I beg to move,
That this House has considered processing of personal independence payment applications.
It is a novel and pleasant experience to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I welcome to his place the new Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson). As my colleagues know, and as people across the House will find, he will be excellent in this role. He has great ability and compassion, and I am sure that we all wish him well in delivering for disabled people throughout the country.
Over the past several months, I have been contacted by a number of desperate constituents who feel like they have nowhere to turn. They are often severely disabled people who already have to suffer significant physical pain and distress daily. On top of their conditions, they have had to endure months of delays in applying for the personal independence payment. A system designed to help them is instead increasing their hardship and anxiety. I called for this debate to give those vulnerable people a voice.
I begin by saying that I support the underlying principle of the personal independence payment. Under the old system of disability living allowance, half of all claimants never had to undergo an assessment, and 71% of people who received the benefit never had their award reviewed. That meant that people whose conditions worsened were underpaid and those whose conditions improved received more than was necessary. That system was neither effective nor compassionate in supporting disabled people. Clearly, the money was not being well targeted at those who genuinely needed it.
By contrast, the personal independence payment is a more dynamic benefit, capable, at least in theory, of adapting to disabled people’s complex and often changing conditions, and providing them with the appropriate level of support. However, I have dealt with many cases locally of people waiting far longer than the target of 16 weeks to have their PIP claim processed. I have serious concerns that the administration of the new benefit has not functioned as well as it should have done in order properly to support some of the most vulnerable people in our society.
When PIP was introduced in the last Parliament, average delays were as long as 30 weeks. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions rightly acknowledged that those delays were “unacceptable”. Since then, the number of healthcare professionals has doubled, the number of assessment centres has increased and their opening hours have been extended. I understand that that has helped to bring down average waiting times substantially, which is welcome. I commend the Minister, who has been in office for a limited time, and his predecessors on their work in getting to grips with the issue. However, the many letters and emails that I continue to receive from my constituents, including one only yesterday and another as I waited for this debate to start, suggest that there are still unacceptable delays.
To highlight my concerns, I shall describe in detail two cases. After having an accident at work, Mrs Lynn Dodds from Beverley suffers from two chronic pain conditions: chronic regional pain syndrome and fibromyalgia. She has to use crutches to get around her house and needs a wheelchair whenever she goes out. She has a carer for 37 hours a week. She suffers daily seizures, brought on by stress and anxiety.
Mrs Dodds first applied for the personal independence payment in November 2013 and she had to wait eight months before being assessed. In that time, her condition deteriorated. She was then, unbelievably, told by Department for Work and Pensions staff that she had to start the whole application process again. Devastated by that news, she none the less reapplied for PIP in August 2014. She had to wait a further seven months to receive her reassessment. The healthcare professional told her that the decision could have been made on paper, without a face-to-face assessment. That is what she was told after all that time.
Mrs Dodds was then told that she would receive a decision within four weeks. It has been nine weeks and she is still waiting, although I think that something may have happened in the last few days, coincidentally or otherwise. When I raised the case with the DWP, I was told that the delays in her application were due to a heavy workload. When Mrs Dodds inquired herself, she was informed that the reason was that Atos had not yet sent her assessment forms to the DWP. She is frustrated that whenever she phones up to try to register a complaint, she is told that she must wait five working days for a call-back—call-backs that of course do not come within the five days, or at any time. After her initial attempt to lodge a complaint four weeks ago, she is still waiting for the DWP to call back. So much for five days.
Mrs Dodds says that following her experiences over the past two years, she suffers from depression and anxiety. We can easily understand why. She has gone from being a wife and mother looking after her family full time to being completely dependent on the care of others. I understand there are inherent difficulties in introducing a whole new benefit. I also understand that PIP’s more rigorous and improved assessment process will lead to an increase in work for DWP staff, but the length of time it has taken to process Mrs Dodds’ claim is unacceptable and completely wrong.
The second constituent’s case that I want to highlight is that of Mr Terry Read, also from Beverley. He lives with his 16-year-old daughter and is unable to work because of his disability. Following a deterioration in his condition, he applied for a reassessment of his personal independence payment to reflect his change of circumstances in October 2014. It was not until April 2015 that he was given a medical assessment. Every day his condition was deteriorating. Every day he called the DWP to ask why the decision was taking so long. When he contacted me, he said he was at his wits’ end. When DWP eventually awarded him the benefit last week, it did not backdate it to when the decision was made, so even after months of delays, he was given less money than he was entitled to in order to support the costs of his deteriorating condition.
