Telephone interviews for disability benefits

Picture of someone holding a smart phone

With COVID, disability benefit assessment interviews that used to be face-to-face are being done by phone. You should receive seven days’ written notice of the date and time.  Some people are only being notified by phone a few days before, or get hardly any notice.

The Social Security Advisory Committee (SSAC)  has raised concerns about the accuracy of telephone interviews — but there have also been enormous problems with the face-to-face interviews before this. The Work Capability Assessment and PIP test are generally discredited and disabled people want them scrapped. So advice on telephone interviews is similar to advice on face-to-face interviews. For that info, please have a look at our pages on ESA, UC or PIP.

Being excused or exempted from the interview.  Even though the telephone interview is not face-to-face, it is still very stressful.  You can ask to be exempted or excused from interview and for a paper-based assessment of your claim. 

The rules for exemption are different between PIP and the Work Capability Assessment in ESA/Universal Credit.  It is difficult but possible to get exemption, and you can tackle it as a campaign for your rights. 

The law says that to get disability benefits, you must provide information to show that you qualify, and they often say that’s why you have to do the interview.  But the assessment can be on paper where you have substantial or compelling evidence showing your level of needs (PIP) or that you do not have capability for work or back-to-work activities (Work Capability Assessment).

Paper assessment includes if the assessor contacts or telephones your GP or other professionals for their opinion.  And for ESA/Universal Credit, there are Exceptional Circumstances which are supposed to be a safety net for vulnerable claimants who are unable to cope with letters and interviews.  Paper evidence is usually understood as reports or letters by qualified professionals.  But the assessor should also take into account what you said on your form and what people who know you well said about your situation and needs.

  • Exemption from the Work Capability Assessment interview (ESA renewals and Universal Credit). See our leaflet on Exceptional Circumstances. The Exceptional Circumstances are in Regulation 29 of the ESA Regulations 2008. Universal Credit adopted a lot of the ESA rules so Universal Credit refers back to ESA exemptions. Also the exceptional circumstances are set out in Schedule 9 of the Universal Credit Regulations 2013, including Receiving treatment for cancer and Risk to self or others.
  • You can also ask for exemption as “reasonable adjustments” under the Equality Act, or complain to the assessor about “failure to make reasonable adjustments”.  Download a template letter by the Equality Advisory Support Service here. You can raise reasonable adjustments in your first request for exemption from interview. Or you can write to complain about failure to make reasonable adjustments if the assessor persists in making you do a telephone interview after you have already asked not to do it.

As your benefit is at stake, it’s up to you to decide at any point to go ahead with the telephone interview to keep your claim going. But there is no guarantee of the results from the interview or that genuine barriers to putting your case across over the phone will be recognised by the assessor or DWP decision-maker.

“Failure to attend” the telephone interview.  If they decide that you “failed to attend” the telephone interview because you didn’t go ahead with it, or had difficulty with it and didn’t continue, you have the right to be asked if you had “good cause” – a justified reason. Get welfare rights advice if this happens. Where your good cause is accepted, your benefit claim will continue.  If your good cause is refused, your claim will be stopped and you then have to do the mandatory reconsideration and appeal process to get benefit.  If this happens, we also recommend contacting your MP for support and making a complaint to the assessment company and DWP if you can.

Be prepared for the call. If you have already filled in the form, you will know the questions you are likely to be asked. It’s a good idea to write some reminders on a piece of paper or have them on your phone to make sure you bring out the most important things you want to say, which relate to the test for benefit.  Make sure you have looked at the points system for PIP or for the Work Capability Assessment and relate these scores to your own situation.

Support on the call.  You are allowed to have someone with you for support or joined on to your call.  They have to be over 16 to be recognised by the assessor. The request to join someone on who is on another number, cannot be refused without giving a reason and the reason has to be fair. Your supporter should be familiar with your situation and the points you want to press, and be ready to interrupt if the questioning is unreasonable or is causing you too much distress.

The assessor companies have their own info pages about the telephone interviews, access questions and having somebody with you:

Work Capability Assessment (ESA or Universal Credit) — info by CHDA (Maximus) here

PIP — info by Independent Assessment Services (Atos) here

PIP — info by Capita here

Recording the call. For the content of the call to be accepted officially, it has to be done by the assessor, which you can request in advance. Otherwise the assessors have implied that claimants alter their recording! They don’t accept for people to record the call ourselves. But some claimants have recorded it and it is also a reasonable adjustment under equality law if you can’t take written notes for your own records.

“Inconclusive” interviews. Some assessors say they don’t have enough information to make a decision about entitlement, even after a long telephone interview. This particularly affects women with invisible disabilities. This has left some claimants in limbo and without the benefit we need for our disability costs. In this situation, we have made a complaint and have involved the MP. We have tried to gather and send in Further Medical Evidence, which should be accepted anytime to add to an incomplete or under-assessment. We got advice about this problem and will share what we learned once we have done it. Meanwhile if this is your situation, get welfare rights advice on how your assessment can be resolved. The Social Security Advisory Committee (SSAC) has raised concerns and called for a maximum waiting time for a decision.

Other problems. A survey by the Benefits and Work welfare rights site, “What PIP telephone assessments are really like”, has enabled people to expose how bad the situation is. Some people do not receive a call at the appointed time, with the assessor claiming they repeatedly called but did not receive an answer. Some calls have not been confidential as most assessors work from home and aren’t always alone in the room when making assessment calls. Some people have been wrongly accused of “failure to attend” a telephone interview when they were expecting to be called. As before, you can make a complaint, raise it with your MP and go through the appeals system.