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Personal Independence Payments

Volume 591: debated on Wednesday 21 January 2015

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Damian Hinds.)

It is a privilege to have this debate under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I am pleased to see other Members here today to discuss such an important issue. I will try to keep the length of my speech to a minimum since I have several questions that I would like the Minister to respond to. I will start by reflecting on what a personal independence payment is and what it is meant to do.

The Welfare Reform Act 2012 legislated for the introduction of personal independence payments to replace disability living allowance. PIP is a benefit for people with long-term health conditions or impairments, whether physical, sensory, mental, cognitive, intellectual, or any combination of those. It is intended to provide support for the disabled people with the greatest needs who face the greatest challenges to remaining independent and participating fully in society.

The PIP assessment measures the impact of a person’s health condition or impairment on their ability to participate, rather than focusing solely on the health condition or the impairment itself. PIP is paid as a contribution to the extra costs that disabled people may face to help them lead full, active and independent lives. To put it more simply, it is support for people who would trade anything to have the privileges that we too often take for granted: our work choices, our life choices and our independent living. So PIP is potentially a vital mechanism to help some of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged members of our society, yet like so much of the benefit revolution, PIP’s implementation has been beset by problems and has caused additional hardship, anxiety and uncertainty to our vulnerable and disadvantaged friends.

There are key dates in the history of the implementation of PIP. From 8 April 2013, the Department for Work and Pensions started to replace disability living allowance for people aged 16 to 64 with PIP. On 8 April 2013, PIP was introduced, in a controlled start, for new claims from people living in a limited geographical area in the north-west and part of the north-east of England. On 10 June 2013, PIP was introduced for new claims for the remaining parts of Great Britain. From 28 October 2013, the DWP started to invite DLA claimants living in certain areas to claim PIP.

So how is it all going? Appearing before the Select Committee on Work and Pensions on 10 September 2014, the Minister for Disabled People said:

“It is fair to say that, yes, in terms of the delays to the assessment process it is not in good shape...I absolutely accept there is a problem; it is literally my top priority and I have been spending a lot of time working on it since I was appointed on 15 July”.

I and my fellow members of the Work and Pensions Committee were pleased to hear that the Minister had made it his top priority.

How many disabled people are being affected? Last December, the DWP published a third set of official PIP statistics. They showed that between April 2013 and October 2014 some 669,200 claims for PIP had been submitted, but only 382,000 decisions had been made. That leaves 287,200 disabled people stuck in a backlog. However, on 15 December in the other place, Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth seemed to be in denial about that figure. He said:

“My Lords, I dispute those figures. The backlog stands at 107,000 at the moment, and 65,000 claims are being processed every month.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 15 January 2015; Vol. 758, c. 894.]

Will the Minister clarify those figures and explain why there are two different numbers? Whatever the number is, there is still a long way to go.

The figures are simply dry statistics. They do not tell us about the real-life consequences of delay. For the individual, they translate to anxiety and hardship at a time when they are at their most vulnerable and ill-equipped to cope. I have personally spoken to many constituents who have been waiting for six months—in some cases, a year—for a home assessment. They have often taken every possible step to ensure that information is submitted on time, yet they are kept in the dark about their claims. They do not know who to call. When they get through to someone, they are not given a time scale. They replace the receiver feeling as ill-informed as they were at the start, and that is unacceptable.

As MPs, we all have our postbags. I was contacted in October 2014 by the mother of a young disabled woman living in my constituency. She works part time as she cares for her daughter. Her daughter had been waiting for a home assessment since August 2013. She told me that they had been threatened with eviction because money was so tight. She was upset, desperate and scared. She said that her daughter had received no update on her application since she had called in September 2013 to check that the claim had been received.

I contacted Atos and was told that a call had been made to my constituent in May 2014 to arrange a home assessment, but the adviser was told that the constituent did not live at that address. As a result, the daughter’s case had been withdrawn and closed without her knowledge. It transpired that the Atos adviser had called the wrong number. Atos blamed the DWP, but it was the PIP office that had made a mistake when typing the number into the system. It got the wrong number and closed the case.

Such things do not happen only in my constituency. I have heard from Malcolm, who lives in Southwark and is 55. He applied for PIP in March 2014 when he was diagnosed with cancer, and he has still not had an assessment. The delays have affected his ability even to travel to and from hospital for appointments.

Bernadette lives in Wales. Her son is 15 and has autism, and he was receiving DLA. In November 2014, she had a letter from the DWP about transferring to PIP in April 2015. A home visit was set for 16 December. The son stayed off school for the day, but no assessor turned up. The visit was rearranged for 19 December. Another school day was missed and again no assessor arrived. A home visit finally happened on 23 December. Bernadette was assessed as being able to handle finances for PIP, but no date was set for the PIP assessment. She was told it would be any time within the next 12 to 18 months. Despite there having been no assessment, the January DLA payment was stopped. She was knocked out of the system, yet no PIP assessment date had been set. The family were thrown into financial difficulties and are now even worse off, because they face bank charges for being overdrawn.

It is not only MPs who are raising such issues. In December 2014, Macmillan Cancer Support stated that the system for PIP is

“riddled with remains an absolute disgrace that thousands of people with cancer have been forced to wait six months or find out whether they were even eligible...A recent survey of Macmillan...advisers reveals shocking statistics: nearly a third...know of someone who has died while waiting for their benefits, almost one in two...have come across patients who cannot afford to feed themselves properly, and around three in five...say delays have left people unable to heat their homes....No one should have to face these situations simply because they have been diagnosed with cancer.”

Parkinson’s UK conducted a survey that showed that the people it supports have been waiting, on average, longer than six months for a PIP assessment. More than half report an average wait of nine months or more. According to the London-wide anti-poverty charity the Zacchaeus 2000 Trust, commonly known as Z2K, such lengthy delays have a severe impact on its clients in a number of ways. It says that almost all its PIP clients rely on state benefits as their only source of income. Because PIP is paid in arrears, claimants who do not have other sources of income experience severe impoverishment as a result of delays. Many have turned to food banks. That has a knock-on effect, because PIP often acts as a gateway to other benefits and entitlements.

Against that backdrop has come Paul Gray’s independent review of PIP assessment. In the foreword to his review, Paul Gray recognised the limitations on what he could review. He stated:

“The timing for Independent Reviews of the Personal Independence Payment...assessment...was laid down in the 2012 Welfare Reform Act. In accepting the Secretary of State’s invitation to conduct this first Review I was conscious that, with implementation being less advanced than originally planned, this is too soon to draw definitive conclusions on many aspects. The evidence is simply not yet available to do so reliably or robustly.”

That in itself is an indictment of the all-too-familiar lack of implementation. It is a good idea to review what is in legislation, but if the thing being reviewed has not been implemented properly, there is nothing to review. Paul Gray continued:

“Equally it was clear that the primary focus of early comment and attention on PIP has been the unfortunate reality of long delays and backlogs in the assessment process. These have had a major impact on many claimants for PIP so far. It is essential for remedial action to be completed and to avoid similar issues recurring in the future. I have taken it as given this will be done.”

