[Mr David Crausby in the Chair]
It is a pleasure, Mr Crausby, to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon. I am grateful to have been granted this debate on the processing of personal independence payments. As in the constituencies of many of my colleagues, concern about the time taken to process PIP payments has been significant in my constituency. Several cases that have been brought to my attention are both shocking and heart-wrenching. I am here today to represent constituents who have come to me in despair for their stories to be heard. I know that many right hon. and hon. Members throughout the country have constituents in similar situations. I thank the organisations that have contacted me recently to tell me about their work and some of the challenges faced by the people they help. They include Macmillan Cancer Support, Scope, Mencap, the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign and Parkinson’s UK.
I believe there is strong support in this country for a social security system that helps people to get by when they fall on hard times, and that provides dignity and a decent standard of living for those who are unable to work because of sickness or disability. Before being elected, the Prime Minister said:
“The test of a good society is you look after the elderly, the frail, the vulnerable, the poorest in our society. And that test is even more important in difficult times, when difficult decisions have to be taken, than it is in better times”
yet, four and a half years on, life for disabled people is harder than ever. They have been among the worst affected by the Government’s decisions.
As the House has heard, the delays in personal independence payments are a serious problem, not only for my constituents in Bolton South East, but for people throughout the country. They are desperate people. Many of them have worked and paid into the system for years, but have been struck by disability or illness and forced to wait months for help from the Department for Work and Pensions.
PIP is a non-means-tested benefit available to people suffering ill health or with a disability. It is intended to help those who receive it so that they can cover the additional costs that will inevitably arise from their condition, whether they are working or not. It is important to remind the House that life costs more for those who are disabled. There may be additional costs for special food, medicines, equipment, extra heating and lighting costs for those who need to stay at home longer, and transport costs for those who are less mobile. Such extra costs are not luxuries. They are essential to a life of dignity, and any civilised society should make it a priority to see that people who need such help get it without fuss.
A constituent of mine who has cancer and lost the use of her legs was one of the 720 people in Newport East with an outstanding claim. She was paid in October. The payment was approved in August, but it took until October to pay her, with no backdating. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Minister should address that point, because it is outrageous that we should leave people that long with no backdating?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. The crux of the problem is delay, not only in the assessment programme, but in giving the money. I will speak about a constituent in a similar situation to that of her constituent.
A recent Scope research paper shows that the costs add up to an extra £550 a month. Some costs cannot be avoided, but disabled people too often continue to pay over the odds for everyday items and services. The Government must guarantee that the value of PIP keeps up with disabled people’s extra costs. For example, placing a triple lock on PIP, as the Government have done on pensions, would ensure that its value is maintained and build the financial resilience of disabled people. PIP is the financial lifeline that disabled people rely on to help to meet those costs. Instead, its processing has brought distress and hardship to some of the most vulnerable people. Sadly, the Government have completely failed to remember the human impact. Behind the bureaucratic language and spreadsheets are enormous backlogs of ordinary people in need who are being let down and mistreated. I will give a few examples, which I am sure will be familiar to colleagues and their constituencies.
Mr and Mrs Booth came to my advice surgery in March. Mr Booth had had a stroke in August 2013. He was paralysed on his right side. He had been waiting for an Atos assessment since September 2013. PIP is a passport to other benefits and his wife could not apply for carer’s allowance until he received PIP. Mr Booth told me that he was being summoned to court the following week, and that he faced having his home repossessed because he could not repay his mortgage as a result of not being able to access benefits. He was receiving only statutory sick pay, and his future was hinging on the Atos assessment.
I wrote to the Secretary of State on 3 March and highlighted Mr Booth’s case. A week later, the judge adjourned the repossession order for two months to allow the situation with Atos to be resolved. By the time Mr and Mrs Booth revisited me at my surgery in July, Mr Booth had had his assessment in May, but they were still waiting. They had contacted DWP twice. It had assured them that the matter would be dealt with soon. Clearly that was not the case. I contacted the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), then Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, urging him to look into the case as a matter of urgency. I received a response at the end of July, which addressed some of the issues I had highlighted. The letter stated:
“I am sorry for the time it has taken to process Mr Booth’s PIP claim of 12th September 2013. There was an initial delay in forwarding it to Atos, the assessment provider, because we needed to validate the claim and this was not completed until 17th October. The delay in arranging for this to be done is regrettable. Unfortunately, experience so far has highlighted that in many cases, the assessment process has been taking longer than expected. We are continuing to monitor this closely and we are working with the assessment providers to try and reduce the time they are taking to complete their part of the processes.”
That was unfortunate and regrettable for Mr Booth. He was given a back payment of £4,694.37 for the 10 months he had waited, but it came too late for him. His home was repossessed and he and his wife had been made homeless by the negligent delay.
A second constituent, Ms Sylvia Syddall, contacted my office on behalf of her husband who had suffered a heart attack and three subsequent strokes. She had made a claim to cover the additional costs to support her husband. Atos first informed Ms Syddall that her claim had been received four months after the initial application was made to the DWP, and 16 months from the present day. Several administration errors followed, and Atos insisted on a medical assessment, despite being given much medical evidence stating that Mr Syddall was severely ill and had been hospitalised for a prolonged period, and was unable to feed and wash himself. However, the delay continued for weeks. Atos kept insisting that it would do a medical assessment despite there being so much staff medical evidence staring it in the face and telling it exactly what was wrong with him. Sadly, Ms Syddall’s husband passed away without his PIP payment ever being processed and completed. His wife had been paying for the additional costs herself and sadly, she did not even have enough funds to pay for his funeral. Sixteen months on, Ms Syddall is without her husband, without having received any payments. It is a particularly troubling case, demonstrating the consequences of the deeply flawed process that we seem to have at the moment and how such delays are hurting the most vulnerable.
Let me give a third example. Mr Darius Pope is a young disabled constituent, confined to a wheelchair after a road accident. He suffers depression. He is now suffering at the hands of Atos and from over six months of the DWP chaos. Will the Minister tell me what I, as an MP, should say to a constituent such as Mr Pope, who is faced with such considerable stress and anxiety from the processing of his personal independence payment application that he tells me he would take his own life if it were possible for him to walk out of his wheelchair? This constituent has contemplated suicide. The additional costs of living are so burdensome that he has to borrow money from his parents, which is not a great situation—that relationship has become increasingly strained.
Those are just a few of the appalling cases from constituents who have allowed me to share their stories, but there are many others. As I have said, I have no doubt that such stories are replicated throughout the country. When I posted about this debate on social media, I was inundated with stories from across the country.