Although I have named only two examples, many others have contacted me in the last few months about delays in receiving the personal independence payment. Mr Davies, you may be aware of a recent verdict in the High Court: the judge ruled that the delays experienced by two PIP claimants were unlawful. In that case, the claimants had to wait more than seven months for their benefit applications to be processed. The benefit should assist with the additional costs of disabilities, but the delays make disabled people reliant on family, friends and carers, when they want to be able to support themselves. In many cases, the delays cause added stress and anxiety, which aggravates claimants’ conditions.
From October this year, those still claiming disability living allowance will be invited to make a claim for the personal independence payment. That is why it is so vital that problems in the system are resolved now, and that average delays continue to decrease. What steps has the Minister taken to reduce delays in processing applications? What lessons can be learned from the roll-out so far, as October will be the beginning of a large and doubtless challenging process? What is his analysis of what has gone wrong?
I am aware that there are particular difficulties in setting up and running assessment centres in sparsely populated rural areas. I chair the Rural Fair Share campaign and the all-party group on rural services. It is easy to design policies in this place that do not work very well for vulnerable disabled people in rural areas, where there might be few, if any, public transport services and there is a real challenge in getting to cities to be assessed. I have spoken on numerous occasions in this place about the need for the Government to ensure that their policies are rural-proofed. A disabled person who happens to live in a rural area should not have to wait longer for an assessment for the financial support on which they rely for their independence.
Is the Minister investigating the feasibility of pop-up assessment centres that have shorter opening hours, but that enable people living in rural areas, such as my constituents, to have their assessments carried out locally? If further work could be done, or if there were guidelines on what such a pop-up centre might require, perhaps communities including those in my area could look at them and identify premises where such provision could be made available.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. He seems to be implying that rural constituencies such as his and mine suffer more delays than urban constituencies. Has he been able to conduct any research into this, because one would assume that it is more difficult to employ assessors in urban areas than in rural areas?
I cannot claim to have done such research, but perhaps the Minister can cast some light on the matter. Perhaps we could jointly request further work to see what can be done to try to make sure that we have a balanced system that serves everybody as equitably as possible.
I do not know whether it is wise to pick up something from Facebook at the last minute, but in response to a notice about this debate, a constituent posted this a few minutes ago:
“8 weeks to decide if you are eligible. Another 8 weeks to receive the form. You have 2 weeks to complete it. It then takes then another 8 weeks to arrange someone to visit you and a further 8 weeks for them to decide. That was what I got told this morning when I rang up! That's 34 weeks!!!! How on earth can they justify that????? We will back date it to the date I applied. It will be no good by then....!! Idiots and that's being polite”.
I hope the Minister will be able throw light on that and make sure people are not given such messages, because that is not my understanding of what the situation should look like.
I conclude by stressing again that I support in full the principle behind the Government’s reform of disability benefit. It is right that we target financial assistance at those who need it most, in a way that takes into account the changing nature of many people’s disabilities. I commend the Government’s success in bringing down the overall average processing time in recent months, albeit from unacceptable heights. However, my constituents’ cases show that significant further progress is still required in implementing this reform effectively and ensuring that the system is capable of handling the 1.5 million claimants who still need to migrate from DLA to PIP later this year. I look forward to working constructively with the Government to address the remaining delays that compound the despair and anguish felt by many of my disabled constituents.
I intend to go to the Front Benchers no later than 5.25 pm. Five people are seeking to catch my eye. You can do the maths yourselves, but if everyone is to get a fair crack of the whip, there will be about five minutes each. I am not imposing a time limit, but I hope people will be mindful of that, so that everyone gets a fair chance.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Graham Stuart) on securing this important debate, and on the measured way in which he introduced it. I reiterate his point about the High Court ruling on 5 June, paragraph 93 of which stated that the way two claimants’ applications for PIP were processed was “not only unacceptable” but “unlawful”. They had been waiting for 13 and 10 months respectively. I wanted to set the record straight on that point.