The findings and recommendations of the review include short, medium and long-term measures and fall into three main themes: the nature of the claimant journey; the way in which further evidence is collected; and the overall effectiveness of the PIP assessment. I am interested in what the Minister has to say about the review and its recommendations and what his Department intends to do in response.

Turning to the claimant journey, there can be few MPs who have not encountered numbers of constituents who have found the claiming and reassessment process extremely stressful. Impacts can range from a lowering of self-esteem and dignity to an increase in anxiety and a worsening of mental state. It is disappointing that the review did not thoroughly address the effect of interventions, which involve reassessing people for PIP before their award has even expired. Given the significant struggles that people face to be awarded PIP in the first place, it is of some concern that some recipients are already being reassessed in such a way. Interventions place unnecessary pressure on claimants and assessment providers, who already struggle to meet demand. Interventions also suggest that the DWP does not trust the initial decision delivered by its own assessment process.

The first independent review of PIP has recognised some of the serious flaws and failures of the new system and provides the DWP with the opportunity to address those systemic failures as a matter of urgency. Integral to implementing the recommendations of the report, however, will be dealing with the backlog to ensure that all claimants are provided with the best possible service. For many people, PIP delays are causing their conditions to worsen and having an impact on the quality of their lives. That cannot continue, so where areas for improvements in the claimant journey are identified, it is vital for the DWP to respond positively.

I have nine questions for the Minister about the review recommendations. First, the review suggested that the DWP should make better use of digital technology, and that a website allowing claimants to track the progress of their claims would improve communication. Does the DWP have plans to introduce a tracking system that can be accessed by claimants?

The review stated that the

“potential for sharing information already held by the Department and across the wider public sector should be explored”

to improve the evidence-gathering process. What are the DWP’s plans to improve the additional evidence-gathering process, and what is the time scale?

Will the Minister confirm the policy intent behind interventions, and how will the Department ensure that they are not simply a repeat of the reassessment process before a claimant’s award has ended? What assessment has the DWP made of the impact of interventions on the existing backlog of PIP claims? The report stated that the Department should:

“Ensure the consistent application of existing guidance for health professionals on reliability and fluctuating conditions.”

How and when will the DWP reinforce guidance on assessing fluctuation to ensure that all assessors are adequately addressing that issue? Furthermore, how will the DWP measure assessor performance in addressing that issue?

I understand that the Government plan to publish data on clearance and waiting times from March 2015. Has the DWP set a precise date for the publication of those data? In light of the review, will the Minister confirm whether the DWP intends to proceed with the main reassessment programme in October 2015, and whether the backlog of claims will have been cleared by then? Finally, when will the DWP publish its response to the independent review?

I hope that the Minster can answer those questions, and I look forward to revisiting some of the debate a week today when he appears before the Select Committee on Work and Pensions to look at this issue.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce) on securing the debate. She has been assiduous in highlighting the impact of Government policies on disabled people, including the introduction of the personal independence payment. The debate is timely given last month’s publication of Paul Gray’s independent report.

My own experiences with the introduction of PIP have not been happy. Some months after the new system was first introduced, a number of constituents got in touch with me regarding the interminable delays that they were experiencing in accessing the support to which they were entitled. All those people had been waiting more than six months for an assessment by the time they got in touch with me; some had been waiting more than nine months and in one case a person took more than a year to get PIP.

The impact that that was having on those people and their day-to-day lives is worth restating. The people making the claims were all living with long-term disabilities or health problems. For all of them, their ability to work, socialise or participate in day-to-day activities was affected to some extent. For some, their conditions prevented them from working altogether, or even from going out without considerable support from families or friends.

A six to nine-month delay in dealing with those people’s PIP application caused not only unnecessary stress, uncertainty and anxiety, but real financial hardship for some and serious cash-flow problems for others. In some cases, the delays also put a financial strain on relatives, who felt that they had to step in with money to pay additional costs associated with the loved one’s disability. In other words, the inordinate and unacceptable delays in the process actually reduced the personal independence of the claimants.

I am conscious that we, as MPs, only see those cases brought to us. I wonder to what extent what we see in our constituencies is the tip of the iceberg. How many more people affected by the policies are also experiencing similar levels of delay, but have not come to an MP to move the process forward? I pressed Ministers on such issues at the time, and steps have since been taken to deal with the backlog, but I noted that Paul Gray said in his review:

“Whilst steps to resolve delays and backlogs are clearly necessary they are not of themselves sufficient and there are other underlying issues to address.”

The debate today is an opportunity to address some of those underlying issues.

I have read the report, and Gray makes various observations about PIP and a number of recommendations, mostly related to the application process. Given that today is the first opportunity that we have had to debate PIP since the publication of the report, I am looking forward—like the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead—to what the Minister has to say. I think it is fair to point out that the independent review is pretty critical of claimants’ experiences of claiming PIP, aside from the delays, and has made a range of practical suggestions about how the journey could be improved.

I also note that Gray draws attention to the need to understand better how the process is working for people with mental health problems and for people with learning disabilities. There have been serious shortcomings in the work capability assessment which, like the PIP assessment, is made on the basis of functional impact on people with such types of disability. I have had extensive dialogue with Ministers on that in connection with the WCA, so the fact that concerns flagged in the report are similar for PIP makes me wonder whether the type of assessments are suitable for those claimants. Paul Gray points out that such assessments are “not a precise science”—there is a lot of subjectivity in the process—and that that inevitably disadvantages folk whose conditions are less visible, which fluctuate, or which people find hard to communicate. Some of the recommendations that he makes about exploring how there might be greater input of information and evidence from clinicians mirror the kind of suggestions that health care advocacy groups have been making in relation to the WCA, so I hope that the Government will listen, take that on board and look closely at how improvements might be made for the claimants.

One of the issues that the independent review explicitly does not address in detail is that of the contractual arrangements, which have been a matter of wider public concern and merit some scrutiny. I am conscious that responsibility for PIP is one of the policy areas that the Smith commission has recommended be devolved to the Scottish Parliament. Draft proposals are due to be published later this week, and I await them with great anticipation. Given the serious problems with implementation of PIP so far, I would welcome the opportunity to improve the policy in the Scottish context and to make the changes necessary to deliver a workable system that supports disabled people to live dignified, independent lives.

Honest and rigorous evaluation of the existing scheme is therefore essential. I heartily support the recommendations in Paul Gray’s report on better, more detailed and more robust evaluation of the PIP implementation to date. Gray highlights the lack of evidence available and how that inhibited his ability to conduct the independent review. That is all the more important as we are looking to devise a new and improved policy approach, so we need the evidence for what has been problematic in the PIP arrangements.

The Government have not covered themselves in glory as far as the implementation of PIP is concerned. It has been beset by problems, but as a replacement benefit for the disability living allowance PIP is important, enabling people with serious disabilities and health conditions to participate in society, to get around, to get to work, to go shopping and to socialise with friends—activities that able-bodied people take for granted. The benefit promotes independence and counters some of the disadvantages faced by disabled people. The Government need to do an awful lot more to make it work.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger, and to follow the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford), after the excellent introduction to the debate by my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce).

This Government have presided over a miserable few years for those who need to turn to the state for help. Those who do not find the door slammed in their faces still have to deal with the incompetence at the DWP that has led to benefit delays of as much as a year in some cases. Those people are genuinely terrified of what the future holds for them.

