Presenting and incorrect?

Would you like a new job? The hours might be difficult, but you will get to meet judges, doctors and people with experiences of disabilities. You might have to get used to severe, crushing blows and knocks in your confidence for things that are not your fault. You may have to get used to judges, doctors and people with experience of disabilities justifiably haranguing you for the actions of others.

A recent parliamentary question has confirmed that the Department for Work and Pensions are recruiting presenting officers- those long fabled people who will turn up at tribunals to represent the decision making power of the Secretary of State. When I was a welfare rights worker the chance of a presenting officer turning up to appeal was somewhere lower than zero. Indeed, the answer confirms that not one presenting officer was recruited between 2012 and 2017, with more than 200 now recruited in 2017.

Now, if you’ve read my blog you’ll know I’ve shown a strong interest in this process and have suggested that the DWP need to be fronting up for appeals- so in a very limited way I support this change. What I want to look at this time is what impact it will have and whether the presenting officers will be allowed the kind of changes that will allow a real impact on decision making across the health related benefits.

But what will the role of presenting officers be? They’re very lucky (in one way) in that their role is government by a statutory instrument (a piece of secondary legislation) setting out their duties (and everyone else’s) in an appeal. There’s also, for universal credit and personal independence payments, a whole chapter on the decision makers guide which goes into great detail about what they should be doing. Let’s try and precis them!

Presenting officers aren’t lawyers- but they don’t necessarily need to be. What they need to have is a very good understanding of the benefit system and the operation of the tribunal. Their job is to:

  1. Check that the original decision was right in light of the evidence in hand. If it isn’t (and do remember than two thirds of ESA decisions are overturned at Tribunal) then they can and should change the decision- at the very least sending it back to the decision makers. For universal credit and personal independence payments the decision makers guide is very clear that the presenting officer must satisfy themselves that the decision is right before they attend the appeal.
  2. Attend the appeal and put explain the Secretary of State’s decision, including how the evidence has been weighed. The presenting officer can ask questions of other people present (including the claimant) but these shouldn’t be combative and should be focused on understanding any disagreement in the written submissions. In benefit appeals people aren’t there to win or lose, but to find the truth through collaboration. I know that sounds otherworldly, but it is an important point- if you do a victory dance at the end of an tribunal you are likely to be rebuked pretty quickly!
  3. After the appeal- reflect, consider and think on what happened and what could have been done better. In a way, this is simply number 1 restated- the next time they have a similar case they have to ask themselves if they should be taking it at all to appeal.

Now, anyone who has spent any time working with benefit claimants will know that there is often a gap between what the legislation and guidance says and what actually happens on the ground. If you’ve ever had to sit there (usually on the phone) whilst a decision maker pulls up the guidance (trying to talk legislation on the phone is often pointless), turns to the page you are talking about, looks at the paragraph you are talking to, reads it through, tries to justify their existing argument then grudgingly accepts you are correct will know that what happens on paper and in real life are two different things.

So what am I worried about? Primarily, that 1 and 3 above won’t happen. The presenting officers will not use their powers to spot cases that don’t stand a chance of winning, will go to the appeal, the decision will be overturned by the tribunal and they won’t learn anything about why this was. This is perhaps unfair, or even cynical. Perhaps I should give it a chance before I predict doom?

Well, in any case it won’t be long. For ESA alone the number of appeals attended by a presenting officer has shot up since April 2017. The number of attendances between April and December last year is nearly 10 times the total number for the year before, which we know again due to a parliamentary question! Perhaps in their early months presenting officers are there to comprehend and understand, but you’d hope that pretty soon they will get to grips with which cases have a chance at having the decision upheld and which should be overturned quickly now to save the bother of a failed appeal.

As they get better at this you would hope that the original decision makers understand which decisions are unlikely to get past the presenting officers (ie. those people who have to try and make the case) and start amending their decisions. You’d also hope that presenting officers would get better at spotting marginal cases (where their presence may make a difference) and start attending these- rather than being sent on fools errands either by decision makers or even worse an algorithm telling them which to attend.

If this change to the system worked perfectly it could have a huge impact. When I look at the stats in the next few months I’ll be looking for some big changes. If decision makers know they have to make fully reasoned cases then a lower proportion may be turned down in the first place, followed by a lower proportion of appeal cases making it to the tribunal (as they have been sent back by presenting officers) and finally a higher proportion of decisions being upheld (ie. staying the same) rather than overturned as the unwinnable cases have been weeded out and presenting officers have been able to argue the case in some cases successfully.

If the system doesn’t work perfectly the presenting officers will be receiving payment for turning up and being told off, which isn’t fair on them or anybody else. I’ll be looking through the stats as soon as they come out, and so should you.

