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In 2013, the Department for Work and Pensions introduced Mandatory Reconsideration (MR), a mechanism to review and correct benefit assessments should a claimant wish to challenge a decision. This essentially amounts to an appeal process internal to the DWP.  Prior to 2013, a claimant would have been able to go directly to HM Courts and Tribunals Service to lodge an appeal.

The introduction of MR in 2013 appears to have had only negative consequences. The benefits process, already fraught with long wait times and complex forms, has become more burdensome for claimants. To apply for social security, claimants must have internet access, and an adequate level of digital literacy. These are essential to the process but should not be assumed available to everyone. Bright Blue research has found that even claimants with a good level of digital literacy have struggled with some elements of the online process. MR, for most, is yet another step in a long-drawn-out process. 

Advocacy groups have branded MR as not fit for purpose, citing negative and frustrating experiences of claimants as reflective of a ‘broken system’. One claimant, who had her initial assessment decision overturned at tribunal appeal, did so after scoring 36 points, where the threshold for entitlement was 15. This claimant only went to tribunal after receiving a ‘rubber stamp’ MR result that left the original assessment decision unchanged. The points system used for Employment and Support Allowance, which this claimant was applying for, measures someone’s capacity to physically work, and includes indicators such as an individual’s ability to walk 50 metres.  On the face of it, it seems absurd that a candidate scoring 36 points was turned down initially. 

In 2018, only 20% of decisions were reversed through MR. The percentage of claimants who had their decision reversed at tribunal was far higher, at 69%. More recently, the charity Scope highlighted data showing that 72% of assessment decisions were reversed at tribunal, having failed to be reversed through MR. These figures, already worrying, would likely be higher if more people had the necessary support to make it through MR to reach the tribunal. 

Given the high number of decision reversals at tribunal, MR clearly fails its defined purpose of properly reviewing assessment decisions. This raises the question of whether it is necessary to have MR at all. If initial assessments were fair and accurate, fewer appeals would need to be lodged. More importantly, supposing that a large proportion of claimants do not make it to tribunal, MR may be an unfair roadblock. After all, the DWP’s own research shows that two in five claimants who did not go to tribunal after an MR, chose not to because they found the process too stressful. 

Indeed, sceptical tribunal judges have argued that the MR process has turned into nothing more than an “additional administrative barrier for claimants who wish to challenge their decision rather than a substantive re-examination of the evidence”. This accusation is supported by the data mentioned above, which illustrates the enormous gulf between the MR outcomes and those seen at tribunal. 

The situation appears to be worsening as a result of Covid-19, with several citizens advice organisations citing MR as an area of real concern, with worries that it has been “de-prioritised”, and claimants feeling that their MR applications have been “pushed to the back of the queue”. 

Although it is fair to say that the DWP will have been severely stretched by the pandemic, the wait time for some MR decisions is already estimated at several months from the point of submission. The possibility that this waiting time is now increasing is of grave concern. 

According to the DWP, MR was introduced to reduce the demand on HMCTS and to resolve disputes as early as possible, instead they may actually be causing further delay. Other organisations disagree that this was the rationale, suggesting that MR was actually introduced to remedy the flawed initial assessments for claimants and to redress the volume of incorrect refusals. 

If MR has become an unnecessary and unfair hurdle to benefit claimants, then the DWP must listen to the practical advice offered to them by advocacy organisations, who call for an extension of the deadline for MR requests, and more time and training for MR decision makers. 

This approach, however, might ignore by far and away the most crucial point for revision: to make initial assessments as fair and accurate as possible, thus avoiding the need for either MR or tribunal from the onset. In practical terms, this would also mean diverting money away from some of the costly components of the tribunal process. In 2015, the DWP spent £22 million on ‘presenting officers’. This spending, advocacy groups argue, is a misuse of taxpayer money, and should be re-focused into making the correct assessment decisions initially. 

In light of the above evidence, the DWP must take definitive action to improve the MR system. The statistics show that MR is not only ineffective, but acts as a significant barrier to social security. If the DWP fails to reallocate time and resources into ensuring MR fulfills its intended purpose, then it must seriously consider the removal of MR from the benefits system altogether. 

Zoë is currently undertaking work experience at Bright Blue. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue. [Image: Christophe Meneboeuf]