The Gray review echoes a lot of the concerns that Opposition Members have been raising for some time now, along with the hardship that the problems have caused for our constituents. But the review does not go far enough. My constituent Mr Mark Douglas has Parkinson’s, and applied for PIP in November 2013. After two months he had heard nothing from either the DWP or his assessor. When I chased Atos, it said it could not confirm an assessment date. It took persistent chasing from Parkinson’s UK and me on Mr Douglas’s behalf to get an appointment scheduled at the end of January, nearly three months after he had begun his claim.

It took a further three months and numerous letters for Mr Douglas to get a decision. All the while he had no updates from his assessor or from the DWP. The replies I was able to get from the Department were so vague as to be completely useless. When I asked when Mr Douglas would be notified of the DWP’s decision, the response was:

“We aim to make and notify decisions on most cases within 3 weeks. However, it may take less time than this, or longer.”

In other words, the Department was completely clueless. When I raised another constituent’s delay with the Prime Minister, he admitted it was unacceptable, but that was, sadly, nine months ago, and PIP claimants are still experiencing the same unacceptable problems. When on earth are the Government going to get a grip on this issue?

The overall PIP journey is an unpleasant one. The quality of assessments is uneven, assessors do not properly understand people’s conditions, communication with claimants is poor and decision letters are often unintelligible. All that will sound familiar to some of us: we have seen it all before from this Government with work capability assessments. WCAs do not take account of people’s fluctuating conditions. They may appear to be physically fine at their assessment but on a different day might be housebound; as a result, those people are wrongly declared fit for work. We are likely to see a lot of inaccurate PIP decisions appealed, just as we have seen one in three decisions on employment and support allowance appealed because of the poor quality of assessments.

The real problem, however, is one of delays. It is disappointing that the review does not go into further detail in that regard. Mr Gray explains in his foreword that he has “taken it as given” that the Government will be taking action to speed up the process, but sadly this Government’s record means that Opposition Members are unable to do the same.

I hope the Minister will explain what is being done to address the backlog. Will he share the data on the current lengths of time that people are waiting for their PIP claims to be processed? The delays must be the urgent priority, because later this year PIP will be opened up to all existing long-term DLA recipients. Until now, the PIP system has been dealing only with a minority of eligible people, so if it is in chaos now, how bad will things be in October?

Does the Minister not think that it would give a clear message to PIP recipients that the Government actually cared if they decided to halt the roll-out until they got the system right? Should the Government not be setting out clearly the monitoring arrangements they have in place for the estimated 500,000 disabled people who are going to lose out in the transition from DLA to PIP?

The review shows that the experience of claiming PIP is a nightmare. People do not have confidence in the assessments, or in the DWP’s ability to process their claims on time. These individuals are in many cases totally reliant on Government support, but right now the Government are showing that they cannot be relied upon. The DWP has failed to learn the lessons of the Work programme and universal credit, and is presiding over another disaster in PIP, yet it is our constituents who continue to pay the price under this heartless and shambolic Government.

I am grateful for the chance to speak today, Sir Roger. I was wondering whether this sitting of Westminster Hall constitutes a record, as we are on our fourth speaker before 10 o’clock. I will try to prolong matters a wee bit, if I may—I joke.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce) on bringing this matter forward for consideration. It is always good to speak on these issues as they are bread-and-butter concerns for people in my constituency and across the whole of the United Kingdom, as we move from the disability living allowance to personal independence payments throughout the United Kingdom. Since PIP is only in its early stages and has not yet taken over from DLA everywhere, the independent review comes at an ideal time, when improvements can still be made. That is vital.

In a debate on this issue in November, the Minister was able to state clearly with regard to Northern Ireland that welfare reform was not yet in place, but all parties in Northern Ireland have now agreed to bring in that reform, and measures on the reforms will come in during the next two weeks, as I understand from my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell). After that, PIP will be in place across the whole of the United Kingdom.

This debate is important. The background information that was prepared for it is very detailed. I congratulate those who put it together, as the amount of information has made it easier to assess and understand the issues—for me, at least. In Northern Ireland we have been looking at the two-year process and the delays; the delays are what I want to talk about, because it is important that we in Northern Ireland learn from what has happened in the rest of the United Kingdom and introduce the system in a much better form.

On the issue of lessons that may be learned, does my hon. Friend agree that in Northern Ireland we are looking at this matter with some trepidation, given that we have significantly higher numbers of people on DLA per head of population? I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us that the information gleaned over the course of the past two years will be of some assistance in trying to minimise the problems and errors that the process has been fraught with.

My hon. Friend’s intervention clearly illustrates the issue for us in Northern Ireland. I have a member of staff in my constituency office who now does nothing else but deal with benefit issues and issues with the DLA; I spoke to her this morning to talk over some of the issues. We have a higher proportion of claimants in my constituency and a higher proportion of contact with them. The Government have offered Members’ staff the opportunity to have training on the new system, which my staff took up, and I hope that the information that they have gleaned from the training classes here in London will be sufficient to enable the change to be managed more easily in my constituency. That is one of the really good things that the Government have done.

PIP retains key features of DLA, which is important for a smooth transition. It is not means-tested and is non-taxable and non-contributory. It is intended to provide financial support for disabled people who face the greatest challenges in remaining independent—it is important to help those people hold on to some of their independence. It is payable to people both in and out of work and has two components—daily living and mobility—with different levels of award for each based on the assessed level of need.

The benefit has been changed and improved, however, in the sense that it encourages a move to a more transparent and objective assessment of need, with assessments by health professionals employed by contracted providers. I know that there is a lot to be learned from the past two years here on the mainland, but the PIP system itself is something that most of us can welcome, because on paper it has the potential to make lives better and be better at helping people. However, there have been recurring problems and I want to make some observations about what has happened.

The assessment places a stronger emphasis on the functional impact of claimants’ underlying disabling and medical conditions, not on the conditions themselves. That is vital, because people are affected by conditions in different ways. We see that in my office every week. What one person may need might not be needed by another person, so that is one element that I was happy to see changed; it is one of the new system’s pluses, at least on paper. A points-based system to assess eligibility for awards will also be included, with more regular reviews of eligibility for those receiving awards. Finally, there is greater focus on the needs of claimants with mental health conditions.

Over my last four and a half years as a Member of Parliament, I have become more aware of the needs of people with mental health issues. I do not know what it is about society, or whether it is a combination of things, but more people today have mental health conditions, and we need a system that understands the issue. In Northern Ireland, we had a conflict over 30 years, which may have contributed to mental health problems, and we have concerns about that.

The hon. Gentleman will probably recognise that those of us who have concerns about the implementation of welfare reform in Northern Ireland have raised the particular needs of victims of the troubles, and the issue was raised as part of the Stormont House agreement. They were given DLA awards—perhaps for life—because of their condition, and there was concern about the difficulties they would face in being subjected to reassessment and in perhaps having to retell their story, whether the trauma they carried was physical or mental. We have been assured that we can get extra consideration on that.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that valuable intervention—he is right to raise the conflict over 30 years and its repercussions. Those who have lived with trauma have filled in the forms and been given a definite award, but they have then had to go through it all again. It is important that those points are addressed, and it seems, from the Stormont House agreement and the discussions with the Secretary of State and other Ministers, that they are.

