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Personal Independence Payments (Liverpool Wavertree)

Volume 583: debated on Tuesday 1 July 2014

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Chope. I am grateful to have been granted this debate on the time taken to process personal independence payments in Liverpool, Wavertree. Concern in my constituency is significant. The cases that have been brought to my attention are appalling in their number and their nature. I am in the Chamber today to represent constituents who have come to me, some in real despair, and to ensure that their stories are heard. I am also grateful to the organisations that have contacted me to share their national experience on the issue: Macmillan Cancer Support, Citizens Advice and Mencap, to name but a few.

As the House heard yesterday, delays to personal independence payments are a problem not only for the people of Liverpool, Wavertree, but for people the length and breadth of the country, who are facing unacceptable waits before receiving money that they are entitled to and that they desperately need. PIP is a non-means-tested, non-taxable benefit available to people suffering from ill health or with a disability. It is intended to help the recipients cover the additional costs arising from their condition, whether in or out of work. Additional costs can include a taxi to the hospital, higher utility bills and equipment that is essential for independence.

PIP is replacing disability living allowance for people of working age. In February last year I opposed the Social Security (Personal Independence Payment) Regulations 2013, which legislated for the introduction of PIP, and I opposed what is now the Welfare Reform Act 2012 on Third Reading, but I am not in the Chamber to debate the ins and outs of PIP itself. I am here to highlight the ways in which the appalling handling of its introduction has brought distress, hardship and unnecessary pain to too many of my most vulnerable constituents. The debate is about individuals waiting months and months for a decision; terminally ill people being passed from pillar to post; and the sick and vulnerable being forced to use food banks, because the money that they are entitled to has not appeared. The debate is about common human decency, treating people with dignity and respect, and how the Government have failed to protect such fundamental principles.

In the limited time available, I would like to share with hon. Members some of my constituents’ appalling stories. We know that the phased introduction of PIP began back in April 2013, but six months later, in October 2013, the Department had made only 16% of the decisions it had expected to make by that time. The decision on my constituent, Mohammad Shafieian, should have been made, but was not. He originally made his claim in September 2013 and had to survive without the help he needed for eight months.

My constituent Thomas O’Donnell suffers from serious epilepsy, depression, arthritis and memory loss. He originally made his claim for PIP in August 2013. The months went on without him having an assessment, and he fell into financial difficulty. He was struggling to pay his rent and he could not afford his bills. By the time he came to me in March this year, Thomas was suicidal. Eight months on, he was still waiting for a decision. His epilepsy was causing him to have daily violent fits and he was surviving on just £30 a week. He did not have cooking or washing facilities in his home and he did not have any food. After months of my helping Mr O’Donnell navigate an impossible system and raising his case on the Floor of the House, he was eventually awarded the money he was entitled to, but eight months of waiting and the hardship and strain had taken a toll. His doctor confirmed that he was suffering from malnutrition. I am appalled that my constituent was suffering from malnutrition here in the United Kingdom in 2014.

Another constituent, Trudie Ann Birchall, made her claim for PIP on 20 November 2013, just after she had been diagnosed with cervical cancer. The Department for Work and Pensions was aware of her diagnosis, but it took Atos five months, until 7 April, to get around to assessing her. She was told after her assessment that her claim would be decided by 5 June, but that came and went, and she had to wait almost another fortnight to be informed of her entitlement.

The Minister’s Department has said that people with terminal illness should have their applications fast-tracked and a decision made within 28 days. What concerns me is that Ms Birchall’s case is not exceptional. Since the introduction of PIP, thousands of cancer patients have been left in the dark, with at least 4,500 of them waiting six months or more to find out even whether they will be awarded the benefit.

Does my hon. Friend agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), who said in yesterday’s debate something along the lines that the debate is not about the philosophy of welfare reforms, but about the way it is delivered? We have all seen in our advice surgeries examples similar to those my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) is outlining. Does she agree that it is simply wrong for our constituents to pay the price of this Government’s incompetence?