What I’d prefer to see, instead of a separating out decision making into different sections is decision makers having responsibility for the whole process, holding onto a case and having to present it at appeal. As I’ve spoken about before, the process of decision making is becoming incredibly mechanistic. Indeed, some good soul has been able to winkle out of the DWP their set lines for appeals. Yes, we all knew they existed, but how can individual people with their individual health needs be reduced to set words? If decision makers actually saw what happened in cases that go to appeal they may think twice before making a sloppy decision a second time.

But, as a final point, all of this is essentially moot because of one thing. Mandatory reconsideration still means that a huge proportion of people being turned down for health related benefits are not formally appealing them. Whilst this is the case we won’t know if these claimants are genuinely entitled to benefit. I have no reason to believe those decisions aren’t as second rate as those getting to appeal.

So let’s hope the presenting officers make a big difference, far bigger than their relatively small numbers may show. But that will only happen if they are empowered to act and able to get the department to understand how obvious the failures of decision making are to tribunals and independent observers.

Numbers and numbness

Has everyone seen the video of the man who uses excel to paint? Well, I can’t say I’m anywhere near as interesting as him, but I can usually hold down a spreadsheet and extract some valuable information from it.

The heart wrenching testimony from the work and pensions committee have shown, once again, that the systems looking into what benefits people with health issues receive are not working properly.

As regular readers will know, I have already shared my two pennies on one of the reasons I think employment and support allowance (ESA) and personal independence payments (PIP) appeals are going through the roof and why mandatory reconsiderations (the new-ish process the DWP is forcing on claimants) are not helpful. I’m not alone in wanting to look at this, indeed, the work and pensions committee have an ongoing investigation into PIP and ESA assessments, where that recent testimony came from. As part of this the DWP has given them some supporting statistics, which are a treasure trove of interesting information.

That said, like most treasure you do have to do some digging. I’m always very interested in looking at government responses to select committees (or, for many local authorities, scrutiny committees). If you know what to look for you can often find what information the authors are trying very, very hard to avoid saying, whilst putting the data out into the open.

And so it is with the data tables the DWP have released, alongside an explanatory document that explains far more than it is trying to let on. That said, if you read just the explanatory document you wouldn’t see much of interest. But when you actually look in detail, you can see what they are hoping you will miss.

Before we get into the data proper, let’s just take a quick step back and remind ourselves what mandatory reconsiderations are. Introduced in 2013, this was an additional step where a benefit claimant thought a decision was wrong. Instead of just being able to appeal straight away, they had to ask for the DWP to look again at the decision and then only once this was complete could they, separately, appeal against the decision.

This was controversial as it was adding another layer of decision making, expecting claimants to understand the process and to push forward through a difficult and complicated appeals process if they believed the decision was wrong. This is even more difficult when you think that simultaneous cuts to legal aid mean fewer and fewer people can be appropriately represented through the appeals process.

What I find odd about the explanatory document is that it consistently puts each statistic into the context of a larger cohort. So we don’t see just the outcomes from mandatory reconsiderations, we see that within the context of all claimants.

Screenshot 2017-12-05 at 7.23.42 PM

Similarly, we don’t see just the proportion of PIP decisions that are overturned at the first tier tribunal, we see that within the context of all mandatory reconsideration decisions.

Screenshot 2017-12-05 at 7.25.10 PM

This makes issues appear smaller than they are. Sure, lots of people are asking for mandatory reconsiderations and then appealing, but they want you to look at it in the context of the whole benefit, where other people are not asking for a reconsideration and then appealing. Surely those people are happy with their decision?

Coming from that second graph, the second odd thing I notice is the insistence that there is a small (2 percentage points) gap between different health conditions. The suggestion seems to be that conditions are treated quite similarly and have similar results.

Well, both those oddities can be rectified by having a look at the actual data. As I suggested at the start of the post, I have held the statistics down and given them a bit of a thrashing out, which is available here. The graphs that follow all come from my tables, which are themselves simply rearrangements of the DWP statistics.

So, when we look at the actual data of decision making we can see some interesting results. Firstly, and coming straight from the government’s data, we can see that a whole lot of people stop after the mandatory reconsideration stage. Nearly 450,000 claims had PIP decisions upheld by mandatory reconsideration between 2013 and July 2017. All of those could have applied for an appeal if they still disagreed, yet only 126,000 have had appeals heard. Similarly, 448,000 ESA claims were upheld at mandatory reconsideration, but only 152,700 cases were heard.

What does this mean?  I suspect, particularly for the more recent decisions, appeals have been made but not yet heard; the tribunal service have a big backlog for obvious reasons. It also means mandatory reconsideration has been an exceptionally powerful tool for stopping people from appealing. It’s hard to tell why that is, perhaps some genuinely accepted the DWPs version of events? But perhaps along with this, people are giving up, or are unable to cope with the stress of further appeals or blindly accept what the DWP is telling them or, worst of all, think that the mandatory reconsideration was the appeal. Further research is most definitely required, because I don’t think society can see this as a win until we know what is really going on.