As I mentioned in last November’s debate about PIP, the delays and backlogs are worrying. It is unsurprising, therefore, that the independent review expressed the same concerns. The hon. Members for Erith and Thamesmead, for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) and for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) have mentioned the delays, and it is important that they are addressed. As PIP is rolled out, serious delays have occurred, which means that some of the most vulnerable have been left without the help they need for too long. For example, of the 220,300 disabled people who applied for PIP from 8 April 2013 to 31 December 2013, only 34,200 received news of their claim by February 2014. That delay is absolutely unacceptable.

Obviously, that was not good enough, so the review suggested having better and more concise communication. The format of decision letters was claimed to be unclear, confusing and of variable quality. It has been suggested that the letters begin with a clear statement of the decision, followed by the award, payment details, a simpler explanation for the reasons and the next steps. I would definitely support that in my constituency, as we role out PIPs in the next month or so.

A large number of claimants have difficulty understanding reply letters. On more than one occasion, my office has had to relay to them what has been written to help them. It is good that my staff have the understanding to do that, but it would be better if the letters used words that people could understand.

I mentioned in our last debate—this has also been touched on today—my concern over the reliability criteria, which measure whether activities can be undertaken safely, to an acceptable standard and repeatedly. I was pleased that the review recognised that conditions and their impact can often fluctuate over time—people can have changing conditions. Although the review saw examples of good practice, respondents expressed concern over whether the criteria were being applied appropriately. There is an issue about how people are assessed and how measures are put in place.

In the same way that a condition affects different people in different ways, people’s ability to carry out particular activities can vary. It is therefore difficult to apply the reliability criteria over a set period. However, regular reviews might allow the same tests to be carried out each time, which would help to monitor whether someone had remained the same, deteriorated or, indeed, improved. That, in turn, would mean that fairer assessments and payments could be given than under the system. Provided that the right safeguards are in place, that could be a good idea; if it is done in the right way, it could bring benefits.

The review set out short-term, medium-term and long-term solutions to make PIPs work better. Those include short-term actions to address delays and backlogs before the start of managed reassessment; medium-term actions to improve both evaluation of the accuracy and consistency of award outcomes and the collection of further evidence; and longer-term actions to redesign the PIP delivery model in terms of claimant experience and business effectiveness. In his response, perhaps the Minister can tell us whether changes to make the system better can still be implemented even at this late stage.

Ultimately, I am pleased the review has concluded and can now address some of the main issues with the new PIP model. PIP has the potential to improve on DLA, but it needs to be fairer and more objective, and it must meet the needs of people more than has been the case. I welcome the findings of the review, which will mould a new system that can work better. I hope that its suggestions will be taken on board.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce) on securing the debate, which is certainly timely. Like other Members, I was impelled to come to the debate by the experience I have had in my constituency surgery, where I have seen case after case, week after week, of people suffering from delays in PIP assessments, with all the difficulties that arise from that.

In passing, I should say that I am surprised that there are no Members from the Government parties in the debate. I am not one of those MPs who jump to conclusions as to why Members are not present in debates, or who accuse them of base motives, but it is hard to believe that no constituencies represented by Conservatives or Liberal Democrats have similar problems. I will charitably assume that Government Members have raised these issues with Ministers—I am sure they have—and that they are too embarrassed to come along today because they know they cannot defend the delays and the chaos, and because they would have to mention the types of experience that we have had in our constituencies. People have certainly had a bad experience, and the Government need to address that much more directly and seriously.

Perhaps they are. If they are, perhaps they will hear from people on the doorsteps about some of the problems the Government’s policies are causing.

Like all Members here today, I have a fat file of cases, and if I were to read out all of them I would take up all the time available to me. However, I want to highlight three cases that demonstrate some of the wider problems affecting the system. The first is that of a constituent who wrote to me just before Christmas, saying:

“I am currently a student nurse who works part time as a chef. As a result of my PIP assessment waiting time I have been forced to sell my house and am unable to claim housing benefits to help towards my rent.

I am epileptic and am unable to work more hours to make ends meet. I am already far into my overdraft and I have been told I have to wait around 26 weeks for my assessment.”

Obviously, I took up that case, and things were moved forward a little. However, that is an example of how people’s lives are being turned upside down by the delays all of us experience in the system up and down the country.

Another case, which is quite interesting for a reason that will become apparent, involves a constituent who told me that he had made a claim for PIP in February 2014, following a heart attack in November 2013. In January this year, he told me that a decision had still not been made on his application. He is on a heart transplant list. In the meantime, he has a pacemaker, which is due to be replaced in Glasgow, but he is worried that he will not be able to meet the travel costs for hospital appointments. Again, that is an indication that financial costs and difficulties lead to other stresses and difficulties for those who suffer under this process.

I refer to that case because it illustrates the delays that affect so many people. The response I received from the DWP when I took up the case with the complaints resolution service was interesting. I have to say that DWP staff are normally very helpful when I get in touch with them, and they try to move cases forward, and the same is true of the Minister and his office. However, the reply I got from DWP staff said there had been some issues at the beginning of the case because there were not always up-to-date address details for the constituent—I do not have enough details to know whether the delay could be ascribed to the DWP, my constituent or Atos. In any event, I was told that the uncertainty

“resulted in the request for an assessment”—

presumably by the DWP—

“only being made on 3 October 2014. Although it was a little early for us to try and push for an appointment I got in touch with Atos”.

I was then told that a home consultation had been booked for 4 February.

As to the comment that

“it was a little early for us to try and push”

for an assessment, here was a case where somebody applied in February and, for whatever reasons, there was some delay in the process; but someone in the DWP felt that they had to allow it to go on a bit longer, no doubt because they knew that there were so many cases that they could not just press for an assessment. When an assessment was finally allocated, it was only at the end of a 16-week period, which as we know is the Government target.

The third case that I want to refer to highlights the difficulties of a constituent who was previously on the higher rate of the care component of DLA, but did not have the mobility component. He applied for PIP on 14 March 2013, and he was finally awarded it on 25 September 2014, about 18 months later. He was awarded the higher rate of both components of PIP, including the mobility component, but of course the higher rate could not be backdated by more than 28 days. We see such situations time and again, of course, and that shows the problems with the system. The idea that if someone gets the higher rate it is not backdated, but if they get the lower one they do not get money taken off them, sounds fair—at least, it sounds a simple approach to delays. However, surely no one can think it acceptable when people experience delays of not just 16 weeks but six months or a year.

The situation might not be particularly unfair if those assessed at the higher rate had it backdated but those assessed at the lower rate did not have their previous higher-rate payments taken away from them. We are not talking about large sums of money—well, we are talking about large sums of money, but not for the people receiving the benefits. That should be an incentive to the Government to get their act together and ensure that cases are dealt with more quickly, to prevent a situation in which someone assessed at a higher rate—in my example, for 18 months of the mobility component—is deprived of what they should have had over the relevant period because of delays that are no fault of theirs.