The concerns do not just come from my constituents or colleagues. In a report published on 27 February 2014, the National Audit Office said that the “poor” early operational performance had led to long delays and uncertainty for PIP claimants. It said that the Department had failed to allow sufficient time to test the new system and that unexpected delays in the assessment process had led to a large backlog of claims. The NAO recommended that the DWP set out a clear plan for informing claimants about the likely delays they would experience while plans to improve performance took effect. I ask this question now and will ask it again later: will the Minister today confirm what progress has been made?
Back in April, in a similar debate on personal independence payments in Wales, the then Minister admitted that there were delays in all parts of the process, including at the DWP end. Does my hon. Friend believe it is important to hear from the Minister today how much of that delay in Wales is Capita and how much is the DWP, and what he and the DWP are doing to speed up the process at the DWP end, which he is responsible for?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, and I hope the Minister has heard what she says—she echoes a concern that others have about the delays.
The tragic part of the situation is that everybody says, “Yes, there are delays,”—we have been hearing that since last year—yet when the pilot project was rolled out, why was it not rolled out on a smaller scale? Why were proper resourcing and staffing not given to the new system of assessment? Surely people must have known that when a new project is rolled out, there will be teething problems. The purpose of pilot projects is to see what happens, so why not do the pilot projects on a small scale? Why not make sure that the resources are there to deal with all the eventualities and problems? Why carry it out on such a massive scale that we end up with those backlogs? The backlogs are still there. It may be a naive solution, but why does the Department not employ more people who can process applications? Why does it not tell Atos to speed up its assessment process? I cannot believe that in the 21st century, in the country that we live in, such things cannot be expedited. For months and months we have been hearing the same story—“Yes, there are delays, yes, there are delays”—but there are solutions, and it seems as if nobody in the Department of Work and Pensions or other Ministries is bothering to listen or trying to deal with the solutions. It is almost as if lip service is being paid by everybody—they say, “Yes, there are delays; we are dealing with it,” but nothing has been done.
The Work and Pensions Committee and the Public Accounts Committee have described services to PIP claimants and the length of time people must wait for decisions on PIP claims as unacceptable. The Chair of the Public Accounts Committee rightly said:
“The implementation of Personal Independence Payment has been nothing short of a fiasco.”
I am pleased that the Minister recently acknowledged that the situation is not satisfactory and is working collaboratively with the assessment providers to improve performance and reduce the backlog of claims, but I would still like to ask him this: why should sick people have to pay the price for his maladministration?
Data released by the Department show that, of the 529,400 cases registered for the personal independence payment between April 2013 and the end of July this year, just over 206,000 have been cleared—either awarded, declined or withdrawn. However, the figures do not reveal how long those individuals had been waiting in that 16-month period when PIP was first introduced. Why are the Government not disclosing data on waiting times?
Before the summer, the Secretary of State reassured the House that, by autumn 2014, no PIP claimant would have to wait more than six months, and that, by the end of the year, no one would be waiting for more than 16 weeks. However, I was disappointed that the Department is working towards reducing its waiting times to 16 weeks to assessment rather than to payment, as first implied by the Secretary of State. Based on that time frame, the absolute earliest that a claimant could expect to receive a decision would be after 18 to 20 weeks, which is not acceptable.
In any case, autumn has passed, but I still have cases of constituents who have been waiting for more than six months. The end of the year is fast approaching. Will the Minister tell the House why he was not able to meet the autumn target for the constituents of Bolton South East, and how he intends to achieve the end-of-year target?
The situation is not getting any better; it is getting worse. People are facing major delays with both Atos and Capita to secure face-to-face meetings, and it is taking far too long for Atos and Capita to report after assessments. The longer those problems persist, the more long-term the impact. What is the Minister doing to ensure that his Department’s contractors provide an acceptable service to claimants?
Fightback is a local charity in my constituency that helps a considerable number of constituents. It reported to me that its helpline has been inundated with disabled people phoning for advice. It has received almost 50 calls on PIP delays in a day. Many are facing extreme delays of well over six months.
If the Department has revised its assumption, will the Minister set out the end-to-end process of PIP claims and how much time each part of the process takes? Does he agree that it is right and proper to ensure that disabled people, including those affected by cancer, receive financial support as quickly as possible, and that 11 weeks to payment, as suggested by Macmillan, is a more acceptable time to wait?
What struck me as unusual when carrying out the research for today’s debate is the reason why the Government have not published for more than a year the average length of time it takes to process PIP claims for normal and special rules as part of their quarterly statistics. In the interests of transparency, will the Department publish clearance and waiting times to demonstrate that claimants are waiting no longer than 16 weeks to assessment, in line with the current aspiration? Considering that the benefit has been in place for a year, why is it taking so long to provide a rounded and representative picture of PIP performance, improvement activity and claimants’ experience?
Earlier, I explained that my constituents Mr Pope and Mr and Mrs Booth had fallen into burdensome debt because of the additional costs of disability. A Scope report shows that they are not alone. I do not know whether the Minister is aware that statistics reveal that the disabled are twice as likely to have unsecured debt such as payday loans and credit card debt, and debt such as logbook loans. Such debt often totals more than half their household income. Even the Government’s research has shown that the disabled are over-represented among high-cost borrowers: 18% of disabled people use that type of credit, compared with 5% of non-disabled people. That prompts the question: why is a group that is already vulnerable to financial pressure being “looked after” by legal loan sharks and doorstep lenders, not the Government?
As we know, debt does not just make day-to-day living harder for Mr Pope and others. It is impossible for people to plan for the future when they cannot be sure whether they can keep a roof over their head. Debt narrows their horizons. A disabled person’s debt problems are only compounded by the additional difficulties they will have in finding work that is suitable for them.
I hope the Minister uses this opportunity to answer the questions I have asked and to explain what he and his Department are doing to make the system easier for claimants. We have heard in the past acknowledgement from him and others that the delay is unacceptable and more must be done to address it, but what specific actions have been put in place to do that?
The essence of the debate is common human decency and treating people with dignity and respect. Certainly in the case of PIP, many hundreds of thousands of people in our country have failed to be protected by the Government. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response with concrete information on what they have done so far and concrete proposals on what they will do to deal with the backlog.
I should start by explaining why I am lisping. I have just had major dental treatment. I apologise, but it is really uncomfortable.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) on obtaining the debate. Such a debate could take place almost daily, because every MP will have a considerable number of constituents who have been deeply affected by the process that they are having to go through. I have a long list of constituents who have faced significant delays or who have been told that they must travel to places such as Portsmouth, which is three and a half hours from Plymouth, for assessments. Others turned up for assessments in Tavistock, which is nearer—20 miles away—only to be told on arrival that the assessment had been cancelled but somehow there had been a failure to inform them. The individual I am thinking of applied in January and, before the abortive visit to Tavistock, was told that his file had been lost. All these individuals are extremely anxious and vulnerable. If we add those having difficulty with the employment and support allowance system, the number rises again.