But more than that, when you look at the overall appeal outcomes, these statistics start to mirror those of the tribunal service itself. Wade through the data and this shows the DWP confirming that 62% of their PIP decisions are overturned on appeal. For ESA it is nearly 45% between 2013 and July 2017.

The ESA result sounds better, until you see that the proportion overturned has been going up each year since 2013, with the rate so far this year matching 2016/17s high point of 61%.

Screenshot 2017-12-05 at 7.51.15 PM

So whilst mandatory reconsiderations may be preventing many people from appealing, those that do appeal are winning their cases in droves. It’s just like Sir Henry Brooke said a few weeks ago.

Coming onto the second oddity from the explanatory document, this idea that diseases are treated approximately the same. That looks like it is a result of the contextualising data rather than the actual facts. Here is the chart for different primary health conditions for PIP:
Screenshot 2017-12-05 at 7.57.20 PM

In PIP the highest areas of tribunal overturns are for immune diseases (100% of the 100 cases over those years), visual disease (77% overturns) and neurological disease (70%). The lowest is metabolic disease, with just (just!) 50% of the cases being overturned at tribunal.

And here it is for ESA:Screenshot 2017-12-05 at 7.59.25 PM

For ESA the highest proportion of successful appeals was in cases with ear and mastoid processes (60% of the admittedly small 500 cases over the period) with a wide selection of health problems getting 50% of claimants being successful in their appeals. There are so many at 50% I had to check I wasn’t using the same data twice! The lowest is childbirth and related issues with no successful cases recorded. Due to the way the DWP has collated these figures (to the nearest 100) this means a small proportion of cases could have been successful. Injury and poisoning, one of the biggest groups of people appealing decisions,  has the next highest failure rate, with only (only!) 36% being successful at appeal.

Overall, if you aren’t aware of the DWPs terrible record at appeals you should be shocked by how high each and every one of these numbers is. The DWP is losing cases by the bucketload, which asks serious questions about their competence and about the process of mandatory reconsideration.

What’s more, and however they are trying to argue it, it is losing cases for some primary health conditions more than it is others, so they should be looking at this to work out what they can do to make better decisions the first (or second) time around.  Finally, especially on ESA, it is losing a higher proportion of cases each year, indicating something is very wrong with its decision making.

I think the DWP is trying to say that the focus from people like myself is on a small proportion of their decisions. Those of us on the outside only think about appeal decisions and not about those people who accepted the decision, either when it was first made or after the mandatory reconsideration. But that misses the point: we don’t know why people didn’t appeal. Some might have been happy with the decision, but are others simply unable to get through the process themselves? Many of the decisions (particularly the refusals) could have been just as bad as those getting to appeal, but we simply don’t know. The heartfelt responses the work and pensions committee have received in recent weeks point to the fact that people feel let down and confused about the whole process.

This is a key issue with mandatory reconsiderations- it has added another layer in decision making. A layer suggestive of a tickbox exercise that seems to put droves of people off appealing further, even if they may well have a case on appeal. It is another piece of paper to fill in, another time you have to explain your health condition to a stranger, placing yourself emotionally on the line and another place where -as does happen- there is a chance the award can go down as well as up.

I think we can all agree mandatory reconsideration isn’t working. I don’t want to put extra work on the tribunals service, but I can’t see how the DWP can justify maintaining the current mandatory reconsideration process when their appeal outcomes are so bad. The DWP used to always reconsider their decisions after an appeal in any case, so we have to ask why this obstructive layer is allowed to remain.

PS I’m aware that the charts have some of the primary health conditions names chopped down. It is basically impossible to do it any other way when you have such big names for conditions. All of the full condition names are available on the google document containing the charts and sheets for your persual.

Until the PIP squeaks

Even for a non-lawyer like myself, there is something deeply interesting about Henry Brooke’s arguments showing how the tribunals service are trying to cope with social security appeals.

His most recent comments focus on the issues the quality of evidence from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), especially in health related benefit decisions, for Personal Independence Payments (PIPs) and Disability Living Allowance (DLA) that PIP is replacing. Try and remember those acronyms- I’m going to be using them a lot!

From my time as a welfare rights worker (ending just as PIP was being brought in) I’ve seen the confusion and upset that poor decision making can have first hand and the successes and failures of individuals as they go through the tribunal system. What I want to try and spend a little bit of time contemplating is how we got here and what can be done to overcome this dire situation.

I believe Henry’s arguments can be boiled down to the concerns that decision makers often rely too heavily on medical evidence provided by the DWPs own contractors, that this contracted medical evidence is, itself, often of quite a low quality and that the loss of legal aid for most social security cases has made life much more difficult for applicants.

