Assessing the assessors

I’ve written here in my last two posts about the unfairness and iniquities of the assessment system for most disability benefits (new readers start here: I lost my eligibility for Personal Independence Payment in March. I appealed and lost, appealed to a tribunal and won before the tribunal hearing ever took place).

What those two posts were about was how the system is purely interested in cost-cutting and how arguing with it is difficult, stressful and time-consuming. But I’ve been asked since then to write about the apparently arbitrary nature of the assessment system itself. Briefly, anyone claiming any type of disability benefit usually has to have a face-to-face assessment with someone employed by the Department For Work and Pensions, to establish if they still qualify.

That’s what happened with me; someone came to my house at 9.30 one morning (a planned appointment), bluntly asked me a series of questions about how much I was physically capable of doing, then left. The next thing I knew, my benefits had been removed before a letter arrived in the post telling me that would happen.

But at least I had my assessment at home; I have known of people being made to travel from Tamworth into central Birmingham for appointments (a journey which is stressful for the able-bodied and near-impossible for the wheelchair-bound) while one friend of mine was made to travel from Coventry to Stoke-on-Trent.

And not only do the venues for assessments vary, but the quality and style of assessors seems to vary wildly. Mine was brusque in the extreme; I have heard of others who seemed to be far more understanding about the situation of the people they were assessing and far more willing to make allowances for those situations.

More worryingly, given my condition, some seem to know next-to-nothing about the mental aspects of disability, particularly stroke - what I call my ‘invisible disabilities’. These include inability to cope with stress, extreme fatigue, memory loss, cognitive issues, panic attacks. To put it bluntly, carrying out a police-style interrogation is going to stress me into incoherence; that doesn’t seem to be the correct way to get to the truth about my situation.

Anecdotal evidence among those who are active in and knowledgeable about the disability world also suggests that because DWP are short of assessors, they will take on pretty much anyone. I have heard of medical students, half-trained paramedics and others who wouldn’t seem suitable being taken on.

And this variability in quality of assessors could imply that getting to the truth about people’s conditions was rather less important that it should be. Indeed, I have been told that some are given quotas for numbers of people who they have to fail, whatever the circumstances.

But that couldn’t possibly be true. Could it?