Let me just mention Mrs P. She does not want to be named. She is vulnerable and, like many of my constituents, is anxious about her name being in the public domain. I have in many of these cases already written to the Department for Work and Pensions. Mrs P applied many months ago. She has had, and continues to have, major cancer operations on her lung, liver and bowel. She had to postpone the last assessment because of a lung operation. Atos has confirmed that cancer sufferers cannot escape assessment unless terminally ill. This lady is extremely ill. We chased the assessment, and it happened. She is waiting for the DWP to produce a decision and was told that that could take up to 26 weeks. In some cases, we are now looking at almost a year from applying to receiving a decision, and as we have already heard, some people do not live long enough to hear the outcome. That is utterly unacceptable.
I shall focus today on one particular group—people with muscular dystrophy. I am a member of the all-party group on muscular dystrophy, and a number of constituents have approached me at different times with issues specific to this disease. Most people in this Chamber will know that the term “muscular dystrophy” describes about 60 mostly genetic conditions. The Muscular Dystrophy Campaign has highlighted to me a number of individual cases, including a lady who had her assessment in the summer of 2013 and was told only this month that she had been lost in the system.
The Muscular Dystrophy Campaign was told at a meeting with the DWP that the delays at Atos were attributable in part to under-staffing issues. It would be interesting to hear from the Minister whether that position has changed or improved to deal with some of the backlog.
I certainly had a constituent who, when they complained about delays, was told by staff that they could not do anything about it because there were not enough staff on and to contact her MP if she wanted any action at all. Is it not sad that people waiting in this situation should have to contact their MP, rather than just receiving the payments that they are due?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As was pointed out earlier, rolling out a scheme on this scale without having piloted it has contributed to some of the misery that is being caused around the country.
The MD Campaign has also raised the case of a 16-year-old with Emery-Dreifuss muscular dystrophy and a serious heart condition who simply failed to get through on the telephone. She tried and tried, and it caused her and her grandparents, with whom she lives, major concern. Just accessing the system can be unbelievably difficult for people.
For this group, the 20-metre rule is one of the most controversial elements. It replaced the 50-metre rule. Many of those with MD-related conditions can, on a good day, make 20 metres, but, because the disease is progressive, they can quite quickly not be able to walk 20 metres, even with sticks. The evidence from people with muscular dystrophy is that the wider discomfort issue is not considered by those who make the assessments. An individual may well be able to walk 100 metres, but 80 of those metres are absolute agony. No reference is made to that; no consideration seems to be given to it. Equally, there are issues about the surface on which they are walking. They may well be able to do 20 metres on the flat, but if they are asked to do 20 metres uphill or on an uneven surface, it becomes impossible. I just do not think that the regulations and guidance as currently set out protect individuals in those circumstances.
Worryingly, discussions with people with muscle-wasting conditions post-assessment have led the MD Campaign to have serious concerns about the lack of knowledge of this type of progressive condition among the assessors. For example, one lady with a long-term and progressive neuromuscular condition was told that she “may get better”. Sadly, she will not. The degree of ignorance in that case was worrying. There are also examples of gross insensitivity, which I am sure the MD Campaign would be willing to pass on to the Minister if he wanted to hear them. For example, one person was congratulated when they fell over. I find that insensitive to the nth degree.
I would be grateful if the Minister explained why some assessment centres are inaccessible, because there are a number of examples of people being invited for interview and then discovering that the interviews take place on the first floor of the building, up a flight of stairs. That might be a sort of secret test—an attempt to catch people out—or simply very bad planning, but perhaps the Minister will be good enough to look at access to the various centres.
I fully understand the need to ensure that only those entitled to support receive it, and most of my constituents accept that principle. However, the process is still failing too many people. The Government clearly underestimated the size and complexity of the problem, and the contract was let without care being taken to ensure that the company carrying out the assessments actually had people with the right skill and understanding to deal with some very rare conditions and vulnerable people.
The Government may not be disclosing data on waiting times, but in closing I ask whether the Minister can tell us what percentage of claimants have seen their files recorded as having been lost since PIP was introduced. Can he explain why the 15th largest city in England, Plymouth, with an ageing and disabled demographic, has no adequate facility for assessment and people have to go as far as Portsmouth?
I appreciate the opportunity to say a few words. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) on securing the debate for us all to participate in. I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck), who delivered her speech eloquently despite her current impediment, and we thank her for that.
Personal independence payments are of great importance to me and my office. One member of my staff now deals with nothing else besides benefit claims, which includes claims for disability living allowance, employment and support allowance, income support and the whole raft of benefit claims. I suspect that that situation is replicated in hon. Members’ offices across the United Kingdom. Many of us have a staff member who is tasked with dealing with such matters every day, because of all those difficulties. In the few minutes that I have, I hope to illustrate the situation through the experience of my office.
We understand the reasons for the changes, and the Government have set out their stall when it comes to reducing benefits through universal payments to ensure that changes will be made. We are aware of cases of people receiving payments when it is questionable whether they qualify for them, and we understand that that issue must be tackled. However, the people whom I will speak about today are those who clearly should have the payment and are feeling the difficulties of the new system.
In the same way as DLA did, PIP helps towards some of the extra costs that arise from long-term ill-health conditions or disability, and it is based on how a person’s condition affects them rather on the condition that they have. Every time someone comes to me about the benefit, I always say that it is about the help that they need, not entirely about their illness. It is about the help that they need in the house, how the illness affects them and whether they need people to come in and help them. When they get their head around that, they understand the importance of explaining their condition and highlighting the symptoms or problems associated with it. Every person is different, and they are affected in different ways. The previous system fell down many times, and the new PIP system unfortunately has the potential to do likewise.
The individual assessment for PIP is much stricter than the assessment for DLA, but the aims are the same: to ensure that people with health needs or disabilities can lead an independent life, while getting some extra help along the way. The stricter measures are intended to ensure that the system cannot be abused, in view of the budget constraints we all face across the United Kingdom. The changes from DLA to PIP will involve a face-to-face consultation with an independent health professional as well as regular reviews to ensure that an individual gets the right support. I welcome the face-to-face consultation, because I hope that it will better enable assessors to determine an individual’s circumstances. I often wonder, “Have they ever met these people? Do they understand their circumstances? Do they know what it is like to be unable to move about in your own home, to have restricted movement or to be dependent on someone else to help you?” The face-to-face consultations have the potential to lead to improvement.
