It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I welcome this debate.
The measure of a Government’s compassion is their treatment of the most vulnerable members of society. Although we all recognise the unfortunate reality that we must deal with our nation’s deficit, that should never be done on the backs of that section of our society. I requested this debate in response to the dreadful experiences of some of my constituents with personal independence payments. Many of them require the state’s support in order to enjoy a life that those of us fortunate enough to enjoy good health often take for granted. For them, a fair measure of support makes the difference between spending their lives at home, isolated, alone and cut off from the rest of society, and enjoying as active a life as possible and participating in their communities.
Colleagues will know that in the past I have raised the deficiencies of the former disability living allowance. When a constituent of mine endured the difficulties associated with a laryngectomy—the removal of the voicebox, which is almost always carried out as a means of treating cancer—I spoke in the House. The benefits process was so convoluted that it resulted in an individual having to fill out an application form of massive proportions. That would be difficult for many of us, let alone for an individual with a profound physical or mental disability. In this individual’s case, using a telephone was just not possible. Enable, the charity supporting people with learning disabilities in Scotland, has said:
“Whilst it may be possible for many claimants to make this initial call without support, it is our experience that people with a learning disability are often unable to do this and require the physical support of advice services. This is especially true when no family or other support is available to assist.”
Citizens Advice Scotland agrees.
I sought this debate today not least to congratulate Citizens Advice Scotland, which runs the Scottish citizens advice bureaux, on its 75th anniversary. I warmly commend its excellent staff and many volunteers. Crucially, it released a report recently that shows that the rollout of PIP to replace DLA is in an utterly shambolic state. I commend that report to the House for its consideration, and I intend to make a number of references to it. For example, for some rural residents in the north of Scotland the nearest assessment centre is in Inverness, which requires an 80-mile round trip. In some cases, people have to go even further, travelling distances of up to 100 miles, and even in urban areas there are serious problems.
I will give another example of a person who was contacted by Atos for a home visit, so that they could receive a medical assessment for PIP. The individual was receiving in-patient care in hospital on the arranged date and informed Atos, which told her that non-attendance at the meeting would affect any award of PIP. Therefore, the patient had to arrange for an early discharge from hospital and pay for a taxi back to her home. Using a walking frame and with a nasogastric tube in place, she was told by the health care professional who arrived to see her that the assessment could not be carried out because she was too ill. Of course, that left the patient very upset and the health care professional informed her manager of this. Consequently, the health care professional was told that she could carry out the assessment if the patient agreed that it could go ahead. Afterwards, the patient had to get another taxi back to the hospital, at a cost of another £12.
Numerous cases involve what is at best a very sceptical line of questioning and at worst an outright interrogation of a claimant’s circumstances, and I know that many of my colleagues know of similar experiences.
Another decision involved an individual with heart failure who was initially refused any component of PIP, because she had walked from the car park to the assessment centre, albeit with enormous difficulty.
Time and again, the main reasons why people are asking for PIP decisions to be reviewed are, first, the failure to consider fully the impact of a client’s condition during the medical assessment, and, secondly, inconsistencies in the information provided by the Department for Work and Pensions following a decision.
Decisions about the refusal of the mobility component also cause problems. In its comprehensive report, Citizens Advice Scotland states that it has found selective use of evidence in order to make a decision not to award the benefit. Clients feel that not all of their circumstances have been considered, or that they have been over-simplified.
Another awful example is that of a client who had just been awarded a PIP daily living standard rate. He was told that he could drop dead at any time due to a heart condition, and he had a specialist cardiologist’s report from the beginning of last year stating that. The person is so traumatised by the wait and the hardship that have been caused that he cannot face the appeal; he has been told to avoid stressful circumstances at all costs. All that, and much more of what is in the report, is totally unacceptable.
Four in five advisors say that delays are causing worsening health, and in nine out of 10 cases are causing additional stress and anxiety, not to mention financial strain, while claims are being assessed.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this debate, and I am sure that we will continue to discuss this issue during the course of the day.
What can double or treble delays is the delay upon delay in the appeal procedure. I know of the case of someone who first applied for PIP back in September 2013. She was refused it in the first instance. She was then successful at the first-tier appeal, but the Department has not yet decided whether or not to appeal to the next tier up; because of various delays and errors, that decision has not yet been reached. So, 13 months after first applying, she is still facing nobody knows how many months of delay, and that kind of thing is causing people much tension and pressure, is it not?
I know why my hon. Friend feels so passionate, and the experience that he has shared with us is reflected in the views expressed in the report that I am asking the House to consider.
Another example I can give is of an individual who has serious health issues and who last year was diagnosed with throat cancer. He has been waiting for an appointment with Atos to be assessed for PIP. Due to the length of time that his processing is taking, he is now in a great deal of financial difficulty, with rent and council tax arrears of almost £2,600, despite his wife working full-time.
