Welfare delays 'unlawfully long'
Disabled people have been forced to turn to loan sharks and food banks because of the "unlawfully long time" taken to provide them with vital welfare benefits, the High Court has heard at the launch of a challenge to the delays.
Many families have suffered months of anxiety and faced eviction threats waiting to receive the new benefits known as personal independence payments (Pips), a judge was told.
Two unnamed test case claimants are asking the court to declare that - because of the magnitude of the delay - Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith has breached his common law and human rights duties to make payments within a reasonable time.
Pips are replacing the disability living allowance (DLA) in sweeping government reforms of the benefits system.
They are designed to help disabled adults meet the extra costs caused by disability, including basic essentials such as food, heating and transport.
Lawyers for the claimants say they are particularly concerned by the delays as the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has acknowledged it is coming to "the difficult period" when it will move 1.75 million people currently receiving DLA over to Pips.
Figures released at the end of March revealed that 3,200 people making new claims had been waiting for more than a year to receive payments.
Lisa Giovannetti QC, representing the claimants, said the delays had led to many people experiencing desperate financial struggles and being forced to borrow from friends or turn to loan sharks because they did not have enough to live on.
The QC told Mrs Justice Patterson at London's High Court: "People like these cannot be left waiting for months and months and months."
Justin Tomlinson, minister for disabled people, has issued a statement saying "significant progress" is currently being made in dealing with claims.
Mr Tomlinson said: "Figures released on 12 March reflect the significant progress made over the past year and show that claims are now being processed at five times the rate they were in January 2014.
"In addition 21% of claimants have been awarded the highest rate, compared to 16% under DLA, demonstrating that the benefit is being targeted at those who need it most."
But Anne-Marie Irwin, the solicitor at law firm Irwin Mitchell leading the challenge, said: "Too many people have been left in the lurch as a result of the flaws in the system.
"We hope our legal challenge will force the DWP to reconsider its decision to continue the roll-out of Pip until flaws in the system are resolved, so that future applicants do not have to face such gross delays in this essential support."
One of the claimants, Ms C, from Kent, has been diagnosed with ME and suffers from severe depression and other health problems.
She applied for Pips in January 2014 after leaving her job because of her poor health. But she did not receive any payments until last October.
Ms C said: "The delay had a massive impact on my life. I applied for Pips so I could look after myself, but without it I could barely eat and only ever left my house for a weekly trip to a supermarket.
"I was completely isolated during the nine months I was waiting for my payments. While my wait came to an end, it is worrying that many, many others have still not received a decision."
The second claimant, 28-year-old Mr W from Dorset, is single and lives alone with support from his sister.
He underwent surgery to remove his colon and developed a hernia.
He suffers from serious anxiety and depression and can only walk short distances.
He submitted his application for Pips in February 2014 but his application was not granted until last December, the court heard.
Without Pips he was unable to afford enough food and had to ask his sister for help, the court was told.
David Barr QC, appearing for the Department for Work and Pensions, urged the judge to reject the application for judicial review.
Mr Barr said introducing Pips involved a major change to the benefits system.
It was "an enormous and administratively complex process", he said.
He added that the Work and Pensions Secretary "acknowledges that claims for Pip have been taking too long".
But the delays that had occurred had been dealt with reasonably and rationally.
Applicants entitled to the benefit were having payments back-paid from the date of their claim.
Mr Barr stated: "The Secretary of State regrets the delays experienced by the claimants.
"However, it is respectfully submitted that they were not unlawful."
The hearing continues tomorrow.
Elliot Dunster, head of policy, research and public affairs at the disability charity Scope, said: "Life costs more if you are disabled. Scope research shows that this adds up to on average £550 per month.
"Extra costs payments - DLA and Pip - are a financial lifeline for disabled people. Extra costs can make it extremely hard for disabled people to pay the bills.
"It's positive that delays have been dramatically reduced, and in the run-up to the General Election the Prime Minister vowed to 'safeguard and enhance' the value of Pip.
"It's critical the Government protects the value of these extra costs payments and continues to make progress in dealing with the backlog for claims."