To receive PIP, an individual will be assessed against reliability criteria to test whether they can carry out certain activities safely, to an acceptable standard, repeatedly and in a reasonable period. I can relate so well to the words of the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View. Someone may be able to walk 60 yards, but they will be in pain. Most of the people who come to me about DLA are in pain with their first step, but they endure the first 20 or 30 yards and then they have to stop. We need to have a system that adequately takes that into account. I hope that under the new system of PIP, it will be easier to ascertain and understand the problems that people are experiencing and resolve them urgently. We are having this debate because, quite honestly, the issues are not being resolved urgently; indeed, the opposite is true.
As PIP is being rolled out, some strange delays are occurring and some of the most vulnerable are not receiving any help. I want to highlight some of the delays that are affecting my constituents. First, they are anxious about their health. They become anxious about their PIP, and then they become anxious about all the other benefits that swing off that. Perhaps the Minister could give me some indication of how we can hurry or quicken the system. As a result of all the anxiety and concern that they experience, people’s health often deteriorates. They sit in an in-between world between today and tomorrow, almost hanging in space, hoping for their claims to be processed. All the time, it affects them greatly.
In February this year, only one in six people who had made a claim for PIP had received a decision. As the hon. Member for Bolton South East mentioned, the National Audit Office stated that poor early operational performance had led to long delays and uncertainty for PIP claimants. The right hon. Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge), the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said that the implementation of PIP had been
“nothing short of a fiasco”.
That reflects the opinion of many of us.
We are not here to give the Minister a hard time, but we are here to highlight the shortcomings in the process. Many of us feel that the process is not built in such a way as to take on board the difficulties that we see our constituents facing. I am here to express those, as other hon. Members have done and others will do. Out of the 220,300 disabled people who applied for PIP during the period from 8 April 2013 to 31 December 2013, only 34,200 have received news of their claim. That is totally unacceptable, and it must be addressed.
One of the statistics associated with first-time PIP claims—those who are moving from DLA to PIP—is truly worrying. For those people, there is around an 85% chance that a final decision has not yet been made, so they are sitting in limbo waiting for everything to be sorted out. Because PIP is not counted as income, those who are eligible for PIP may also find that they are eligible for ESA, income support, jobseeker’s allowance, pension credit or housing benefit. There is a real challenge there, because housing benefit and tax credits are great benefits when they go right, but when they go wrong, they are a nightmare. Delays in PIP may mean that because someone’s income changes—they have to notify Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs of that—their housing benefit and rent payments are put on hold and their tax credits go up the creek, and they find themselves becoming increasingly anxious and concerned.
In Newtownards, where my main constituency office is based, the food bank would say that the greatest number of referrals are of people who are on benefits, and delays in benefits compound that problem. We are all genuinely grateful to have food banks, and they have become a way of life. I have it on good authority that most of the referrals in my constituency are through my office, and I see lots of people coming into my office who are referred to food banks. We thank the Lord for the food banks and for the good work that they do, but the hon. Lady is absolutely right that food bank use is one consequence of the problems with PIP.
It was estimated that changes to mobility benefits could eventually lead to as many as 428,000 claimants losing their entitlements. Those changes have included the reduction of the requirement for claimants to be able to walk 50 metres right down to 20 metres, as the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View has mentioned. Unlike DLA, PIP will not have a lifetime award option. I am aware that under DLA there was the right to review a lifetime decision and that sometimes happened, but many people on lifetime awards were not reviewed, and it is a very random check to do at other times. I am concerned that there will no longer be the option to make a lifetime award. Let us be honest; if somebody has muscular dystrophy, unfortunately, they are not getting better. They are going to get worse. If somebody has severe chronic joint pain, they will not get any better. Their prognosis is for the worse. The prognosis for many such people is restricted mobility for the rest of their lives. That is not what they want, but it is what they are stuck with. Will the Minister, in his response, give us some indication of what he thinks about that?
I want to ask the Minister about a further issue on which I am keen to get some feedback. How many terminally ill people apply for the award—I do not have the figures, but I am asking this question to put it on the record—and how long does it take for their claims to be processed? I am aware of only two people over the years—this was under the DLA system, not PIP—whose applications were not processed quickly enough, so they passed on from this world. I am keen to hear what the Minister has to say about that.
Waiting times are not reserved for England alone—Capita Business Services Ltd is responsible for Northern Ireland, central England and Wales. Charities in Northern Ireland, such as Disability Action, have complained about the longer waiting times for assessment. Charities and my constituents are telling me that there are problems, so clearly we have to address them.
The move to PIP seems to be logical. Physically meeting a person along with a health professional is a great idea, but it is time-consuming and the waiting times make the process long and complicated. All new schemes must be put into action and tweaked to ensure they run efficiently and properly. That must happen with PIP to guarantee a smooth transition from DLA. All of us speaking today think that the delays are unacceptable and that changes must be made to the system. I hope that today’s debate will give us the opportunity to hear a positive statement from the Minister. The Government must ensure that the system is tweaked as soon as possible to bring assessment waiting times down.
I understand the reasons for the move to PIP, but I can also see the problems for the people waiting to be assessed. Elements of the system clearly need to be fixed, such as waiting times and the appeals process, which at the moment is overwhelming. I have constituents who have waited for 10 or 11 months for an appeal. That is unacceptable—it is almost a year between the start and the end of the process—but I am sure that other hon. Members have constituents who have waited longer. To say that problems are inevitable because the system is new only explains some of the issues, and it is no consolation to those who lose out. The Government must address these issues urgently. The waiting times are not fair, and improvements must be made now.
I apologise for not being here at the outset, Mr Crausby. I was keen to be here, but as a member of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, I also wanted to hear the statement on universal credit to find out whether there was anything new in it.
I find it surprising that, on the one hand, the Secretary of State takes great pride in having a safe and slow roll-out of universal credit—for the past two years, we have been told that it must be safe and slow, and consequently only 17,000 people are on it after all that time; perhaps that is the right way to do things, but it seems astonishingly slow—but on the other, the Department has presided over the roll-out of personal independence payments and, for the past year and a half, has turned the initial applicants into guinea pigs for a system that was not properly piloted or tested.
At the outset, the Select Committee was concerned that the Department’s ambitions and the speed with which it implemented the change were unrealistic. There are unresolved tensions between its desire to give people a longer and more thorough assessment than the much-criticised employment and support allowance assessments and its desire to get through a large number of people. I suspect that some of the problems encountered are due to exactly those tensions.
As a result—perhaps this is hearsay, but the Minister may have something to say about it—the number of face-to-face assessments has already been rolled back. At one point, about 85% to 90% of new applicants were given face-to-face assessments; I understand that it has fallen to 75%. That may be a good or bad thing, but it shows a lack of pre-planning. This really matters to a lot of people. Most new applicants—I will come to the reassessments in a minute—have no money to cover the particular need for which they are applying. Although the payment is backdated for successful applicants, the longer they wait, the harder it is for them.