In that context, Paul Gray’s review is welcome. I think the limited scope of the recommendations disappointed many people, but that is not Mr Gray’s fault. It is the fault of his remit and the way he felt obliged to address the issue, given the time scale he was given and other factors such as the timing of the election. However, the fact that people are disappointed means that there is a need for a much more direct Government drive to deal, above all, with delays and associated problems. Let us not forget that the Government must take the blame for delays and failures.

Hon. Members will be aware of the damning report of the Public Accounts Committee. Its Chair said:

“The implementation of Personal Independence Payment has been nothing short of a fiasco. The Department of Work and Pensions has let down some of the most vulnerable people in our society, many of whom have had to wait more than 6 months for their claims to be decided.”

That is true. The Committee’s report said:

“Critical assumptions about the process were not fully tested and proved to be incorrect, resulting in significant delays to benefit decisions and a backlog of claims.”

That is a failure. It is a failure of Government, and the Government need to accept that responsibility.

We want, however, to deal with the problems. I am sure that we all want much more comprehensive action to deal with the delays that affect so many people. The present arrangement, whereby higher awards are not backdated beyond 28 days, needs to be replaced with backdating to the time when the application was submitted. I am sure that other hon. Members have received a briefing from Leonard Cheshire Disability, as I have, urging the Government to consider providing financial help to those who are in difficulties precisely because of delays in dealing with their applications.

Many hon. Members will be aware of a current and well-known campaign in Scotland led by Gordon Aikman—I am sure that the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) is aware of it. Gordon Aikman is suffering from motor neurone disease and is using the last few months of his life to campaign for better treatment for sufferers in many areas. One of the issues that he has raised is the fact that delay in assessment has a particularly serious effect on those whose condition is terminal, but whose prognosis is not that they will die within six months. Someone whose life expectancy is six months or less will be given an accelerated assessment, but I understand that the average prognosis for people with MND is 14 months, and those people are not given an accelerated assessment. However, it is clearly unacceptable that they should wait a year or so. The Minister should look at providing an accelerated assessment process for people whose prognosis includes limited life expectancy.

Leonard Cheshire Disability also proposes a general halt to further plans to extend benefits to more people until the assessment system is fit for purpose. That seems sensible to me, and it brings me to my final point, which is about the implications of recommendations to devolve PIP to the Scottish Government and Parliament. As the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan pointed out, the Smith commission’s report included those recommendations, and it is widely known that the Government will put forward details of the next stage in that process on Thursday. I accept that the Minister may not be able to respond today with reference to an announcement due on Thursday, but I hope that he will recognise that it would be crazy to continue to roll out PIP in Scotland under the present arrangements, with all their difficulties, just when we are about to provide for full devolution of PIP to Scotland with the agreement of all the parties.

In the context of the devolution of welfare reform, it is important to look at other parts of the United Kingdom, such as Northern Ireland. Sometimes we should be careful what we wish for.

That is an interesting point, but all the parties want devolution, and we will have to live with the consequences. I welcome the devolution of large elements of the welfare system to Scotland. I think it will be better for Scotland, for those on benefits there, and for the UK, but I hear what the hon. Gentleman says.

My final point is that, as has been pointed out, one difficulty in making a judgment about the failures of the PIP system is the lack of data about the extent of the problems and the length of time people must wait for assessments. As the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan pointed out, we get the tip of the iceberg in our constituency offices. We take up cases and hopefully get them moved forward, but of course people tend to come to us only when they have gone through every other avenue and have not been able to resolve their problems. I suspect that there are still people who are not even coming to MPs or to benefit advice centres, and they are probably suffering worse than those who come to us, whose problems we can at least try to resolve.

We need action from the Government, and answers. I would like a commitment from the Minister on the situation in Scotland. I hope that the Department will give a statement quickly after Thursday’s expected announcement, explaining how PIP roll-out will be carried out in Scotland as the Smith commission proposals go into their next stage of delivery, which we know all the parties want.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. Like other hon. Members, I commend the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce) on securing this debate on the independent review of personal independence payments, which are a significant part of the concern expressed by Members across the House about how welfare reform will work in practice. They are also pertinent to the delay in legislation on welfare reform in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Devolution of social security in Northern Ireland is devolution up to a point. The parity principles and the exacting way in which the Government have enforced them mean that, essentially, the Assembly passes karaoke legislation: we can perhaps provide a bit of our own accent, but we cannot change the words and music very much. The key issue of the rules, the rates and the existence of benefits stems from legislation as framed in Westminster. There is something of a blur which, even after the Stormont House agreement, will continue in future. The issues that were brought out in the review of personal independence payments show that an awful lot rests on implementation, proper planning and preparation, as well as the capacity to deal with numbers, volumes, complexities, particular situations and, in some cases, the pattern of issues that have arisen.

Many of us are concerned, in the light of the Gray review, about the implications of further welfare reform. Significant changes can be made in the next Parliament under the Welfare Reform Act 2012 without the need for new primary legislation. Many of the assumptions or givens that need to be improved according to the review might be changed.

The welfare cap will bite into that as well, as it could mean that decision makers and those who process the applications, whether at the assessment provider stage or in the civil service—the Department for Work and Pensions on this island; whoever does it in Scotland under a future regime; and the Social Security Agency in Northern Ireland—will be working against new, fixed envelopes. They could have a fixed budget against which to assess how many people can receive benefits. That would change the nature of assessment decisions and the number of claims that can be approved. That issue was not resolved by what was agreed or understood between the parties when the Stormont House agreement was reached. It is important that we do not pretend that those possible adverse changes will not present real challenges to parties in the Assembly and the Executive in future.

Let me turn to an issue that stems from the evidence that was given to the independent review. In the context of the Stormont House agreement, the parties were concerned that the numbers might fall off in the transfer from disability living allowance to PIP in Northern Ireland, and that some of the decision-making processes might have adverse effects. They were assured that, compared with England, where there were delays in outcomes, the problems were not as grave, and that the Social Security Agency has learned from the experiences in England. Those assurances became working assumptions, but that could change.

Ministers here, probably in absolute good faith, made assumptions about how well PIP was going to work and how smooth the transfer would be. Clearly, those assumptions did not turn out to be correct, so we need to work hard in Northern Ireland. The relevant Committee in the Assembly, the Minister and the staff of the Social Security Agency must work hard to apply lessons learned in the light of the review. They must listen to the concerns that I have heard today and on other occasions, both here and in the main Chamber, from many hon. Members who have more direct and immediate experience of this issue, and whose constituents have told them about their frustrations and difficulties.

In an intervention, I spoke about the victims of the troubles, who are worried about having to repeat their stories to assessment providers, civil servants or whoever else. They are worried about making their experience the subject of a review argument. They do not want to be put through those difficulties and talk about such sensitive things. We have made many promises to victims in Northern Ireland. We have set up victims units and victims commissioners to ensure that, when public bodies and agencies deal with them, their needs are given due consideration. It would seem strange if we were to completely confound the position of victims in relation to personal independence payments and treat them in a way that differs from the particular provision that, understandably, has been made by the Government here for people who have served in the armed services and whose disability stems from their experience and the injuries that they received in that context. If consideration is rightly given to people in that situation, it is important that we have bespoke consideration in Northern Ireland. Hopefully, that is being further worked on.

