to claimants;
  • an independent evaluation of performance measures and the introduction of an independent reviewer or regulator, as well as the publication of information on use of automation. Improved data collection and evaluation is also required, including on claimants’ protected characteristics, and on the reasons for successful tribunal appeals;
  • Better data collection and evaluation, including on protected characteristics of claimants, the setting of claimant commitments, the use of easements and sanctions;
  • Clear structures and rules to prevent the inconsistent and unfair application of discretion, including a statutory list of ‘good reasons’ for failure to comply with the claimant commitment;
  • Greater transparency on the use of automation and how it feeds into decisions and the technological constraints of computers systems;
  • The establishment of clear, public performance standards and an independent reviewer or regulator for welfare benefits;.
  • The removal of the mandatory reconsideration stage so that claimants are able to appeal directly to the Social Security Tribunal, but with an automatic internal review required by the DWP once an appeal has been lodged;
  • Streamlining the appeals process to reduce the need for appellants to repeatedly provide the same information and greater use of tribunal caseworkers to reduce adjournments
  •  Given the varying suitability of different hearing types for appellants, depending on their individual needs, both medical and in terms of access to space and technology, we believe that appellants should be given a choice about the type of hearing they have;
  • The adoption of a ‘no wrong door’ approach to applying for Universal Credit and managing a claim, including meaningful alternative channels of engagement;
  • An advice portal which provides information on organisations providing welfare benefits advice and which should be clearly signposted to on all webpages providing information on benefits, all paper-based forms, decision letters and mandatory reconsideration notices.

Chair of the working party, Lord Low of Dalston CBE said:

“These changes would build a system that prioritises dignity and respect and that places the user at its heart: a procedurally fair, efficient, accessible and robust system that works well for everyone and provides claimants with the support they require.”

Ken Butler DR UK’s Welfare Rights and Policy Adviser said:

 “This is an excellent report and a much needed and welcome one.

It recognises that the DWP’s decision-making process needs to be radically transformed, highlighting the need for reasonable adjustments and easements for Disabled people.

In addition, it makes many informed recommendations that would ensure that Disabled people could obtain their correct benefit entitlements first time.

The DWP should accept its conclusions and take action to implement its recommendations as speedily as possible.”

Reforming Benefits Decision-Making is available from justice.org.uk.

A YouTube video of the report’s launch is available.

(Speakers include Lord Low of Dalston CBE, Jodie Blackstock, JUSTICE's Legal Director, Debbie Abrahams MP, Disability Rights advocate Jonathan Rackham, and Theresa McWilliam, South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust Welfare Rights Team).

See also our related news story Northern Ireland Ombudsman finds ‘systemic maladministration’ in further evidence use when assessing PIP.