As we all know, PIP is an important passport to many other benefits, such as carer’s allowance, disability premiums, the mobility scheme, concessionary travel schemes, etc. It is indeed a lifeline for people who could not afford to leave the house otherwise and it is a vital part of their personal finances. It cannot be right that many of them face ruin and destitution while they are waiting for their claim to be processed.
This extreme financial hardship has caused a number of individuals to rely on handouts from friends and food banks, and on the accumulation of debt to an unsustainable degree. I know of an individual who has been waiting for an assessment since November 2013, but now his income has been so reduced that he cannot travel to appointments; if he pays for transport, he cannot top up his electricity meter. He has post-traumatic stress disorder and his current situation is resulting in his becoming more withdrawn and reluctant to request help. His mental health is deteriorating as a result. He has worked his entire life and in his 50s is a first-time claimant.
In Coatbridge, which is in my constituency, on 1 April there were 82 PIP applications for daily living claims and 160 mobility claims. I checked with Coatbridge CAB this morning and discovered that all these claims are lying in the in-tray of Atos or DWP and not being brought to a conclusion. I also clarified the position of the CAB in Bellshill, which is also in my constituency. It is handling a PIP claim that has been pending for 10 months.
My hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) tells me that there are similar problems in his city, and on that point I will give way.
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way and I congratulate him on securing a welcome and—in many ways—a well-timed debate. He has just described what we are experiencing in Coventry, including sloppy paperwork and long delays in receiving benefits, especially the earnings supplement, which is claimed by 25% of the claimants in Coventry. CAB time is taken up with that.
We see the same if we look at matters nationally. About 75,000 people are affected nationally, so what is happening in Scotland is also happening in Coventry and the rest of England. I do not want to repeat what my hon. Friend has said. Despite that, we should congratulate the city of Coventry, because it is trying to get on top of what is, quite frankly, an overwhelming problem. This whole facility—the entire benefits system—must be looked at now, because it seems to be a shambles.
I am glad that my hon. Friend intervened to underline my assertion that problems exist throughout the whole United Kingdom.
The truth is that the picture is depressing, and it is not as if the Department for Work and Pensions has not been warned. The National Audit Office, which published a report in February 2014 entitled “Personal Independence Payment: early progress”, investigated the performance of the DWP as it introduced PIP. It found that
“the Department did not allow enough time to test whether the assessment process could handle large numbers of claims. As a result of this poor early operational performance, claimants face long and uncertain delays and the Department has had to delay the wider roll-out of the programme.”
The Department anticipated that it would take 74 days to decide on a claim, but the actual average wait is 107 days. For terminally ill claimants—I underline “terminally ill”—the process was taking 28 days on average against a departmental assumption of 10 days. That represents a wholly unrealistic assumption of the capacities of both the Department for Work and Pensions and Atos in Scotland. The end result is a system that would not work on paper, clearly does not work in practice and is further straining claimants’ finances and health.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge), the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said in response to the NAO report:
“The Department need to understand the causes of this backlog to develop a clear plan on how they are going to work with contractors to clear it, and ensure there are suitable processes in place to make sure this does not happen again.”
I have experience in my constituency, as I am sure my right hon. Friend does in his, of people winning an appeal after a considerable amount of time. The person will receive their PIP allowance some six months after, but their housing benefit is not backdated to the point at which they lost their disability allowance. When the benefit is lost, the person also loses their passport to housing benefit, but local authorities do not backdate to the day when the person lost their disability or other benefit. People are therefore left with substantial debts in their housing account that no one will pay for.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. If I may say so, I am pleased that we have here so many Coatbridge-born Members of Parliament, including my hon. Friends the Members for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty) and for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham). Not least you, Mr Gray, have close associations with Coatbridge—
Mr Gray, I do not think that anybody would confuse your neutrality in this debate with the opinions that you rightly express when you have the opportunity.
Mencap, when giving evidence to the Public Accounts Committee, asked that the reassessments of people currently claiming disability living allowance be stopped until the huge delays in assessing people’s PIP applications were dealt with. The Select Committee on Work and Pensions, chaired admirably by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg), released a report in March 2014 entitled “Monitoring the performance of the Department for Work and Pensions in 2012-13”. It found that the current level of service offered to PIP claimants and the length of time that disabled people had to wait to find out whether they were eligible was “unacceptable”. Statistics published by the DWP on 11 February 2014 showed that 229,700 new claims had been submitted up to the end of December 2013, but that only 43,800 decisions had been made. Noting that some claims were taking six months or more to process, the Committee called for “urgent action” on the current “unacceptable service” provided to PIP claimants. While some of the reports were published several months ago, the situation has hardly changed. Statistics released by the DWP in September show that, of the 529,400 cases registered for PIP between April 2013 and the end of July 2014, just over 206,000 had been processed and awarded, declined or withdrawn. That means that just under 40% of cases registered for PIP have been cleared in 16 months, which is a wholly avoidable disaster for claimants.