Personal independence payments are not the only thing that affects the future of DLA. In the House last week, we saw the launch of “Right from the start”—essentially the manifesto pitch of the combined campaign, Every Disabled Child Matters. It expressed worry about what would happen to DLA for those under 16, given that under the Welfare Reform Act, Ministers in the next Parliament will have the capacity to “disappear” DLA for under-16s without recourse to primary legislation. That is a live concern for a number of the groups in the policy community that deals with children and families coping with disabilities.

We are glad that lessons are being learned and that they have been reflected in the independent review. However, it is not clear that all the lessons and the issues that hon. Members have raised have been fully reflected and addressed in the review, so more needs to be done by the Department and Ministers. In the specific Northern Ireland context, we can use the light of the review to guide us, but we should not pretend that the path will be straight or smooth, or that we have cracked it. Under the Stormont House agreement, the Executive have been allowed to use some of their block grant resources to provide a hard shoulder to mitigate the impact of the change and its implications. Of course, if the welfare cap and other changes materially change the numbers and the issues, the Executive are not going to be able to find more hard shoulder from the block grant. The situation that the Executive face is different from the situation outlined in the Smith commission report. That difference needs to be understood by both places, and it needs to be understood here.

I again thank the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead for giving us the opportunity to hear about the issues directly from her and others. It is a good alert for us. I hope that my colleagues and I can ensure that our colleagues in the Assembly and the Department in Belfast take note of all the issues that have been raised.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce) on securing the debate, and I thank all hon. Members for their valuable comments.

For months, claimants have been telling us of problems with the administration of personal independence payments. It came as no surprise to read Paul Gray’s independent report and the concerns that he raised. Gray highlights a disjointed claimant journey, a lack of trust by claimants, a lack of transparency in the process, and a pretty poor experience all round for claimants seeking to apply for PIP. Gray states that

“the primary focus of early comment and attention on PIP has been the unfortunate reality of long delays and backlogs”,

thus reiterating what MPs have been hearing again and again from our constituents over the past few months. It is very clear that the roll-out of this benefit has not gone to plan.

The initial plans for PIP suggested that 500,000 fewer people would receive PIP than DLA by the end of 2015-16, and that all working-age DLA claimants would be reassessed by that time. That is some 2 million-plus claimants, but according to the most recent official figures, which were published just before Christmas and go up to the end of October 2014, the backlog of cases waiting for a decision stood at 287,000, and just 2% of affected DLA claimants had been reassessed.

The Minister has said—we heard it again this morning—that reducing the delays and the backlog in PIP is his top priority. Clearly, that is welcome, and I am sure we will hear from him about the progress that has been made. As my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) pointed out, on 15 January in the House of Lords, Lord Bourne told peers that the backlog had fallen to 107,000. There has been no official publication of that figure, and I have to say that it really is not acceptable for Ministers suddenly to pull figures out of the hat only a matter of parliamentary days after official figures giving a very different picture have been published. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us more information about the source of that figure of 107,000 and tell us when proper underpinning data about that will be publicly available, so that Members can scrutinise them.

It is welcome to hear that there has been progress in reducing the backlog, but it is also important to remember that the Government have shifted the goalposts. The original intention in the impact assessment was that it would take 12 to 16 weeks from application to receiving a decision. However, in June 2014, the Secretary of State said that the aim was that by the end of 2014 it would take a maximum of 16 weeks for an assessment—not a decision, but an assessment, which is one stage before a decision is made. The Minister reiterated the commitment to a 16-week time scale for assessments when he appeared before the Select Committee on Work and Pensions on 10 September. The DWP’s PIP online toolkit, which I checked last night, also confirms the ambition of a 16-week time scale.

However, even that less ambitious target still has not been achieved for all claimants, as we heard from hon. Members today. I hope the Minister will tell us when and whether the 16-week target has been met. It certainly seems to be being indicated to claimants that it will not be met. My hon. Friend pointed out the case of his constituent, who was told that there would be a 26-week wait, and what is more, that it would be too early to chase until 16 weeks had gone by. That does not suggest to me an ambition to clear that assessment within a 16-week time frame.

It is also very concerning, from another example that my hon. Friend pointed out, that where something is wrong in a claim, the clock seems to be set back to zero. An application that might have been made many months ago, as he described, but with a wrong or missing piece of information is not timed from the beginning of that claim, but only from when that piece of information is received. I understand that the Department will say that it cannot process an incomplete claim, but the consequence for that individual and others like him is that they have waited months and months to get an assessment and to get the money that they need.

I particularly want to ask the Minister about the situation with young people turning 16, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead. Kath Whittam is a parent living in Southwark, whose daughter received DLA. A letter was received from the DWP in February 2014 as her daughter approached her 16th birthday, advising her to prepare for PIP. The family were anxious about the situation, but they put in an application and Kath underwent an assessment to be the responsible fit and proper person to receive PIP payments and administer them for her daughter. However, because of the backlog, the PIP assessment still had not been undertaken by the time of her daughter’s 16th birthday, and because London, where the family live, is not yet in the area affected by migration to PIP, the daughter was no longer in the cohort due to be migrated to PIP, so the family were sent another DLA claim form. The daughter was, in fact, re-awarded DLA indefinitely in September.

That kind of situation is not just appalling for the claimant—and it is; it was stressful for Kath and her daughter, who were anxious about the PIP claim and about having to initiate a claim, and then being told that they had to apply all over again for DLA—it is wasteful of public money. There was all that pointless correspondence, the cost of a wasted assessment to establish that Kath was a fit and proper person, and then her daughter ended up back on DLA.

I asked the Minister in how many cases that had happened, and I received his written answer on 8 January, but it did not address that specific question. Perhaps he will tell us today how many 16-year-olds, or those approaching 16, have been through and successfully completed the PIP claims process, and how many have not and have had to return to DLA.

The cost of administering the benefit has been impacted by the need to draft in resources to deal with the backlog. The Minister, again in a written answer on 8 January, told me that 76 temporary staff have been employed to help, although he ignored my specific question about the rise in cost of staff time. Meanwhile, Paul Gray, in his report, highlights the fact that staff are undertaking evening and weekend work to help deal with the backlog.

There is considerable uncertainty about future costs, about the level of awards, and about the capacity to shift large numbers of reassessments once the full programme of managed reassessments commences. That uncertainty has been flagged up by both the National Audit Office and the Office for Budget Responsibility.

In February 2014, the NAO said that PIP was £140 million behind the projected £780 million savings in the current spending review period, and that the DWP had revised down the projected savings four times between January 2012 and December 2013 due to delays. It said that the administrative cost had risen from £49 for DLA to £182 for PIP, and that average waiting times for DLA were 37 days compared with 74 days for PIP. We do not know the current position on waiting times, because the DWP, as has been noted, will not publish all that information until March.

The NAO also said that the DWP had been set a budget of £101 million for delivering PIP in 2013-14 and £85 million in 2014-15. Will the Minister say whether that sum has been used in full or whether it has been exceeded, and if so, has it been used to deliver fewer of the assessments that had been planned when the budget was set? The NAO concluded:

“Because it may take some time to resolve delays the Department has increased the risk that the programme will not deliver value for money in the longer term.”