I thank my hon. Friend for his emotional contribution, which highlights the challenge facing too many of our constituents who come to our constituency surgeries to highlight the process they have had to go through and the weeks and often months of waiting. That is not acceptable.

I was talking about the impact specifically on cancer patients. It is appalling that we should treat them in this way, which is why I am delighted to have secured this debate to ask the Minister to explain what he and his Department will do about it.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Earlier this year on the Floor of the House, I raised the cases of two young women whose cases were brought to me by CLIC Sargent. They both have cancer and had been waiting seven months. One secured her PIP after my intervention. The other secured it because the Minister intervened when I raised the matter at DWP questions. The reality is that most people do not know that they can go to their MP, or that their MP can raise it with the Minister. Do we not need to sort out the system?

I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution. I am sharing with the Chamber a handful of cases on behalf of constituents who have given me permission to raise those cases. Other constituents have not given that permission because they are worried about the consequences and the impact it might have on their wait. He touches on an issue that was highlighted in a report by IFF Research, which was commissioned by Macmillan in late 2013. It investigated the impact of PIP on the financial status, standard of living and well-being of people living with cancer. It found that the majority of claimants had yet to reach an outcome and that they waited an average of just under four and a half months. A quarter of respondents in that study had been waiting at least six months.

Those delays are having a real and shattering impact on cancer patients. They mean that more than half of respondents had increased financial worries and 51% thought that the process had caused emotional strain. Two fifths were unable adequately to heat their homes and one in three thought that the delays had resulted in mental health problems, such as anxiety or depression. We are talking about some of the most seriously ill people in our communities, and I do not believe that people battling cancer should have to battle their own Government to obtain the financial support they need.

What about those who are too ill to fight for what is rightfully theirs? My constituent Tracey Lewis suffers from mental health problems and severe anxiety. She registered her claim for PIP in August 2013. She sent off her information in September and Atos confirmed receipt of it on 27 September 2013. She then heard nothing for six months—not a word. Tracey was too ill to battle against the system on her own, and only after an official complaint was made by the citizens advice bureau and I intervened was an appointment set up for her on 2 April 2014. Months down the line, Tracey is still waiting for a decision, and she is not alone.

My constituent Gillian Henderson submitted her claim in January 2014. Seven months later, she has still not had an Atos medical and still does not have a decision. Gillian suffers from severe sleep apnoea. Her disability is incurable and without the aid of her machine, which she must be hooked up to every night, she would stop breathing an average of 78 times an hour. Gillian was told by DWP a couple of months back that she would definitely be contacted for an assessment in June. It is now July, and she has still not heard anything.

Those are just some of the horrifying cases I have encountered from constituents who have given me permission to use their names and to raise their cases, but I am worried about those who have not given me that permission because they are too afraid. That is replicated in constituencies throughout the country, and it is unacceptable. Only a quarter of disabled people who have applied for PIP have had a decision. Statistics published early this month found that in the first 12 months of operation, DWP made decisions on 84,900 people who were seeking PIP. That is just under 7,000 decisions a month. DWP expects to assess 3.6 million people for PIP by 2018, but to reach that target at the current rate of 7,000 a month would take more than 42 years.

The situation does not seem to be getting better, and may be getting worse. We are now seeing delays of more than seven months for a decision, which is up from more than five months in December. People are facing major delays with both Atos and Capita to secure face-to-face meetings, and it is taking much too long for Atos and Capita to report back after assessments—sometimes three to five months.

The Department itself admitted in its annual report, which was published last week:

“The volume of assessments undertaken by providers on both contracts has fallen consistently below demand, with a detrimental impact on customer service and implications for forecast expenditure on sickness and disability benefits.”

The Public Accounts Committee inquiry, which reported earlier this month, also found:

“The unacceptable level of service provided has created uncertainty, stress and financial costs for claimants, and put additional financial and other pressures on disability organisations, and on other public services, that support claimants.”

