Friday, 19 February 2016


Edward Bright in hospital with meningitis
One of the more distressing stories in the news today is the one about a 16 year old boy called Edward Bright. Edward lost all his limbs at the age of eight when he contracted meningitis but was still told that he had to attend an interview with an assessor for the new Personal Independence Payment (PIP) and threatened to withdraw his payment if he didn't attend.

I don't know all the details about this case but I would like to tell you a story that might be relevant to this incident.

When I worked at Woolwich Jobcentre some years ago, I had a number of roles, one of which was as a Specialist Incapacity Benefits Personal Adviser. This rather long winded title meant that it was my job to carry out interviews with people who were claiming long term sickness benefits and see if they could be made work ready with the appropriate support and training.

There was nothing wrong with this strategy at all. Many of the people I interviewed were keen to take advantage of the opportunities on offer and there was no pressure on any of those who didn't feel they would be able to work.

The way the system worked was this - A team of people working in a central office would examine the personal details of long term sick claimants and see if they were eligible for assistance. If so, they would be offered an interview with an adviser at their local jobcentre. Attending this interview was compulsory but there was no requirement on the claimant to accept any offer of work or training.

Some claimants would not be included in the scheme if their circumstances met certain criteria. Those who were terminally ill or living with conditions or illnesses that would make it unlikely they would ever be able to work were excluded from the scheme, although they could still apply to join if they wanted to.

As one of the Jobcentre advisers, I would get an interview list and I would go through the details of the people on it so I could get some idea in advance of what I might be able to offer them when they came for their interview.

So far, so good; now the problem. Sometimes a name would slip through the selection process and they would be instructed to attend an interview even though it was obvious that they should be on the excluded group. Simple enough to fix as all I needed to do was phone them up, apologise for the mistake and tell them that they didn't need to come in.

Unfortunately, the Jobcentre had targets and one of those targets was around cancelled appointments. If I cancelled the appointment for someone who should never have been told to come in, it would affect our stats; we might miss our target. So I was instructed by my management not to cancel these inappropriate appointments and let the claimant think they had to come in anyway.

This didn't happen very often, the people doing the initial selection were all pretty good at their job but human error is bound to creep in on occasion. This shouldn't have mattered as any mistake could be corrected by the Jobcentre adviser when they received their interview list but we were instructed not to do this. Nothing was more important that meeting our targets and if that meant that desperately sick or dying sickness benefit claimants were subjected to this extra stress, it was a price worth paying.

I know for a fact that I was not the only adviser to receive this instruction and ours was not the only office to carry out this practice as we would often discuss it at team meetings.

I don't know if a similar selection process is carried out when Disability Living Allowance claimants are transferred to PIP. The rather brief account of events on the BBC News website doesn't give a lot of detail other than to say that the DSS have said that Edward does not have to attend an interview after all. They also claim that they tried to contact the Brights several times by phone. 

If anyone reading this is involved in the PIP assessment process and can shed some light on the matter, any information would be welcome. In confidence of course.

p.s. whenever I had one of these cases, I would contact the claimant anyway, tell them they didn't need to come in and mark the interview as completed on the computer system. I'm not sure everyone else did this although they probably did. The PIP assessments are all done by a private company so who knows what they do?

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