PIP has been beset with problems since it was introduced. In October 2012, I remember the former Chairman of the Work and Pensions Committee, Dame Anne Begg, debating this issue. She raised concerns about the migration from incapacity benefit to employment and support allowance. At that point, 40,000 assessments a month were being undertaken; the further 70,000 assessments estimated for DLA/PIP that would be breaking point for the assessment providers. She did not feel the capacity was there, and she has been proven right on this issue, as on others.
Opposition Members welcome welfare reforms where we can see there will be genuine benefit. I mentioned the other assessment process; we feel that the accumulation of assessments has not necessarily been wise. They underpin what is behind the Government’s welfare reform agenda. An estimated 607,000 people in receipt of DLA will not be eligible for PIP. In total, it has been assessed that the Government will have cut nearly £24 billion from 3.7 million disabled people by 2018. Concerns have been raised about the reliability of the assessment process, as well as the limited involvement of the Royal Colleges on specific conditions, and of disabled people themselves in determining the metrics. The toll of the PIP process cannot be overestimated.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Graham Stuart) on securing this debate. Does the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) agree that, for people with mental health issues or particularly traumatic disabilities who finally get to an assessment centre, the process can be traumatic? Perhaps the process needs to be reconsidered for such people.
As I was about to say, I had a meeting with Mind yesterday. One of the people in attendance said that he is due to have his PIP assessment tomorrow, and he is absolutely terrified. About a third of respondents to a survey of more than 4,000 Parkinson’s sufferers became financially worse off after they were diagnosed; for a quarter of them, money concerns are having a negative impact on their Parkinson’s. Those impacts are compounded by the process and their experience of PIP.
Dame Anne got it right two and a half years ago, and it is a shame that the Government did not listen at the time to her and my other former colleagues on the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, Sheila Gilmore and Glenda Jackson. It was not until the February 2014 National Audit Office report described “poor early operational performance” and “long uncertain delays” for new PIP claimants, and until the Public Accounts Committee and the Work and Pensions Committee pointed to the unacceptable delays, that the Government finally took action. At that time, the average wait was 107 days, and in some cases many months more, whereas there was a 74-day target for completion. For terminally ill claimants, claims were taking 28 days on average when they should have taken only 10 days.
Last year’s report by the Work and Pensions Committee made a number of recommendations; in particular, it suggested that penalty clauses in the contracts for assessment providers be used to recoup money when the providers fail to deliver value for taxpayers’ money. What moneys have been recouped? I am pleased that we are now seeing progress, for the sake of claimants and the taxpayer, but we are still not getting it right, as the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness has shown. Some 42,000 people are waiting more than 42 weeks, and four out of 10 people are still waiting for their PIP claim to be processed.
I heard from a woman whose partner has cancer and is waiting for radiotherapy. They have been living on £113 a week since they applied at the beginning of April, and there is also an effect on passported benefits such as carer’s allowance, disability premiums and concessionary travel. I have also heard about the case of someone who received a full PIP award last July but has been told by the Department for Work and Pensions that she has to go through the process again. That beggars belief.
I recognise that the median waiting time has been coming down, and I am pleased about that, but I am concerned about the measures that have been used to bring it down. We have heard about people having to travel considerable distances to remote assessment centres. One person with Parkinson’s was required to get to a 9 am appointment in Deptford from Crawley, which exacerbated their condition. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that paper assessments can be undertaken instead of face-to-face assessments? On the training and skill of assessors, what steps has he taken to ensure the use of skilled assessors who are able to interpret clinical evidence for a range of clinical, physical and mental health conditions? Given the recent capacity issues, will the Department be revising the roll-out of PIP to a further 1.7 million DLA claimants in October?
My final couple of points are about the independent review of PIP that was published last year, which recommended that there be a full evaluation. I have already mentioned the concerns about the effectiveness of the assessment process, and it was recommended that the Government put in place a rigorous quantitative and qualitative evaluation strategy. When might we expect to see that strategy? Finally—this is definitely my final point—we know that the Chancellor will be announcing further cuts to social security in next month’s Budget. What cuts are being considered to disability and associated benefits, including through taxation? Will the administration of those benefits also be affected? Given that the introduction of PIP did not have an impact assessment, which was a big failing, will the Minister guarantee that any changes to disability benefits will have the necessary impact assessment?
I am grateful to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and will try very hard to conform to your stricture; in fact, my speech will last less than five minutes. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Graham Stuart) on securing this important debate, and I am grateful to follow the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams).