The response from the Government to the distress that they have caused has been less than satisfactory. I wrote to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions back in April highlighting my serious concerns about what appears to me to be a growing trend in long delays for PIP in Liverpool, Wavertree. The response I received did not commit to the action that I would have expected—in fact, it was pitiful, and it was the reason why I sought today’s debate.

I have some questions that I hope the Minister will respond to. What action is he taking to speed up all stages of the PIP process to ensure that benefit decisions are made on a timely basis? How does he plan to tackle the backlog of PIP applications that has arisen? What is he doing to ensure that his Department’s contractors provide an acceptable level of service to claimants? How does he intend to make the system easier for claimants going forward?

On behalf of Thomas, Mohammad, Trudie, Gillian and Tracey, and those who did not want their names shared with the House today, I have to say that the appalling delays that my constituents have faced, and the devastating impact that it has had on them, their families and their carers, echo a grim picture of what is going on right across the county. The chaotic handling of the PIP leaves serious questions about ministerial competence at the Department for Work and Pensions. I say that because anyone in the Chamber could need PIP in the future. I am ashamed to live in a country that is treating our most sick and vulnerable in this way. The state should be supporting people in their time of need, not making them feel worse, and I look forward to hearing from the Minister how he is going to put it right.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Chope, even if we have been somewhat delayed by proceedings in the House; I fully understand why that was. I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) on securing the debate. She is joined in the Chamber by her colleagues from Liverpool, a city I have a great empathy with. I was there only a week or two ago with the mayor. He was very pleased to see me, simply because, I think, I created the cruise terminal in Liverpool, even if I did not save the coastguard station, but we cannot have everything and I did try very hard.

I have been in this job some eight or nine months and my officials will confirm, probably by not nodding, that I am brutally honest about the problems we have with PIP. I have said time and again that the time it is taking the contractors to do the work we are asking them to do, and the time it is taking my Department to do things, is fundamentally unacceptable. I have put a series of measures in place, which I will discuss during the short time I have. If I cannot answer the specific points that the hon. Lady made, or if I forget—I am naughty in that way sometimes—I will certainly write to her with a more fulfilling set of answers.

I say at the outset that if any Member of the House has constituents who are waiting for PIP for an unacceptable length of time, then, like many colleagues in this House, they should write to me. The hon. Lady has done so, as has the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), who is by her side. I cannot promise that that will resolve the situation instantaneously. I am not even certain at times that my intervention will give them the result that they want, but at least I will be aware of the situation, and we can look carefully into the detail of what has gone on. The point I want to make is that people should not be afraid. Nothing that they say to their MP, and nothing in the correspondence that comes to me, would have any effect on the speed or the decision, and that is absolutely crucial. If I put nothing else on the record today, that is very important.

I will touch on a couple of points that the hon. Lady raised, and then on the proposals. In the debate in the House yesterday, we announced how we intend to speed up PIP, and we have set specific targets for that. Thank goodness we live in a country where cancer is not, frankly, the death knell that it perhaps was when I was a young man. The fear of cancer is still there, but for so many people, cancer is curable, and they can go on to live fulfilling lives. When I am looking at decisions to be made on terminal illness, I rely enormously on the consultants and the fantastic work that Macmillan does.

I gave evidence to the Select Committee on Work and Pensions very soon after I came to this job, and it was put to me that it was taking 28 days to make a decision on PIPs for terminally ill people. I said to the Committee that that was unacceptable, and that I would like to get it under 10 days on average. I have done so. It is not the Department’s view that it should take 28 days. That is what it was taking, wrongly; it is inside 10 days now. I think we can drive that down more, particularly with the help of Macmillan and the work I have been doing with it. I do not agree with everything that Macmillan says, but on this particular issue, we work very closely together. We are working now on more technology and particularly on secure PDFs, which in the 21st century, you would think we would use much more widely in government than we do. However, secure PDFs will be used and we will get rid of some of the paper.

