Many of our members are still experiencing the impact of the changes to the benefit system brought in by the Welfare Reform Act 2012. Some of them are going through the process of moving from the legacy benefit Disability Living Allowance (DLA) to the new benefit Personal Independence Payments (PIP).
A big problem is that members are not being assessed as eligible for PIP when they do in fact meet the new, more stringent criteria, and the impact of mental health difficulties seems to be particularly badly assessed. Although it is possible to appeal the original decision, and the success rates for appeal are very high at the tribunal (65% for both PIP and ESA in 2016-7), this is a lengthy process and can leave members out of pocket for months, creating a very stressful situation. Unfortunately, the Department for Work and Pensions doesn’t seem to accept that the high percentage of successful appeals at the tribunal suggests that there is an issue with the assessment process.
This is why earlier this year I focused on our strategy for assisting members with benefit appeals. Although there are charity organisations across London specialising in health-related benefit appeals, we are always conscious of the sensitivities around our members being asked to share their HIV status with organisations outside of Body & Soul. Therefore I am in the process of developing a system that will allow these cases to be handled as much as possible in-house at Body & Soul via our General Legal Clinic, provided by our regular team of professional legal volunteers from Hogan Lovells and ITV. This will mean that members can get support with their applications or appeals in the security of the Body & Soul building.
One member I worked closely with earlier this year is Andrew, a 59-year-old man who has been a member of Body & Soul for 19 years. Andrew had been receiving incapacity benefit since he had to retire due to ill health many years ago, and was transferred to the new benefit Employment Support Allowance (ESA). He was reassessed in October 2016 and the decision was made that he was no longer eligible for ESA. He came to us to request assistance with his appeal.
I supported Andrew with the tribunal myself, preparing written submissions and attending the hearing with him. During the hearing, Andrew did nearly all of the speaking himself, as directed by the judge. The main reason for my presence was to make sure Andrew felt supported and confident enough to speak in a formal setting. Two days later we received the good news that the appeal had been successful.
One advantage of supporting Andrew with his appeal was that by necessity we had some frank and intimate conversations about how Andrew’s health conditions, including his HIV and mental health difficulties, were affecting him. As is often the case, receiving casework support was the ‘way in’ for Andrew to benefit from the other services within Body & Soul. He had been living an isolated existence but did not feel able to attend our regular service evenings because of the busy atmosphere in the building. However, during our conversations he said he wanted to improve his nutritional intake and accepted a referral for a one-to-one appointment with Body & Soul’s nutritionist therapist. Following this he attended a small group workshop on nutrition.
Gradually Andrew has built his confidence and he now attends the regular service evening on a Tuesday, going to workshops on topics such as the impact of neuropathy and taking part in a five-week yoga programme. One member of staff who had known Andrew for a long time remarked that she had never seen him so happy and confident. The fact that the Casework team was a gateway for Andrew to access other services is one of the clear benefits of Body & Soul’s whole-person approach.