The problem is not exclusively Scottish. The Government, through the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, are gambling that the British public are suffering from austerity measures and that they have little interest in how people with disabilities are being treated. The Government are wrong, and their standing in the eyes of the public is suffering. People with disabilities have families and friends, and the British people are profoundly fair. In any event, it is morally repugnant for the coalition Government to mistreat vulnerable people as a result of a bureaucratic logjam that they have created and for which they must accept responsibility. In other words, it is a United Kingdom Government problem.
I have congratulated Citizens Advice on its report, but it would be remiss of me not to highlight and promote the outstanding work of local government and their partners, which engage closely with vulnerable people. In my constituency, for example, North Lanarkshire council has recognised the plight of vulnerable people and has impressively put substantial additional resources into tackling their welfare issues, providing even more welfare rights officers. No praise is too high for the marvellous work that they do.
If my hon. Friend allows me, I will not, so as to give the Minister time to reply.
In conclusion, the Secretary of State should have the humility to offer a profuse apology for the stress, hardship and financial inconvenience that the roll-out of PIP has caused to so many people. He should publicly apologise on behalf of his Government. There should be a clear timetable for dealing with the transition to PIP, and it should be agreed in consultation with local government, Citizens Advice, MPs and interested charities. There should be no further roll-out of PIP until all the problems and backlogs have been sorted. There should be a further independent inquiry to identify how the Department for Work and Pensions got into this hopeless mess and how it will respond.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr Clarke) on securing the debate. I used to sit in debates that he led when I was a shadow Minister, so I know that he has long-standing interest in disability matters and it is good to hear his views.
I also pay tribute to Citizens Advice. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned Citizens Advice Scotland, but my constituency team works closely with the citizens advice bureau in the Forest of Dean. We assist some of its clients, and sometimes it assists a number of ours.
As the right hon. Gentleman referred to our overall treatment of the most vulnerable in our society and disabled people, I will begin by putting on record that the amount of taxpayer money spent on personal independence payments and disability living allowance for working-age people has been more in real terms in each year of this Parliament compared with the year that we came to power. To be clear, more resources are going to support people with disabilities to enable them to live independent lives and to work.
I have been frank in oral questions in the Chamber, and during a lengthy evidence session with the Work and Pensions Committee, that the delays that people face are unacceptable. I have not tried to hide from that and I am committed to putting it right. It is literally my top priority, and it was one of the things that the Prime Minister specifically asked me to address when he appointed me in July. The right hon. Gentleman, having set out his concerns and those in the reports, will want to know what the Department is doing to deal with the issues.
I may at the end of my speech, but if the hon. Lady will forgive me, I will try to deal with the points raised by the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill. As this is his debate, it would be discourteous if I did not do so.
We have a new team of officials in the Department that is working on a daily basis with our assessment providers. Atos deals with assessments in Scotland, while Capita is the other provider in Great Britain. I look at their performance on a weekly basis to ensure that we are driving through improvements. The capacity of the providers has increased. We have doubled the number of health professionals carrying out the assessments. We have increased the number of assessment centres and extended the opening hours. We have also increased the number of paper-based assessments, which occur when the evidence that the claimant sends to us makes it sufficiently clear that a decision can be reached without needing to get them to attend a face-to-face assessment. We follow that process when we can. If claimants have also had a work capability assessment, we are looking at using the report from that as part of the evidence, and that is enabling us to make more decisions on paper, thus sparing the claimant the need to come in for a face-to-face assessment.
We have made a number of changes to our processes and IT systems to ensure that the transmission of information from the provider to the Department is streamlined. We have also looked at what we communicate to claimants regarding the information with which they provide us in the first place to ensure that we get the right information that enables us to make a decision earlier in the process.
We have increased the number of decisions we have taken. We made more than 35,000 a month according to the latest published statistics, which cover up to July. Since then, we have continued to build significantly on those numbers week on week. I will not pretend that the problem is fixed, but we are moving in the right direction. We will deliver the Secretary of State’s commitment to ensure that, by the end of this year, no one will have to wait more than 16 weeks for their assessment, and we will look to improve that further next year.