Someone having cancer does not, thank goodness, mean that they are terminally ill, though I fully understand the real concerns of someone who has had that diagnosis; but if the consultant or Macmillan tells us that information, under exactly the criteria that were there under the previous Administration, we click into a completely different different system so that we can get the payments out as fast as we can. The length of time that has been taken for a PIP is unacceptable. I am working very closely with providers and my officials at each end of the process to make sure that it is sped up, and to make sure that the contractors—both Atos and Capita—fulfil our requirements as regards quality and have enough capacity in their systems to ensure that they do that. That is something that we are working on. As I have said before, this means that I will be paying the contractors more to deliver the services that we are asking from them quicker. That has an effect on my departmental expenditure limit—I fully accept that—but the most important thing is that we get the payments to the people who deserve them and need them so much, and that people who do not need them do not get them.

I will not, if the hon. Gentleman does not mind. I did not intervene on the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree, so that I would have enough time, because this is a very short debate. I have to finish soon and there are some really important points I want to make. If I get towards the latter part of my comments and I have made the points I want to make, I will naturally give way to the hon. Gentleman.

We said in the Chamber yesterday that we expect that by the autumn, no one will be waiting for an assessment for more than 26 weeks and by the end of the year, we expect that to be no longer than 16 weeks. The previous Administration did not have a disability living allowance target, but we have set out that by the end of the year we expect that the waiting time for assessments will not be longer than that. That means that we are investing. We are putting people alongside the contractors from my Department, so we are shortening the journey time. Perhaps they are concerned about certain methods, or whether we can do as many paper-based assessments.

One of the biggest issues that has occurred with the PIP is that under DLA, only about 7% of people applying would ever have had a face-to-face assessment. I think we all accept that that was too low. If there is anybody in this Chamber who does not accept that, I do not understand why. What was wrong is that we went to 97% face-to-face assessments—excluding, obviously, terminal cases—and I think that was unacceptable, and we will drive that down. Within the contract agreements, we would like it to have been 75% to 25%. That was what was set by Ministers in the previous Government. I would actually like to see it much lower—I think 60% to 40% is probably about where we should be. Interestingly enough, the face-to-face assessments that were done under DLA were done by Atos; it was doing the job before, and it is doing part of the job for us now.

I did make a decision, in parts of the country, to turn off natural reassessments for DLA. Let me give the reason why. Capita is doing natural reassessments, but in the other parts of the system that are dealt with by Atos, I was very conscious of people who had no money coming in from this sort of benefit—in other words, they did not have DLA previously and were not getting PIP—and I felt that we should ensure that new claimants were dealt with quicker. I will not turn on natural reassessment of DLA payments that are being converted into PIP—unless a person’s condition deteriorates—until we have got the backlog under control and we are getting the figures that we are talking about now. That is very important. I do not want people with DLA to think that that will suddenly happen tomorrow, and we will be talking to them. We will not. Their payments will stay—I repeat—unless their condition deteriorates.

It is enormously important that we work as fast as we can to ensure that the assessments are done correctly and that lots of people are not worrying about appeals. That is why the decision makers look at the decisions again—natural reconsideration, as it is called. Of course, individuals have the right to appeal, but although these are the early stages, it appears that we are making decisions correctly—not in every case; some still go to appeal, but certainly nowhere near as many are going to appeal as we expected, and there are more people getting more from the PIP decision than they did under DLA.

I can give an example of that. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree, alluded to some of her constituents’ conditions, particularly in relation to mental health. It was ever so difficult, if not impossible, to get the highest rate of DLA with a mental health condition; people will do so under PIP. There are people getting that now, and that is right and proper. I will move on to another issue, but I did promise to give way to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) if I thought there was time. There is time, so I will give way.

The right hon. Gentleman prides himself on being from an ordinary working-class background, unlike many of his colleagues. Does he not understand, then, that the fundamental issue is the hardship being caused to constituents, as has been outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger)? It is no good just outlining what has happened to date. The Government need to do something to tackle the issue and to alleviate the problems that people are having. These are some of the most vulnerable people that any of us will ever come across in our lives.

