By John Pring Disability News Service 19/01/2017
Fresh evidence has emerged that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has refused to allow benefit claimants to communicate via email, despite its claims that it allows disabled people with “valid reasons” to do so.
Last week, one disabled PIP claimant, Mark Lucas, told how he was taking legal action against DWP for refusing to allow him to communicate with its civil servants via email as a reasonable adjustment under the Equality Act.
DWP insisted in its response that “claimants are entitled to request to receive all communications from the department by email on the grounds of disability under the Equality Act 2010”.
But after Lucas’s story was published, other disabled people have come forward to cast doubt on that response, and have described how DWP has refused to let them deal with their benefit claims by email.
One claimant, disabled campaigner Graham Kirwan, who represents Dudley Centre for Inclusive Living on accessible information issues, told Disability News Service (DNS) that DWP paid him £1,700 damages to settle his claim against the department for refusing to communicate with him by email over his personal independence payment (PIP) claim.
In settling the case, which Kirwan took himself as a “litigant in person”, DWP admitted that it had failed to make reasonable adjustments for him, stating: “The Department accepts that it has not sent you communications in your required format and that it has taken an unreasonably long time to agree and make the reasonable adjustments you have requested.”
Kirwan had previously been a long-term claimant of disability living allowance (DLA), but had his payments suspended when he failed to respond to letters asking him to apply for PIP, its working-age replacement, letters that he says he never received and that would not have been accessible to him anyway.
Kirwan, who is partially-sighted, has computer software that can magnify text, but it does not usually work with scanned or PDF documents.
He was told by DWP to use the charity Citizens Advice to help with his PIP application, but he wanted to fill it in himself so he could be sure the answers were accurate.
Now, thanks to his legal victory, Kirwan – who was also responsible in 2015 for persuading NHS England to publish its first accessible information standard, thanks to another legal action – has secured a promise that DWP will communicate with him only via email.
Another disabled benefit claimant, David*, told DNS this week how DWP has repeatedly refused to allow him to communicate via email, even though he can become easily confused on the telephone.
He said: “It significantly discriminates against me as I am unable to either reliably answer the phone, or when I do so answer questions reliably and sensibly, causing both immediate stress and worsening of my conditions, and the real likelihood of bad decisions.”
Dr Sarah Campbell, principal co-author of the Spartacus report, which led to the We Are Spartacus online movement, has been told “many times” by DWP that it will not allow her to contact the department by email – rather than by telephone and post – when she is eventually transferred from DLA to PIP.
She first raised concerns in 2013 that DWP was not allowing claimants to apply for PIP online.
At the time, DWP said it was “working with disability groups and claimants as PIP is rolled out to see which parts of the process should be made online, and this is likely to be put in place after the independent review in 2014”.
But Campbell said: “It seems nothing has changed since the issues were raised. I know I will struggle with the initial phone call (concentrating for that long is difficult and I am concerned I will provide wrong info) and then there is the form itself.
“I have contacted the DWP many times about this from the moment PIP was introduced.
“I have categorically been told every time that I cannot contact them electronically, nor can I send an electronic version of the form.”
A fourth claimant, Susan*, has told DNS how DWP has repeatedly refused to allow her to communicate via email, even though she cannot use the telephone.
The way she gets around this is by emailing the DWP complaints department, and asking it to forward her email to the relevant benefit team.
DNS has seen one email to Susan from the DWP complaints department in 2013 in which the civil servant says: “I can assure you that I have requested an urgent response from Newcastle Benefit Centre but I am unable to confirm that it will be today and unfortunately customers are only able to contact the Benefit Centres either by post or phone.”
Another, from 2015, confirms that her local benefit centre does “not have a central email address for claimant contact”.
Lucas advised other disabled claimants who face a DWP refusal to allow them to communicate via email to take similar legal action to his.
He said that some claimants in England and Wales who face discrimination might be able to use legal aid to secure free and confidential advice from Civil Legal Advice.
DWP has declined to comment on the fresh evidence provided by DNS, despite having more than two days to do so.
A DWP spokesman had asked if the deadline could be extended to the end of today (Thursday) – about six hours after DNS’s weekly stories are sent to subscribers – because DNS had already submitted requests for DWP comments on two other detailed stories this week.
When it was pointed out that this would not be possible, he directed DNS to the DWP comment on last week’s story.
DWP said in its statement last week: “Claimants are entitled to request to receive all communications from the department by email on the grounds of disability under the Equality Act 2010.
“When such a request is received, it must be for a valid reason which relates to the individual’s disability, that is, the customer finds it more difficult or they are unable to communicate and use our services through usual communication and contact routes because of their disability.
“We would also seek to explore whether alternative adjustments (eg large print/Braille) may suffice, but if this is not possible then email communications may be agreed.
“We don’t email claimants as a matter of course due to the potential risks these pose to citizens and DWP.
“In addition DWP must operate within its legislative framework and follow our business processes including records management. Therefore email correspondence must be carefully managed.”
*Not their real names