I congratulate the Minister on his maiden appearance in this Chamber. I had a very bad constituency case. The media contacted me about it, and his Department tracked my interview on Radio Gloucestershire. He invited me in to talk about it and, having talked about it, I am now much more reassured about the PIP process, so I am particularly grateful to him.
Like other Members who have spoken, I support the replacement of DLA with PIP, which is a much more targeted allowance. My particular constituent, Mr Stephen Smart, had to wait more than a year for his PIP payment, and we would all admit that in the past the system was far too slow. Waiting for more than a year is completely unacceptable. The hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth referred to the court case, and no doubt the Minister and his Department will have to react to that. The only thing I would say about my constituent’s case is that, had the Cirencester citizens advice bureau brought it to my attention much sooner, I believe that, as a Member of Parliament, I could have helped to resolve it. Indeed, I was able to resolve a number of other cases last year, so I urge my CAB to refer cases to me much quicker.
I am delighted that, in March, claim times were down to 15 weeks from 41 weeks last year. That is a terrific step in the right direction. For people with terminal illnesses, 99% of decisions lead to an award, with an average clearance time of six working days. I agree with the hon. Lady that claims involving terminal illnesses are particularly sensitive, and it is right that the time has come down.
The new scheme will need to find new resources to manage the claims process, so I am glad that the Government have doubled the number of staff working on PIP, but I suspect that the system is still patchy across the country. There are particular problems with recruiting staff in London, and I wonder whether there is the same problem in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness, and maybe in my own constituency. Perhaps the Minister will say something about that, although we discussed it in the meeting and I think our constituents are assessed in the Minister’s Swindon constituency. I think we are one of the better performers, so hopefully there has been considerable improvement since my experience. It is regrettable that I was not contacted much earlier in my constituent’s claim, which would have given me time to act on his behalf.
As others have said, the trials of the scheme will go nationwide in October, and hopefully the transition will be complete for those 1.5 million people early in this Parliament. It will be a great milestone when we get everybody on to the new system. We must ensure that it is properly targeted so that they get the benefits they should have and are able to apply and get help in their own home in the most severe cases. We must be sensitive to the fact that, for some people, filling in the form is difficult. I would welcome the Minister’s assurance on that.
We should consider the issue of the appeals process to the tribunal. In particular, I urge the Minister to address the issue of further appeals to the upper tribunal. I have known cases of appeals to the upper tribunal—not just for PIP payments—to take an interminably long time. He needs to look at that to ensure that, for every Government process, everybody has access to a reasonable appeals mechanism. Things do not always go right. When things go wrong, people need to feel that there is a reasonable mechanism for putting things right if they have a justifiable case.
I absolutely take the point about people with mental health problems, which are often difficult to diagnose. The assessors need to be particularly sensitive to that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and I thank the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Graham Stuart) for securing this important debate.
I want to bring to the Minister’s attention some issues that have been brought to me by some of my constituents who suffer from Parkinson’s disease. As he is aware, Parkinson’s is a progressive, incurable disease. It presents some visible symptoms, such as tremors, and some non-visible symptoms, such as dementia, depression and, often, pain. Against that background, I make the following points.
First, my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) raised the issue of delays. Parkinson’s disease can be exacerbated by the stress and anxiety caused by delays. Awards have been backdated where there has been a delay, but will the Minister consider apologising to the people who have suffered due to the delays?
Secondly, on the nature of the assessment process, the Department for Work and Pensions guidance states that, where there is sufficient medical evidence, the assessment should take place on paper. Unfortunately, that does not seem to be widely known throughout the system. I have been told by some of my constituents that the norm is still that a face-to-face assessment is expected. What steps can the Minister take to ensure that the guidance, which is of some antiquity now, is known to staff throughout the system? It would not only help claimants, but relieve the assessment burden, if fewer people had to go to the assessment centres.
Thirdly, there is consistency. There are, as the Minister is aware, what are known as informal observations—in other words, people are observed as they approach the assessment centre. What they are carrying is often taken into account. Will there be a robust system in place to ensure that there is a set of objective criteria? Even when informal observations are taken into account in an assessment, they should be evidence-based.