If you want my two pennies on why this seems to be happening, it is the DWPs approach that tries to turn decision making and then appeals work into a bulk job. Indeed, that’s something that really come through when you consider how PIP works in comparison to DLA.

I’m not about to argue that DLA was perfect or that there were no bad decisions; far from it. But there’s a real policy point here about what we want from disability benefits. If you’ve been reading my blog from the early posts you’ll know what I’m going to say next: reality is complicated.

In that post I looked at the ways complexity can come about in policy. Hopefully I got across that complexity can pop up either from law not being detailed enough (in which case ambiguities arise) or being too prescribed and not flexible enough to cope with people’s real circumstances. DLA was arguably the former, but PIP is most definitely the latter.

Who got what under DLA was one of those situations where the law itself could be summed up in a few sentences. But what that meant filled entire books, could change based on caselaw and often turned on very small facts in individual cases. Decision makers would have to consider each of these points when coming to a view and, if needed, would be required to justify this in light of the available evidence.

Coming on to the evidence, this was mostly the account provided by the applicant on their claim form and any other medical evidence that had been collected. Applicants could provide evidence alongside their claim, but the DWP often wrote to some of the people working with them (whether it was the GP, specialist, counsellor, etc) for further information. This usually included the set questionnaire which asked general questions when what was really needed was specific information. The final decision often relied very heavily on this third party information. Whenever I filled in a DLA form (and at times that was 4 a day) I would ask the person what their GP knew of their condition. If they said not much (for example they’d referred to a consultant years ago) I would always expect their claim to be knocked back in the first decision, whether or not I thought they had a good claim.

At least information from a GP was someone who could be aware of the condition. Under PIP the government has moved further towards carrying out their own assessments and this usually means a generalist health professional making very quick decisions.

What’s worse is that many of the assessments appear to be very generic and generalised, with it feeling like it is a tick box exercise rather than a robust assessment of someone’s specific needs.

Coming back to the underlying policy, PIP uses a points system with a range of different descriptors. So those few sentences for DLA are now 7 pages of finely gradiated areas. Each of these descriptors lead to points and points, eventually, mean prizes. So where once a decision maker had to weigh a few big areas together, based on the evidence they had to hand, now they have to look at descriptor after descriptor and make a decision on each individual area.

With the DWP contracted report in their hand, I’m not surprised that decision makers just follow this. It essentially advises them how to make a decision. Do we expect them to unpick a consultant’s circumlocutory response to the wrong question (DWP requests for information are often oblique and I don’t think anyone trains medical staff in how to reply to these questions) or look at what the nurse from Capita says about the exact descriptor?

Over time the reports from the DWPs contractor get very samey, but at least the answer the questions we are expecting decision makers to answer. So, as is the case with Employment and Support Allowance, what the contracted health professional says becomes more and more right, even when it is wrong. What’s more, do decision makers feel that the contracted report is “their” version of events, which has to be weighed against, but is somehow more virtuous or accurate than another health professional’s?

Henry is right to point to mandatory reconsiderations as a way to try and improve this. Too often it looks like these are there to provide a final check on truly ridiculous decisions and to ensure that the the DWP hasn’t totally erred before confirming the decision and seeing whether the applicant will formally appeal.

What really needs to happen is for the decision makers undertaking the mandatory reconsiderations to put themselves in the position of the judge and panel. Is it reasonable to weigh this evidence in this way? Is everything in the right place to ensure this evidence is verified and we know who it is from? Will the medically qualified panel member read something in this report that the original decision maker has not? Do we need more evidence to make the decision we have come to?

Making disability benefits a points game and then basing the points overwhelmingly on medical reports from your own contractor sounds like a recipe for poor decision making and plenty of appeals. Indeed, as Henry says, lots of appeals are coming through and the DWP is losing a high proportion of them.

At the moment it feels like this bad decision making has too low a risk for the DWP and high externalities for other people. Applicants are left in limbo for months as appeals wind their course, tribunals are full of basic decisions that can be made easily on paper in the applicant’s favour. The Courts and Tribunal Service may suffer, but is that a worry for the DWP? Whatever the underlying thinking of decision makers, the idea that political rhetoric is impacting on how we think about those claiming benefits means trying to make arguments about improving benefit processing to the public can be a sticky wicket.

So can these externalities be internalised? At the very least the DWP should be offsetting some of the costs of HMCTS whilst decision making is so poor. But should they be nudged further, maybe by a surcharge on each overturned decision- with a waiver for hard cases? Should successful applicants receive a generous rate of interest on any backpayments? Do DWP need to be forced to represent themselves in person at appeals, so that only those worth fighting for get through? Or is there something about the process, particularly about how medical evidence is compiled and then examined, that needs to be sorted out first?