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Tuesday, 9 April, 2002, 10:35 GMT 11:35 UK
Disabled 'forced to wait for benefits'
Disabled person and helper
The committee criticised delays in benefit assessments
Some of the nation's most vulnerable people have been forced to wait for help because of failings in the medical assessment system for disability benefit, a report says.

According to the report released on Wednesday, around 40% of appeals against rejected claims prove successful.


Claimants have a right to expect prompt and accurate decisions

Edward Leigh
A quarter of those are the result of mistakes by Benefit Agency staff.

Responding to the criticisms in the report, Work Minister Nick Brown said that the government had begun to address some of the issues raised and was already making progress.

Although a Liberal Democrat spokesman said a "concerted effort" was needed from the government.

And the news was greeted with concern by Paula Twigg, of the Child Poverty Action Group, who said that the government should take note of the report and take action to ensure those who needed support received it.

The committee also found that the Department for Work and Pensions is wasting 40m per year by paying disability benefits to people who had ceased to have the right to receive them.

Committee chairman Edward Leigh said: "The purpose of medical assessment is to ensure that only eligible claimants receive incapacity and disability benefits.

"But claimants have a right to expect prompt and accurate decisions, and an efficient and considerate handling of their claims by doctors undertaking medical assessments and providing medical information."

19bn bill

He said delays and inaccuracies in decision-making, weaknesses in the medical assessment process and poor advice "represent a significant shortfall in the quality of public service to some of the most disadvantaged people in society."

In excess of 19bn is paid in incapacity and disability benefits each year.

Around 1.3m medical assessments are carried out to establish eligibility for the benefits every year by a private firm, the SEMA group.

According to the committee SEMA sometimes overbooks appointments to ensure its doctors' time is used efficiently.

But the committee recommended that anyone turned away from an appointment should be compensated.

The committee also found that between 25,000 and 30,000 assessments were carried out each year unnecessarily.

Misinterpretation

That was happening in part because GPs are reluctant to supply reports on their patients because they fear involvement in acrimonious claims.

The report found that up to 10% of SEMA's assessments were "substandard" - something the department should monitor.

And it urged targets to be set by Work and Pensions Secretary Alistair Darling for correct decisions by the benefits agency after finding that around one in 10 appealed cases are won because evidence is misinterpreted by Agency staff.

The committee suggested that the decision-making process could be sped up by allowing assessments to be made by medical staff other than doctors.

Mr Brown said: "The number of incapacity benefit examinations increased by about a sixth in 2001 and the speed of decisions on disability living allowance and attendance allowance has increased by 15% over the last 12 months.

"We are also recruiting and retaining more doctors and reducing the number of people failing to attend examinations to reduce the waiting times and the number turned away."

For the Lib Dems Paul Holmes said: "It's no wonder that disability groups are suspicious that the government's New Deal for the Disabled is putting unfair pressure on some disabled people to return to work before they are ready and able to do so."

'Appalling'

Labour peer Lord Morris who was behind several of the disability benefits when he was the first minister for the disabled in the 1970s expressed shock at the committee's findings.

"The extent to which the most vulnerable people are left waiting longer than they should is just appalling," he said.

While Ms Twigg said: "We call on the government to take note of this hard-hitting report and take action to ensure that those who need support get it when they need it."

See also:

24 Jan 02 | UK Politics
'Unreserved apology' on pensions blunder
11 Jun 01 | Business
Welfare reform: The tasks ahead
21 Mar 01 | Facts
Strategies of welfare reform
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