It is important to realise how important this issue is. Although the Department has overcome its initial problems even with what are regarded as terminally ill cases, a lot of people have serious conditions that do not fit under the special rules provisions but nevertheless leave people in a difficult position. I have a constituent with motor neurone disease who was in exactly that position. Sadly, his condition developed quickly. He went from being a normal, fit, healthy young man in his late 20s to needing help to get places in only a few months.
My hon. Friend speaks with a great deal of experience and knowledge. On her point about the time it takes to get a decision, like her, I have a constituent whose condition deteriorated over a long period. Although our constituents may have just scraped through to one side of the fence when the assessment was made, their conditions were much worse by the time the decision was made, and they should therefore have been assessed differently.
That is a very interesting point. Under the old DLA system, going back two or three years, there was an enablement provision. If a person’s condition got worse, that could be taken into consideration in their application and the appeal process, but now it cannot. Does the hon. Lady feel that the Minister should respond to that point?
That is a very interesting point, and I hope the Minister will give us some details on it.
The other group who seem to suffer less from long delays are those who are undergoing reassessment. If a person asks for a reassessment because their circumstances have deteriorated, previously they would have reported that change to receive DLA, but now they must make an application for personal independence payment. They will receive DLA even if there is a long delay, but if they are entitled to a higher rate of DLA, it will not be backdated under the new system. They do not have no money during that period to help them with the needs that their disability or illness brings, but they do not benefit from the increase. If it takes six, seven or eight months for their DLA reassessment to become PIP and they are eligible for a higher reward, it will not be backdated, even if their condition has clearly deteriorated —and they would not have made the application if it had not.
If the process were working smoothly and quickly, that might not matter. Perhaps at the outset it was thought that there would be no need for backdating because the process would be quick. People would be reassessed and would get the new benefit or not, but at least they would not be waiting for months with a much worse condition. If the claiming process is to be this long permanently—I certainly hope not; the Minister can tell us if it is—perhaps he should look again at that.
I am concerned about another aspect of the way that PIP is processed: there seems to be a substantial variation across regions. I hope that the Minister is at least looking at that issue and monitoring it. I find it hard to understand why, among new claims—but not those relating to special circumstances, i.e. terminal cases—the award rate varies so much; it is as low as 25% in Ealing Southall, but it is 63% in Kilmarnock and Loudon. Perhaps Kilmarnock and Loudon residents are substantially less well, and more disabled, than those of Ealing Southall, but the disparity seems substantial.
The published statistics, the most recent of which bring us to, I think, September, show quite wide variation both in the number and proportion of cases that have reached clearance—meaning a decision, whether positive or adverse, for the claimant—and in award rates. That variation may be explicable, and not a matter for concern, but it would be helpful to know that the Department is monitoring those things and will report on them in due course. The rates will never be identical; areas differ, and there are some where endemic ill health has been a serious problem. That is why the number of people in receipt of employment and support allowance and DLA has been higher in some areas than others; I do not have a particular problem with that.
The question is why an award rate should vary so much and be so low in some places. Presumably people apply only if they have an illness or condition. They will read the forms. Unless it is suggested that in some areas an awful lot of people with no real prospect of success apply, and that that explains the low award rate, the variation seems somewhat baffling. The number of applications varies considerably, as one would expect. One of the examples I gave was Ealing Southall, where the award rate is 25%. There were 660 normal registrations there, not made under special rules. In Kilmarnock and Loudon there were 980 registrations, and in Knowsley there were 1,780 registrations, with a 52% award rate.
Our questions are not only about the length of time being taken, although that is the major issue that most of us have had to deal with. They are also about other aspects of the way the new benefit works: how it compares with the previous situation, which people perhaps do not receive an award, and what the circumstances are. Owing to the length of time being taken, it is still quite early to know how many people are successful on appeal, and to judge the efficacy of the assessment process. From my experience with constituents, it appears that the assessment process, when they get to it, evokes fewer complaints than before, although someone recently came to tell me that their assessment took only 20 minutes, after which they received an adverse decision. That person had been profoundly deaf for some considerable time, so I was slightly baffled.
I hope that in the rush to solve the problem of longer assessment periods and to speed the process up we shall not lose some of the possible advantages of the new system—a more thorough assessment process that would obviously be better for people in the longer term.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby, in this welcome debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) on securing it, and extend my thanks to all the hon. Members who spoke this afternoon, particularly for the constituency experiences that they highlighted.
It is clear that there continue to be substantial problems with the personal independence payment, yet it is an important benefit for disabled people and for disability equality. It addresses the additional costs that living with a disability entails. We have heard today of continuing delays and problems with access to the benefit, and of poor service, as described by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck). The cost to the public purse is also rising, so there are several causes for concern, and we look forward to hearing the Minister address those. Interestingly, all those who spoke this afternoon commented on the fact that the benefit was brought in without piloting or experimentation. Early on, MPs and Members of the House of Lords, and organisations such as Citizens Advice, suggested that it would be a good idea to pilot the benefit from the outset. However, Ministers refused to do so.
Of the problems and difficulties that disabled people are experiencing with the benefit, it is the delays in getting an assessment and a decision that are of the most immediate concern. The latest statistics from the Department for Work and Pensions, which go up to September, showed that 529,000 people applied for PIP between April 2013 and July 2014, but just 206,000 had received decisions by that time. That leaves 323,000 waiting in the queue, including 540 in my constituency, many of whom have contacted me to report the distress and problems that that has caused them; other hon. Members taking part in the debate have also had such experiences.
In February, the National Audit Office reported that the DWP had expected decisions to take 74 days, but that the average time for a decision was 107 days. Some delays have been considerably longer, as we have heard. I have constituents who have waited the best part of a year for an assessment for PIP. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East, among other hon. Members, gave several examples of delays that her constituents have experienced. Colleagues also spoke of horrific experiences that resulted from delays. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) was right to highlight how delays compound disabled people’s health problems and anxieties and sometimes contribute to a worsening of the condition. We should be very concerned about that.
I have been told of the deeply distressing case of a 51-year-old woman in south London who applied for PIP in September 2013 and was still awaiting an assessment after a year. She had a brain tumour removed in May 2014, and covering the cost of weekly travel to her hospital appointments meant that she had to cut down on food. She simply could not afford non-essentials such as buying clothes. Other claimants who have waited months for a decision have had to borrow from friends and family, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East pointed out, or use food banks, as my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View, said.