In October, the OBR published its “Welfare trends report”, which noted DWP projections:

“16 per cent of the DLA/PIP caseload will be on PIP by 2015-16, rising to 63 per cent by 2018-19. With comparatively little outturn data and a delayed rollout, we adjusted our forecast upward in March 2014 to reflect the emerging outturn data on the pace of the rollout. But it is too early to tell whether that was sufficient.”

Then, at the autumn statement in December, the OBR revised spending upwards by a further £400 million a year as a result of more people being found eligible for the new benefit than had been planned.

The Gray report shows that all those concerns about delays and costs to the public purse are matched by poor claimant experience. Starting right at the time of the application, Gray points out difficulties for some claimants with hearing impairments or learning disabilities using the telephone, and says that there is a need for alternative forms of digital access. Will the Minister say how he will take that forward?

There is a lack of information about the processing of people’s claims. Gray highlights that people are being told to ask the DWP, but the DWP says, “Ask the assessor” and the assessor says, “Ask the DWP.” As he said, that is “not an acceptable level” of customer service for any institution in 2014. He identifies problems with implicit consent; will the Minister say what steps he is taking to clarify that to staff and assessors? There are issues with the complexity of the claim form and the time taken to complete it, and people do not know that they can ask for an extension. As for gathering evidence to support a claim, Gray suggests better information sharing, which I think is a welcome suggestion, and I would like to know what the Minister is doing about it.

Gray also highlights uncertainty about who is responsible for gathering evidence—whether it is the assessor or the claimant. Sorting that out is pretty crucial, because the claimant has one month to gather information and submit a PIP2 claim, and many miss that deadline. In a written answer on 8 January, the Minister told me that there had been 159,000 disallowed claims, of which 48,500 were the result of non-return of the PIP2 form within the time limit. Is the DWP tracking what happens to those people? Do they apply again? That would mean additional cost to the public purse and more stress for the claimant. How many claims are treated as withdrawn, rather than disallowed? Does that include cases in which evidence has not been returned in time, and what impact has it had on clearance figures?

Gray highlights other problems, including appointments cancelled or people not being notified in time, the configuration of the room for assessments, and a lack of understanding by claimants of the purpose of some of the questions; it needs to be made clear that it is a functional, not a medical, assessment. Gray highlights some problems with the substance of the assessment: the descriptors on planning a journey, the use of aids and adaptations, and the problems with mental health conditions, fluctuating conditions and learning disabilities. He also highlights, very importantly, the use of informal observations as part of the assessment process and the need for transparency around that. He draws attention to poor communication of decisions. I am pleased that the DWP will review decision letters. When and how will that be done, and will claimants be involved?

In conclusion, Ministers need to be sure that the process of administering PIP is fair and effective. Better communications with claimants are clearly needed. Gray also suggests better liaison between assessors and claims managers. Decisions need to be timely and fair. Worryingly, Gray notes wide geographic variations in outcomes. He is right to recommend “horizontal” scrutiny of claims to ensure consistency, and a proper evaluation strategy; and he is surely right, in the light of all the delays, costs and confusion, to recommend action to redesign the PIP model regarding the claimant experience and business effectiveness. I hope that the Minister will take this opportunity to answer the many questions that colleagues and I have posed, and I look forward to his response.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce) on securing the debate. In the time available, I will do my best to answer as many as possible of the questions that she and others asked.

A number of colleagues raised the issue of delays and statistics. I think that colleagues got the message that I gave before, because a number of them helpfully repeated it, about dealing with the delays that claimants have experienced. It was and remains the issue on which I am spending a lot of time, to ensure that we resolve it. Both I and officials have been working very hard to do so, as have both the assessment providers.

We have quadrupled the number of assessments cleared each month since January last year, and the number of people with a PIP claim in payment almost doubled between July and October. This morning, the Department has pre-announced that we will publish next Wednesday information on the number of PIP claims processed. I have written to the Chairman of the Work and Pensions Committee, the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg), to inform her of that fact, and I will of course take the Committee through those key pieces of information on the day on which I give evidence.

The normal publication of clearance times and outstanding case times, which we pre-announced in December, will take place in March, and the exact date will be pre-announced in the usual way. That will be the publication of the normal set of statistics, which will then take place on a regular basis. However, there will be an ad hoc publication next week, so that my conversation with the Select Committee will be informed by properly verified statistical information, which I think will be helpful, rather than unverified management information. As I said, I have written to the Chairman of the Committee this morning to let her know.

Hon. Members referred to the impact of the delays. It is worth making the point that PIP is designed to meet the extra costs of someone’s disability or health condition; it is not a benefit designed to meet normal day-to-day costs. In this and other debates, hon. Members have sometimes talked about someone who has had to leave work because of their health condition. PIP is obviously not designed to deal with the costs of that. Those costs will be dealt with by other benefits—for example, employment and support allowance.

All new claims for PIP are backdated to the date of the claim. I recognise, of course, that that presents a cash-flow problem for people, which is why we are working hard to deal with the delays. Of course, in the case of all reassessed claims, people will continue to receive their DLA while awaiting the PIP decision. Other support, which is not tied to receipt of PIP, is available for those on a low income. I am talking about help with energy bills, concessionary bus passes and help with NHS transport costs; and there is the ability to get a blue badge through an assessment, rather than being passported through PIP. Carer’s allowance can be backdated to the point from which PIP was awarded, as well. Again, I recognise that there is a cash-flow issue there, but people are able to backdate the costs.

I thank Paul Gray very much for his report. He did a thorough job. He talked to the assessment providers, to a lot of people who have had experience of claiming the benefit and those who have assisted them, and to many organisations involved in the process. It is a thorough report, and we will of course respond to it in due course. I can say some things today, because some of the recommendations are about things that are already under way. For example, we are reviewing and rewriting all the letters to claimants to make them simpler, easier to understand and clearer. We are also exploring the use of other medical evidence held by the Department. For example—this relates to a question asked by both the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead and the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green)—if someone has gone through a work capability assessment and we have an ESA85 report from that assessment, we are using that information to support and help inform the decision to award PIP. Sometimes that will enable us to make a decision without a face-to-face assessment. It may mean that we have enough information to make those decisions on paper—it is obviously welcome if we can do that—or it may help to inform the decision, so we are looking at doing that.

We are looking at using more proactive communications. For example, since last April claimants get a text message to confirm that their form has been received, so that they know that it is in process. We are also building better relationships between the DWP case managers who make decisions and the health care professionals who make assessments.

We have made changes to some of our internal processes and IT to further streamline clearances of claims. We have improved communications to claimants at the beginning, to try to ensure that they know what the best evidence to supply is and how long their claim may take to be assessed, and to stress the importance of sending us information and following the process. We have a dedicated customer claim line for terminally ill claimants. The assessment providers are also providing claimants with better information about how long a claim may take and whom they should contact at each stage of the process.

