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Disability Living Allowance claims fiasco

30 August 2005

Amid confusion and complaints from staff about lack of training, the DWP have begun trials of their latest short Disability Living Allowance (DLA) claim pack, but it’s longer and much more complex than the standard pack! The new pack contains over 300 boxes about care and mobility needs compared to 157 in the standard pack and requires claimants to, for example, know their walking speed to the nearest 10 metres per minute.

Three years of pilots
The latest pilot, beginning now in Bootle and Manchester, follows on from pilots of short packs in Glasgow and Wembley which have run intermittently for the last three years. Back in October 2002 Maria Eagle, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, told MPs

'. . we are currently developing a new claiming process both for attendance allowance, which is being trialed, and for disability living allowance. In tests, we have managed to reduce the claim pack for attendance allowance from 44 to 16 pages. We are hoping to be able to replicate that for disability living allowance, although DLA is slightly more complex because of the mobility component.

According to information Benefits and Work obtained using the Freedom of information Act it had been intended that the new short DLA claim pack would be introduced in the summer of 2005. However, the DWP did not go ahead, claiming that the new pack had been put on hold “because we wish to further assess and analyse the operational and business impact of this form”. But in further revelations, following another Freedom of Information request from Benefits and Work the DWP stated that “The previous tests of the shortened DLA forms have been superseded by this version” (i.e. the pack about to be piloted) and that “There was no formal evaluation of the shortened form tested at Wembley”.

In other words, in spite of the minister repeatedly informing MPs that the DWP was working towards a shorter DLA claim pack, that project has now been abandoned in favour of a longer, more complex pack and no reason for the policy switch is being given.

Staff confusion
When Benefits and Work rang Bootle customer services to find out if participation in the new pilot would be voluntary, as it has been in previous pilots, we were told by staff there that they didn’t know and hadn’t received any training in relation to the new forms. Further inquiries elicited a promise from the Customer Services Manager to discover the answer and call us back – the phone still hasn’t rung.

Confusion about the pilot reaches right to the top of the DWP, however. On the 22nd of August Benefits and Work were told by the Policy and Liaison Procedures Group, following yet another Freedom of Information request, that the trials were due to begin at the end of September. In fact, they appear to have begun at the end of August.

Claiming by numbers
The new pack itself is a single document 43 pages long, compared to the current two part, 42 page pack. However, the new pack crams many more questions and tick boxes into its pages. The number of boxes relating to care and mobility needs which a claimant has to consider, including tick boxes, has risen from 158 in the current pack to a staggering 307 in the new pack.

Many more estimates of how often claimants need help and how long for are now required. For example, in relation washing and bathing the current pack has 9 boxes for claimants to put information in, including one set of frequency questions. The new pack has 28 boxes including 6 sets of frequency questions. In relation to getting dressed or undressed, the current pack has 9 boxes for claimants to put information in, the new pack has 25, including 5 sets of frequency questions.

The process is further complicated by most pages containing three columns of boxes with no headings to explain what information is required in each. Instead claimants have to refer back to the toilet needs page to find the only example of how to complete the boxes. Claimants without toilet needs are likely to be left in a state of utter bewilderment.

In addition, claimants now have to give much more detailed and complex information. For example, the two pages devoted to walking in the current claim pack have been expanded to five. Claimants are now expected to state whether their walking speed is:

Approximately 51 metres or more a minute
approximately 40-50 metres a minute
under 40 metres a minute,
Other

(No clue is given as to what the 'Other' might be). Claimants also need to explain whether they walk with, amongst other things, a ‘slight limp’, a ‘heavy limp’, a ‘shuffle’ or a ‘stagger’.

The new claim pack also contains a great many more questions about aids and adaptations than the current pack, with tick boxes for the use of items from monkey poles to shoe horns.

On the other hand, the free text box for the claimant to “Describe in your own words the problems you have and the help you need” which appears on most pages in the current claim pack has been almost entirely removed from the pilot pack. On the majority of pages the only free text box is for claimants to write about their use of aids and equipment. The DLA claim process has, it seems, been reduced to claiming by numbers – a particularly problematic issue for people with variable conditions such as ME.

Computerised assessment
No clue is being given as to why the DWP appear to have abandoned the idea of a shorter claim pack in favour of a much more complex one. However, there is a strong possibility that the design of the form is intended to fit in with the new Customer Management System now in operation and the DLA Award Management System currently being developed.

The Customer Management System, currently being rolled out across the country, involves claimants being prevented from filling in paper claim packs for benefits such as incapacity benefit. Instead they are forced to make their claim by phone, with call centre staff asking questions from a script and typing the information straight to computer disc. The system is designed to save the DWP money and has so far resulted in a doubling in the number of crisis loan applications in the areas where it is in use, because claimants are unable to get through on the phone to make a claim for benefits.

The new DLA claim pack, with its multitude of tick boxes and ‘How many times’ and ‘How long for’ questions and fewer free text boxes, lends itself to call centre type scripts very well. The layout of the new form also seems designed to make it easier to turn the pack into an online claim form which claimants complete themselves digitally, saving the DWP even more money.

In addition, as reported previously by Benefits and Work, the DWP has begun developing a computer led Awards Management system which may lead to DLA decisions largely being made by computer software, as is now the case with incapacity for work decisions. Computers work very effectively with yes or no answers and with numbers, such as how many times and how many minutes, but are very unhappy with free text boxes in which claimants can write subjectively about how much pain they are in and give examples of the problems they have with activities such as washing and dressing. By forcing claimants to reduce their difficulties to a series of numbers the DWP may very well be preparing the ground for computerised DLA decision making.

Finally, the concentration on aids and adaptations in the pilot pack fits in very well with the biopsychosocial model of disability assessment which Medical Services have now officially adopted as their model of choice. In this model the extent to which the claimant is “genuinely living as a disabled person” is assessed to a large degree by what aids and adaptations they have and the extent to which they make use of them.

Cost cutting success
Benefits and Work, as regular visitors will know, has long been a lone voice protesting against the introduction of short DLA claim packs, because they prevent claimants giving the detailed information which is required to prove entitlement to DLA. We were, however, convinced that their introduction was inevitable given the potential savings for the DWP. It seems we were wrong, however, and that the DWP have found a way of not only saving money but also making the application process even more off-puttingly complex and alienating for potential claimants.

(Further information about the use of the biopsychosocial model to remove entitlement to DLA will be available on the Benefits and Work site from 07.09.05, including details of how to obtain a range of Atos Origin biopsychosocial training materials using the Freedom of Information Act and a copy of an article on the biopsychosocial model from a recent decision makers' newsletter. You can make sure you're informed of new additions to the site by signing up for our free monthly update).