Generally, we would expect the personal independence payment to be backdated in the event of an award being made, although I was interested in the experience of my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden), who suggested that that might not always happen. However, in the meantime, when delays are very long, disabled people are being left without financial support to help cushion some of their additional costs—the cost of equipment, transport to appointments, special diets or additional heating bills. That is happening at a time when many face a reduction in income—and perhaps not just their own, but that of their partner, who may be forced to give up work or reduce their hours to provide care.
What is more, people may also be prevented from accessing other support to which a PIP award may be a passport, such as blue badges and disability premiums on means-tested benefits and working tax credits; carers’ entitlement to carer’s allowance might also be affected. Although the PIP award may eventually be backdated, claims to such passported benefits might not. In other words, claimants might never recover that lost period of entitlement. The Multiple Sclerosis Society reports that some claimants in PIP reassessment areas who were previously in receipt of DLA and who have since reported an increase in needs may lose nearly £3,500 due to delays, as their payments are not backdated. That situation was also highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore).
I acknowledge that both the present Minister and his predecessor, the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), are concerned about the delays. The previous Minister initiated a number of steps to address delays both in the activities of the assessors and in the Department for Work and Pensions, but it has been interesting to hear today that there are still claims of staff shortages among the health care professionals who are carrying out the assessments, and I hope that the Minister can update us on that situation. In a written answer on 7 July, the previous Minister told me that, as a result of the steps he was taking:
“By the autumn, we expect no one to be waiting for an assessment for longer than 26 weeks and by the end of the year, we expect no one will be waiting longer than 16 weeks.”—[Official Report, 7 July 2014; Vol. 584, c. 109W.]
The present Minister has committed to honouring that promise, although he might like to acknowledge that it represents a rather less ambitious target than the 12 weeks for a decision that we were originally promised.
We remain in the dark about exactly what progress is being made. Macmillan Cancer Support has suggested that it would be helpful if waiting times could be made entirely transparent and publicly advertised. In a written answer on 17 November, however, the Minister told me:
“Departmental statisticians are continuing to develop measures around clearance and waiting times”.
I hope the Minister will be able to update us on performance as regards addressing delays, and will tell us when official statistics will become available.
The right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead also took steps to address delays in dealing in special-rules cases for terminally ill claimants, which was welcome. From what we have heard this afternoon, I regret that the problems with such cases do not seem to have been wholly resolved. Problems remain, for example, with the rigid application of the six-month prognosis rule, which was highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East and the Motor Neurone Disease Association, which has suggested that, although it is possible in some circumstances for the DWP to take account of an overall diagnosis, that is not always happening. I would be grateful if the Minister commented on that.
We have heard about some assessors’ lack of knowledge about, for example, muscular dystrophy. There appears to be a particular and very disturbing anomaly in relation to existing DLA recipients who become terminally ill. If they wish to request an increase in benefits due to their terminal illness, they have to make a claim for PIP. When such claimants make a change of circumstances request, the DWP makes an enhanced award under the care component 28 days after the form is submitted and not, as is the case for DLA claimants and new PIP claimants, from the day of the form’s submission, which means that that very particular group of claimants is being denied 28 days at the enhanced care rate that new claimants who have not previously been in receipt of DLA would receive. The Minister may be aware that I wrote to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions about that a couple of weeks ago, for it seems to us that the way in which the regulations have been drafted has created an apparently unfair anomaly. Will the Minister undertake to look at that matter? It surely cannot be right that people already in receipt of DLA who become terminally ill should be denied immediate access to a higher award of PIP, if appropriate.
The delays are not only causing great hardship for individuals; they are also piling up costs for the public purse. In 2010, the Government suggested that PIP would have 600,000 fewer claimants than DLA by 2018, leading to a £3 billion cut in departmental expenditure, including a £780 million spending reduction by April 2015, but in February 2014, Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, noting that early operational problems had delayed the programme’s roll-out, said:
“Because it may take some time to resolve the delays, the Department has increased the risk that the programme will not deliver value for money in the longer term.”
Those costs continue to mount. The NAO estimates that £127 million per annum is spent on assessment costs, and in total it will cost £2.9 billion to clear all new claims and migrating cases.
Meanwhile, the Office for Budget Responsibility has noted that the number of claimants who have secured awards is higher than the Department anticipated, and there is uncertainty about whether the pattern will change and the numbers will reduce in future. Additionally, some claimants are receiving compensation for the delays they have experienced, which has further increased costs.
In the original consultation paper in 2010, one of the justifications for throwing all these things up in the air and putting many disabled and ill people through a great deal of anxiety was that too many people were getting the benefit and that PIP would be different. Some 50% of DLA claims were unsuccessful, but in some cases the award rates for PIP appear to be well in excess of 50%. That may be very good for the applicants, but it suggests that the whole thing was premised on a lack of proper research. The change has made many people extremely stressed and anxious over the past few years.
My hon. Friend puts her finger on the issue. We may be seeing some sort of cohort effect, because the cases that went through early may have been more likely to have attracted awards, or higher awards. It may be that initial departmental assumptions were simply wrong or over-optimistic about the savings that could be achieved. It may be that the situation will become even worse, because delays in processing claims and making decisions must be suppressing expenditure on the benefit. If, as the Minister intends, those delays are reduced and, hopefully, eventually eliminated, we will see the costs of the benefit increase. Whether the Government’s ambitions to reduce costs will be achieved is very uncertain. As my hon. Friend rightly says, the real problem for disabled people in that context is the huge uncertainty and anxiety. Disabled people are very uncertain about whether they will be awarded the benefit, which creates great anxiety and alarm.
I have mentioned that there appear to be additional costs for the Department due to the payment of compensation for delays. My constituent, Mr W, received £100 compensation for delays that he had suffered, yet when I asked the Minister how much such compensation payments are costing the Government overall, he told me in a written answer on 23 October that the Department does not record such information. What we do know is that spending on DLA and PIP is set to be £1.4 billion more than projected in this financial year. What is his assessment of the continuing trend in the figures? What impact will that have on the Government’s overall welfare cap? Obviously, any significant increase in expenditure will put that cap at risk.
Given the way in which we have seen costs rise, it is surprising that, in a written answer on 14 July, the Minister’s predecessor told me that the Government remain on course
“to make savings against earlier forecasts of £2.8 billion by 2017-18.”—[Official Report, 14 July 2014; Vol. 584, c. 587W.]
Given all the circumstances that we have heard about in this debate, will the Minister again confirm that expectation and tell us what the Government will do if they do not get spending back on track?