As a number of hon. Members mentioned, including the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz), there is a fast-track service and a dedicated claim line for terminally ill claimants with a prognosis of six months or less. We are clearing those cases in about 10 days, which is in line with expectations, and 99% of the decisions lead to an award. In the review, Paul Gray acknowledged that the process for terminally ill claimants had significantly improved following the work that the Department and my predecessor did with Macmillan Cancer Support.

I hear what the Minister says, and perhaps he will come to this later, but what about the situation that I described of people whose prognosis is more than six months but still relatively short, who will be hit badly when there are delays of much more than 16 weeks?

The hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly sensible point. The solution is to fix things so that people are not having to wait so long. Clearly, we have to state a time. People have various health conditions and disabilities, and we have to draw a line somewhere, but the real solution for the cases that the hon. Gentleman mentions is to do what we are doing, which is to ensure that people going through the process have an assessment within a sensible time. Then the issue that he set out simply does not arise, because they are getting an assessment, a relatively speedy decision and the support that they need. That is the solution for those with a progressive condition, with a longer prognosis, but obviously for those with a terminal illness who have a very short time to live, we have put in place a much faster process, which is working well.

The hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead mentioned interventions. The point of them is to ensure that the amount of PIP paid is correct, so that awards can be adjusted upwards if someone’s needs have increased or downwards if they have decreased. That has happened in a very small volume of cases to date. The hon. Lady gave a specific example of one of her constituents. Interventions are set on the basis of when needs change and when awards are made. Given that interventions can go in both directions, it is certainly not in the interests of the Department to review awards more frequently than is necessary, because to do so creates unnecessary work.

The hon. Lady mentioned reassessment. There are two kinds of reassessment going on. For those who have time-limited awards, there is a process called natural reassessment—the names are not brilliantly informative—which is being switched on only in areas where we know that we have the capacity to carry it out. One of the things that I do before I take those decisions is to ensure that our assessment providers have the necessary capacity, and I have been switching the process on only when where there is that capacity.

The hon. Lady mentioned managed reassessment, which has previously been announced as starting in October, under which those with an indefinite DLA claim will be reassessed. We have made it clear that we will roll that out only where and when we have the capacity to do so. It is clearly not in our interest to start reassessing people if the system does not have the capacity to do so. By the way, I thank the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith for his positive comments about DWP staff and staff in my private office, where he has had to raise issues. People do not often say nice things, so I acknowledge his comments on behalf of the Department.

Colleagues from Northern Ireland raised a number of matters. The hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) and for Foyle (Mark Durkan) talked about the Stormont House agreement. I have been in correspondence with Mervyn Storey, the Minister with responsibility for welfare in Northern Ireland, and he and I are trying to get a date in the diary to meet. One thing that we will talk about is the progress that has been made on the Stormont House agreement and welfare reform. I am sure that we will both want to talk about the lessons learned from rolling out PIP in Great Britain, which may apply to the roll-out in Northern Ireland.

I understand that relevant measures will be going through the Northern Ireland Assembly during the next fortnight, so the implementation in Northern Ireland will be in place in time for the Minister’s meeting with Mervyn Storey.

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. There are two issues: the legislative process—I take his word about the timetable for that—and the implementation and operational matters. The Department and I will provide every assistance to the Northern Ireland Executive to make sure that that goes smoothly. It is worth putting on record—

Let me finish my comment, which is about a point that the hon. Member for Foyle raised. The Stormont House agreement states that although the Northern Ireland Executive normally legislate on welfare on a parity basis with Great Britain, they can deviate from parity, partly to recognise the history of Northern Ireland and some of the specific issues that apply. However, the agreement also states that the cost of deviations from parity with Great Britain must be met from the existing Northern Ireland budget. The hon. Gentleman set that out, and I wanted to put that on the record to clarify the position. The Northern Ireland Executive can deviate from the normal process when they legislate to deliver the operational effect.

Of course, there have historically been some differences in delivery, even within the parity regime, on matters such as housing benefit. When the Minister meets Mervyn Storey, will he ensure that he, as the Whitehall Minister, says nothing to disturb our working assumption that much of the room that we thought would have to be made up from the Executive’s block grant is available to us within our spending remit under the welfare cap? That cap is not really biting at the moment, but it may do so in the future. Can he assure us that our assumptions about not having to rely so much on the block grant, and on the rest of the Executive’s budget grant, will not be disturbed by any meeting that he has with the devolved Minister?

I will certainly make sure that the meetings I have with the Minister are helpful. The hon. Members for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) and for Edinburgh North and Leith mentioned the Smith commission, which is relevant to the conversations in Northern Ireland and in Scotland. It may not be far in the future, but I cannot anticipate the Government’s comprehensive response to the report published by the Smith commission, for which hon. Members will have to wait patiently a little longer. It is worth saying that we have to be careful, because Ministers have to follow current legislation. All that has been announced in the Smith commission report is what will happen in the future. The Government have made commitments, but no legislation has yet been introduced. When legislation is introduced, the Scottish Government will have to decide what they will do, and our conversation today makes it clear that we will have to think about operational delivery. Ministers have to proceed on the basis of the current law.

The point I was trying to make was that in looking forward—obviously, we do not know what is in the proposals—the Government’s evaluation of the current policy is important to inform any future decisions made elsewhere.

I take that point, and Paul Gray’s review will partly inform that. If there are lessons to be learned about implementation when the proposals are published and changes are made, I am sure that officials in my Department and Ministers in the UK Government will want to work in partnership with Ministers and officials in the Scottish Government to ensure that things proceed smoothly. We will publish the response to the Smith commission in the not-too-distant future. As Members have said, a commitment has been made to do so by 25 January. I want to put on record that we will proceed on the basis of existing law.

The hon. Member for Foyle mentioned children. There are no plans to extend PIP to children; we have always said that we wanted to see how PIP for adults worked. If a decision was made to extend PIP to children—I emphasise that there are no plans to do so—it would be subject to consultation and to the affirmative procedure in Parliament, so both Houses would have to be involved in that decision. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that primary legislation would not be required, but parliamentary procedures would have to be followed.

On the question of the transition from DLA for young people, which the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston mentioned, people cannot claim PIP until their 16th birthday, but we contact people in advance to enable them to prepare and, as she said, to see whether the child needs an appointee to help them through the process. She asked some specific questions, following up on her earlier written question. I will look at the Hansard report of the debate and, if she is content for me to do so, I will write to her and place a copy of the reply in the Library, which I hope will help colleagues.

In summary, I have made it clear that delays, which several hon. Members have touched on, are unacceptable. The Department and providers have been working hard to deal with them. The hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead mentioned that I will be giving evidence to the Work and Pensions Committee next week—I am looking forward to that, as is she—on a number of issues, including PIP. I will be happy to explain the progress that we have made. We will publish properly verified statistics to make sure that that is an informed discussion.

We have welcomed the Gray review. I have said a little about some of the areas in which we are already working on it, and we will publish a full response. I think I have answered seven of the nine questions asked by the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead—we will cover the two that I did not answer in our full response to Paul Gray’s review, which we will deliver in due course. I think I have touched on all the questions that hon. Members have asked. The debate has been helpful, and I am grateful to the hon. Lady for securing it.

Order. Before I call Mr McKenzie to open the next debate, the Chair has not been notified, but there appears to be a change of Minister. Is that correct?