I am not talking about what has happened. I have said that what happened in the past was unacceptable. I repeat that we expect that by the autumn no one will be waiting for assessments longer than 26 weeks, and that by the end of the year no one will be waiting longer than 16 weeks. That is not the past; that is going forward. A whole series of measures, including contract negotiations, are being dealt with to ensure that we can do that. The hon. Gentleman knows me well enough; I would not stand up and say that unless I believed that it could actually happen. I am absolutely determined, perhaps because of my background, although this is not a means-tested benefit. Everyone who is entitled to it gets it, no matter what, but I also fully accept that if someone’s income is low, this is such a desperately needed amount of money.

There is other help that can be given. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree, touched on the cost of taxis to the hospital and things like that. There are financial schemes whereby we can help with that, but what really should happen is that we should get the benefits sorted as fast as possible, and the measures that we are taking now—not what we did in the past—will allow us to do what we expect to do by the autumn, and to go beyond the 26 weeks and get down to 16.

With regard to terminal cases, we know anecdotally of some cases that are taking three to four days. On average, it is about 10 days. That means that there are still some, sadly, that take more than that. We will drive that down with technology. We can drive it down by ensuring that part 2 of the form comes back in much quicker than it did. The benefit starts from when the person makes the phone call, or someone makes the phone call on their behalf. That is unlike the old DLA, which started only when the forms arrived. However, we are still struggling to get claimants to get the forms back in as soon as possible.

There is the question of whether we can work more closely—I hope that we can—with the relevant charities and groups that are often advising claimants. There is the question of whether we can work more closely with colleagues across the House to ensure that we get the forms and the information back. That does not mean that we need tons and tons of information. Very often, we get a large amount of information in weight and size terms, when what we really need is a consultant’s letter, a GP’s letter and an explanation of the condition. The assessment is not in any way, shape or form a diagnosis; that has to be done by experts elsewhere. This is a capacity decision as to what their needs would be. I think that we can do a lot more work on that.

One area that we are looking at, for instance, is whether we can share information across different benefits. I know that the previous Administration looked at that. It is quite a complicated area, but we would think it would be common sense. If someone has the higher rate of PIP, we could see where that would link across to what their employment and support allowance would be and perhaps vice versa. It may not give us all the information, but often it would give us more information than we had before.

No Minister, of any colour or persuasion, can say that mistakes will not happen. However, I am determined that we have as few mistakes as possible. Of course, anyone, when we get the decision wrong, has the right to go to appeal, to go to the tribunals. I sat in on some of those tribunals, and one of the things I found was that we just did not have the information, sometimes, that was being presented to the tribunal. If we can deal with that, we can explain things to people much better, and not only because of our reconsideration of the claim.

With PIP, we now make phone calls directly to the claimant to explain why the decision has been made and why it is within the rules. We have found that very helpful. I have sat in on and listened to those conversations. I was in Liverpool, where those calls are made; one of the PIP centres is in Liverpool. Any of the hon. Members here today are welcome to go in and talk to the staff and listen to the calls that are being made. I think that that would be very useful to colleagues, particularly as the centre is on their doorstep. I am not saying that every claimant they would listen to would be from the same part of the world as the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree, or the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton, but it would be useful to go there. We have made that offer to the Front-Bench team in relation to not only this benefit but others, and I hope that it will be taken up.

I am ever so aware of the concern and the unacceptable lengths of time that the claims are taking. I am doing everything I possibly can to shorten that process, and to get more people having paper-based assessments. That will speed up the process. When people have a face-to-face assessment, that should be done in an environment that is helpful to them, so that we can get the decision made quicker. We have committed ourselves: we expect the length of time to be 26 weeks by the autumn and 16 weeks by Christmas. That is a position that I think we would all be very happy to be in.