In Scotland specifically, Atos, which is the assessment provider there, has more than trebled its output this year. It is now clearing more cases than we send it and working through its backlog. The picture is improving, but I do not want to take away from the fact that people have been inconvenienced and experienced some delays. In Scotland, we have seen one of the best improvements for any part of Great Britain. There has been a 40% increase in the number of home consultations. The right hon. Gentleman and the report to which he referred said that given the geography and population density of Scotland, travelling to an assessment centre can involve a lengthy journey. More home consultations are taking place, and there is a new assessment centre in Edinburgh, with more to follow in Aberdeen and Dundee in the coming months.
We have improved the communication to claimants at the front end of the process so that they know the best evidence to supply and how long their claim may take to be assessed. We stress the importance of sending us relevant information to speed up the claim. We have also been communicating better with claimants to confirm when we have received their forms so that they know that their claim is in the system.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the performance of the system for claimants who are terminally ill. I am pleased to say that our dealing with those cases is now pretty close to our target. He is right that the performance earlier this year was not adequate. My predecessor, the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), put a lot of work into dealing with that, working closely with Macmillan Cancer Support. I think we have got that part of the process working well, as is right, because it is important that we make timely decisions for those with terminal illnesses and give them support. The assessment providers are giving claimants better information about where they are in the process, how long a claim may take and who to contact at each stage of their claim.
On assessment outcomes—while the right hon. Gentleman talked about delays, he also touched on the assessment itself—we want to ensure that people get high-quality, objective and fair assessments. We want everyone to get the right decision first time. The report included several quotes from CAB customers on both sides of the argument, a number of which demonstrated that once people had received their assessment, they felt that the process was fair and that it reached the right outcomes. There were, of course, some quotes setting out other experiences, but I thought that the Citizens Advice report was fairly balanced and demonstrated that the quality of assessment is good.
The right hon. Gentleman talked about the impact of some of the delays, and we also heard about that in interventions. Of course, a delay in a claim can cause claimants a cash-flow issue. It is worth saying that if someone is successful in getting PIP, their award is backdated to the date of claim, but I accept that some face such a issue. PIP is not an out-of-work benefit. It is not designed for those who are unable to work, as that is what jobseeker’s allowance and the employment and support allowance are for. Under the ESA, people are paid an assessment rate from when they put in the claim. If people are unable to work because of their disability or health condition, PIP is not the benefit that deals with their lack of income.
The right hon. Gentleman talked about the important issue of passporting, which is where getting PIP entitles someone to other benefits. I was asked about carer’s allowance, and when someone gets PIP, that will be backdated, and the carer’s allowance can be backdated, too.
I listened carefully to what the hon. Gentleman said about that. PIP and DLA are not passported benefits for housing benefit. There is a disability premium in housing benefit, but getting PIP or DLA does not entitle someone to housing benefit. If he wants to write to me about a specific case, however, I will look into it. PIP and DLA can give a bit more housing benefit if someone is entitled to that. However, they do not determine whether someone is entitled to housing benefit, so I am not sure I follow his point.
Okay. On other passporting issues, blue badges can be issued without PIP being in payment, so if someone is not getting PIP, it does not mean that they cannot get a blue badge. NHS help with travel expenses and prescriptions is based on the receipt of income-related benefits. Local authorities are able to provide social care or help with adaptations on the basis of their assessments, and they should not exclude people just because they are not entitled to the personal independence payment.
In the couple of minutes remaining, I shall say a little more about claims relating to those who are terminally ill. In addition to the things that I have mentioned, we have put in place a dedicated phone service for such claims, as well as an electronic form so that the medical information we require from GPs and consultants can get to the Department as quickly as possible. As I said, we are now achieving the performance that we would want from the Department, so we have made progress in that area.
I understand the frustrations that people have experienced. There have been cases in my constituency of people waiting too long. I have been frank about that, and my top priority is to improve that situation. We are making progress and moving in the right direction, and we will hit the Secretary of State’s commitment by the end of the year—I give the right hon. Gentleman my assurance about that. I have clearly set out that we are spending more money on supporting those on DLA and PIP in every year of this Parliament compared with the year we came to office. It is not the case that we are dealing with the deficit off the backs of disabled people, and I want to ensure that the customer experience is improved.
The right hon. Gentleman talked about an independent review. He will know that Paul Gray has been appointed to carry out the first independent review. He has taken evidence from a range of people involved in this benefit. He is due to provide his report, which the Department will publish, by the end of the year. It will set out, according to his terms of reference, information about the quality of assessments, how the providers are performing and whether the assessments are correctly putting people into the right categories.
I recognise that the hon. Gentleman represents an English constituency, as I do. We are making progress in England. By focusing on Scotland, I was not trying to say that that is the only place where we are making progress, as we are making progress across Great Britain. I was simply making the point to the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill that the performance in Scotland is better than it is elsewhere in Great Britain, and I hope that what I have said will reassure constituents.