Overall, it is clear that the system is working far from smoothly. The picture for the future remains uncertain, and things remain well off course. In June, the DWP confirmed that it expected 752,000 PIP decisions in this financial year; the latest statistics show that about 37,500 decisions a month were made in the most recent months available, and about 30,000 to 40,000 claims a month were made. At that rate, it seems that the DWP will be unable to clear the backlog of 323,000 cases still awaiting a decision, yet bizarrely, the DWP apparently continues to add more areas where existing DLA claimants are being transferred to PIP, including, in the past couple of weeks, my area of Greater Manchester.
In the circumstances, adding yet more pressure to the system seems inexplicable. Claimants will be deeply worried that the Government are pressing ahead while the programme is manifestly still subject to extreme delay. It does not make sense, it is not fair and it is causing deep uncertainty and hardship to thousands of claimants. I am glad that this debate gives us time for the Minister to respond fully to the concerns that colleagues have raised, and I look forward to hearing what he has to say.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) on securing the debate and on allowing other Members to raise their concerns. She started her contribution with some general points. I will touch on them only briefly, as I want to deal with the specific cases that she mentioned and the specific points raised by other Members.
The hon. Lady made a point about judging the Government on their overall approach. I can confirm that we spend £50 billion on disability benefits. The latest unemployment statistics show that our “Disability Confident” campaign has been successful in that more than 250,000 more disabled people are in work, increasing the employment rate for disabled people. Overall, we are supporting disabled people to get back into work and participate successfully in society. However, I will not dwell on that, as I know hon. Members want to focus on the details of personal independence payments.
The hon. Lady mentioned some specific cases, which I will deal with in the order she raised them. She raised the Booth case with my predecessor on 7 July. We had made a backdated decision on that case just before she wrote to us. One point arose out of that case that I wanted to mention, because it was also raised by another hon. Member—I forget whom. The hon. Lady mentioned that the person in the case was out of work. It is worth putting on record that the personal independence payment is designed, as many hon. Members said, to deal with the extra costs of being disabled. It is not an out-of-work benefit. Those who are unable to work owing to their disability or health condition should claim either jobseeker’s allowance or employment and support allowance. Just to be clear, those are income-related benefits; PIP is not. Some hon. Members in previous debates have elided the two, although I am sure she has not done so.
Obviously, the Minister is right about the distinction between the two benefits, but many people do not get out-of-work benefits because they have a working partner or because they have run out of contributory out-of-work benefits. The extra costs of their illness or disability still apply, so the household income decreases considerably over that period. That must be borne in mind.
I accept the hon. Lady’s point. I mentioned it because some hon. Members have raised cases in which there have been two issues: a decrease in income because someone has been out of work, and extra costs. I am simply making the point that, in those cases, it is reasonable to expect PIP to cover the extra costs, but it is not a benefit designed to deal with the fact that someone is not working.
The hon. Member for Bolton South East wrote to us about the Booth case, but I do not think she has written to us on the Pope case at this point, so I do not have the specific details. If she wants me to consider it, I am happy for her to drop me details after the debate. The third case, about which she has written to the Department, is the Syddall case. I put on record my apologies for the delays in that case. When someone has a terminal illness, which was not the case or was not known about in this instance, we obviously prioritise their claim. As the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) mentioned, my predecessor put in place those changes to the process, and we are currently dealing with cases involving people with a terminal illness in about the expected time period of 10 days. In cases such as the one raised by the hon. Member for Bolton South East, when the person does not know that they have a terminal illness and dies while awaiting a decision, we deal with the claim based on the evidence we have. Any arrears of benefit, if applicable, are paid to the estate. A decision has now been made in that specific case. It will be communicated to the family shortly, and I will write to her shortly after that to give her the full details. I hope that is helpful.
I thank the Minister for the letter that is on its way to my constituents and me regarding the position on Mr and Mrs Syddall. There is a fast-track procedure for people who are terminally unwell. Is it possible to extend that fast-track procedure for people who may not be terminally unwell, but who are obviously disabled and in need of benefit, such as those who have had a stroke? Perhaps the concept of a special fast-track procedure could be extended to slightly different categories of case.
I will come to that in a minute, because I will discuss the point made by the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) about paper-based reviews, meaning assessments made based on the paperwork without having to call someone in.
The general point arising out of the specific cases raised by the hon. Member for Bolton South East and other Members is on delays. I have been frank that delays are not acceptable since I made my first appearance at questions; when I gave my evidence at length to the Work and Pensions Committee, on which the hon. Member for Edinburgh East serves; and during the summer when I dealt with Members’ correspondence. The top priority when the Prime Minister asked me to do this job was to get the delays dealt with. That is my priority. I have been spending a considerable amount of time with my officials and meeting with both assessment providers to put it right. A new team of officials have taken over the work and are driving improved performance. We are working with the assessment providers and working with the oldest cases to improve it.
The hon. Lady asked for specifics. Between them, the two assessment providers have doubled the number of health professionals working through recruitment and training, and have increased the number of assessment centres—I will cover specifically the points raised by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck) in a minute—and extended their opening hours.
We have increased the number of paper-based assessments, so in many cases it should be possible, based on the paperwork that people produce, to make a decision without having to call them in for an assessment. The hon. Member for Edinburgh East is right that, at the beginning of the process, the number ran very low and below where we expected it to be. We have improved the process. I hope she will be pleased to know that, when claimants have been unable to work and have gone through the work capability assessment, we are joining up the process, so that we take the ESA85—the report from the work capability assessment—and put it with their PIP form and any other evidence they have provided. That is enabling us to make more decisions based on the paperwork without needing to call people in for assessments. I hope that is sensible.
Those are admirable steps in the right direction, and we appreciate them. Might it also be a good idea to set targets to reduce those figures within a certain period, given all the things that are happening? Sometimes if things are emphasised with targets, they are delivered.
I will come to that in a minute, but let me deal with the point I was going to make on the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and Northern Ireland. These issues are, of course, devolved, so all the points he made about his constituents and the welfare system, although perfectly reasonable, should be addressed not to me but to the Minister responsible in the Northern Ireland Executive. I have no responsibility for such issues in Northern Ireland; they are devolved.
We know where the responsibility lies, but we also know that Capita is the company responsible not only for Northern Ireland but for central England and Wales. I am conscious that the system came in because the Government drove through the new PIP system. That is universal, so there is, in effect, a policy in Northern Ireland. The Minister is not the person responsible—I understand that the Minister in Northern Ireland is responsible—but the debate was secured for the purposes of illustrating where the PIP system is falling down across the whole of the United Kingdom.
I am pleased to deal with the issues in Great Britain, but in Northern Ireland this is not my responsibility; there is a separate contract for Northern Ireland. I am happy to be accountable and to have people beat me up—figuratively speaking only, hopefully—for the things I am responsible for, but I am not responsible for the welfare system in Northern Ireland. That is the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Executive and the Minister for Social Development. The hon. Gentleman’s points are perfectly well made and I will deal with them as best I can—he has raised the same issues as Members from Great Britain. However, for Northern Ireland, I am afraid he needs to direct his points to the Minister and the Executive.
The initiatives I was setting out have meant that providers have quadrupled their output since January. Hon. Members quoted the latest published statistics, which were published in September. They gave the statistics for July, showing that, by then, we had increased the number of decisions to more than 35,000 per month, and there will obviously be a new set of statistics published in December, which will bring the figures up to date to September.
The Department was referred to by a couple of hon. Members. Changes to our processes, our IT systems and the work we do with providers have improved the process.
The hon. Member for Bolton South East referred to claimant communications, emphasising the need to be clearer to claimants. We have improved the communications at the front end of the process so that claimants know what the best evidence to supply is. We have also been clearer with people to let them know how long their claim may take. I know that it is not great when people are told that their claim will take a long time. I will go on to say a bit more about what we are doing about the delays, but at least we are being clearer with people, so that they know what to expect, which is better than their not knowing and having to keep chasing up progress reports.
Since April, we have been confirming to people, by sending a text message, that we have received their PIP form, so they know it has been received and not lost. I cannot remember who asked me about that—I think it was the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View. I do not have the data to hand on the number of people who have reported that they have sent a form back that has then been lost, but I will go away and consider it. I do not know whether we have that data, but I will investigate and write to the hon. Lady. In fact, I will write to all hon. Members attending the debate so that they are aware of the data.
That was why we put the text message system in place—so that, when claimants send their form back, they receive a confirmation that we have received it, and therefore do not have to wait and make inquiries later before say, “We’ve never had your form.” They receive that confirmation at the beginning. The assessment providers also provide claimants with improved information about where they are in the process, how long a claim may take and who to contact at each stage of their claim.
Face-to-face consultations are a key part of the assessment process for most individuals, enabling a proper look at their circumstances and giving them an opportunity to put across their views about the impact of their health condition on their everyday lives. Of course, PIP is not based on the diagnosis of a medical condition; it is based on the impact of that medical condition or disability on someone’s daily life. However, if we have enough evidence to make an assessment or recommendation, individuals do not have to come in for a consultation and we will do it on paper. As I alluded to following a previous intervention, we can currently make far more decisions on paper than we could make in the earlier part of the process because we have the information. When we can do so, it clearly makes sense for us not to put somebody through an assessment.
Of course, it is worth saying that part of the purpose of the change from the disability living allowance to PIP, to which the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston referred, is dealing with the conditions that DLA was not very good at dealing with. The PIP assessment process is better than the DLA assessment process at dealing with people who have mental health problems, cognitive impairments or fluctuating conditions. The fact that the DLA assessment process was not good at recognising those conditions was part of the reason for the change to PIP.
Let me deal other specific issues that came up in the debate. There is one issue that I will touch on only briefly because the Secretary of State dealt with it in the Chamber earlier. I was getting mixed messages from Opposition Members about the best way to roll out PIP. Before the hon. Member for Edinburgh East came into the Chamber, the hon. Member for Bolton South East said that we should roll it out more slowly, be more careful and thoughtful, and that sort of thing. Of course, that is exactly the process we are following on universal credit. I am guessing—probably accurately—that, when the Secretary of State was in the House earlier, the shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves), was beating him up and saying he was not going fast enough. That is what the hon. Member for Edinburgh East said in the debate—she believes we are going too slowly.
The Opposition cannot have it both ways. I accept the point about the problems, but we have adopted the test-and-learn approach to universal credit and been criticised for that, too. That is simply the point I was making.
I merely wanted to point out that, in part, it is a matter of expectations. We were assured throughout the process by the Secretary of State that universal credit would come in without difficulty, and in full, by 2017, and each time he has been called to the Chamber to report on its progress we have heard something to that effect, but obviously reality has not borne him out. On the other hand, we are very early on in the process of PIP. MPs, Lords and outside groups suggested that it would be sensible to pilot the programme first, but Ministers chose not to do so. We are merely saying how important it is that Ministers not only adopt the right process, but communicate what they are going to do and then do it.
I have been clear about communicating what I have been doing to improve the process.
Let me just try to make progress on responding to the issues raised in the debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View on battling through the effects of her dental treatment. I am not sure how painful it was, but we got her point on terminal illness. Just to be clear, it is not only in cases of terminal illness that we can make decisions on paper. That can be done in any case in which the position is clear. We have a separate process for terminal illness, which is about speeding up the assessment process to 10 days. She also asked about existing DLA claimants. That point has been raised personally with me by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard). I am considering those cases and I will report to the House in due course on whether we can make a change. However, she made a good point, and it has made to me previously.
Under-staffing is a problem. As I have highlighted, both providers have made considerable progress in hiring new members of staff.
There is a problem with some work capability assessment centres, but all PIP assessment centres are accessible—no PIP assessment centre is on the first floor. In Plymouth, a new six-room centre was opened in September to boost capacity, building on two centres in the Atos supply chain in Plymouth. We have new centres opening in Chelmsford, Edinburgh and Newcastle. In addition, Atos opened a large 18-room assessment centre in Manchester, and there are further plans for centres in Liverpool, Wakefield, Preston, Blackburn, Wigan, Carlisle and Lancaster. Providers are increasing not only the number of staff they have, but the size of their estate.
On statistics, I am sure that few Opposition Members, with the possible exception of the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston, are assiduous readers of the PIP statistics website on the gov.uk page. If they are assiduous readers, they will know that, last week, we set out that we will publish the PIP clearance times statistics, and waiting or outstanding times statistics, for the first time in March, which is before the election. The release will be pre-announced in line with the UK Statistics Authority release protocols. My statisticians have been working on getting figures that will give a proper and rounded picture, without leading to any perverse incentives. I will not go into that now—I have set out my views on it clearly and at length for the Work and Pensions Committee.
The hon. Members for Stretford and Urmston and for Edinburgh East mentioned success rates, which the Department is looking at. The priority has been ensuring that we not only deal with the delays but keep the quality of the assessments high. The hon. Member for Edinburgh East said that the problem is delays—admittedly, she said she had only anecdotal evidence, but evidence has come from elsewhere. When people have had their assessments, generally the experience has been a positive one. I am not saying that every single case has been positive, but generally speaking the experience has been positive. It is important that we do not lose sight of that.
Finally, in response to a point made by a couple of hon. Members about our forecasts for the cost of the system, they will not be surprised to learn that I will not pre-empt what the Chancellor will set out next week in the autumn statement, when further forecasts will be published—not mine, but those of the Office for Budget Responsibility.