I am wary of your strictures on time, Mr Davies, so I will finish on this point. How confident is the Minister in the robustness of the system? As the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness said, more and more people will be migrating from long-term disability living allowance to the personal independence payment, but will the system cope? We must not have delays of the scale we have had in the past. Is the system sensitive to the particular conditions—particularly progressive and incurable conditions—that people are suffering from? What steps can the Minister take to ensure that assessors such as Atos and Capita gather the information that will enable them to be sensitive to those conditions?
I, too, thank the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Graham Stuart) for securing this important debate. Like him, I have had many constituents contact me because they are worried and distressed about the transfer from DLA to PIP and the delays that have been taking place.
My constituency is in the north-west of England, which has been particularly hard-hit by the delays. They have caused an unacceptable number of my constituents to be living in financial hardship. I echo the points made about problems in rural areas, as my constituency has poor public transport.
I am pleased that improvements have been made to the system. I am aware that the Minister has confirmed this week that the average claimant wait is seven weeks for PIP assessments, down from the 16-week target set by the Secretary of State. Although I welcome those long-awaited improvements, will the Minister clarify whether the 16-week target covers the whole process from the applicant’s request to the final decision?
In January, the Minister confirmed that DWP would implement the full PIP roll-out in a way that is commensurate with capacity. He said:
“Claimants will be randomly selected...on a post code basis where we are confident that capacity exists.”
It would be helpful to know exactly how that is being assessed and how capacity across all parts of the system will be maintained.
As has already been mentioned, October is the beginning of the most challenging phase of reassessing people currently in receipt of DLA. In addition to dealing with new claims and the fixed-award DLA claims that are ending, the Department will have to manage the PIP awards that are ending and the roll-out of indefinite awards. I seek assurance that the Government have taken that into account when assessing the capacity, so that we do not go backwards and return to the delays and unacceptable waits for assessments and decisions.
It is important to recognise that PIP is a gateway to other areas of support, such as tax credits and carer’s allowance. People cannot access those other benefits until they have had a decision about PIP. The problem is that, particularly with the delays that have been happening, although PIP is backdated to the date the claim was made, the other benefits are not. That is grossly unfair. Why does that have to be the case, and will the Minister consider reviewing it?
What really concerns me, and what I genuinely fail to understand, is how, when the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions told us that PIP was created to ensure that the most vulnerable people in our society would get proper support for the extra costs that have to be borne through long-term illness and disability, my constituents feel they are being punished and victimised because they are unwell or disabled. I have seen people in tears on the doorstep because they are genuinely frightened for their future. We need to look at how the Department manages people.
Finally, I want to mention some of the language that is used when discussing PIP and disability allowances. The Prime Minister, in reply to a question from my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) on 3 June about cutting disability benefits, said:
“What we have actually done is to increase the benefits paid to disabled people by bringing in the personal independence payment, which is more generous to those who are most disabled.”—[Official Report, 3 June 2015; Vol. 596, c. 589.]
Whether that is actually true is open to challenge, but I want to talk about the phrase “most disabled”. Redefining people as “most disabled” is incredibly unpleasant, because so much hinges on some form of recovery, which is something that medical practitioners have commented on. How do we judge whether someone is “most disabled”? Is it in the same way that we assess whether someone with a learning disability is more mobility impaired than a person who can walk 25 metres? I would like to know how the Government calculate that the people with the most severe disabilities have had an increase, either in overall terms or in benefit levels.
Disabled and ill people want to be part of society; they are part of society. They want to work, and they do not deserve to be treated in the way they have been. I would like the Minister to assure people on such benefits that he understands their needs and that they will be treated with the respect and compassion they deserve—the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness spoke about that—as he continues to roll out PIP.
I will be as quick as I can, Mr Davies.
I declare an interest as the past chair of the all-party parliamentary group on motor neurone disease and vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Parkinson’s in the previous Parliament. I also declare an interest because my late husband, who died recently of motor neurone disease—a condition called Pick’s disease—was in receipt of personal independence payment.
I do not think we can stress enough how PIP provides a financial lifeline for people with conditions such as Parkinson’s and motor neurone disease, which both bring increased costs to daily living, whether relating to the need for constant heating; additional laundry costs; the equipment that people need to buy; the aids and adaptation to make their home liveable in; the food wasted as they try to find food they can eat and swallow; the transport costs related to keeping a normal life, getting people out of the home and accessing daily living; and the change in clothing as weight changes. Those are just a few of the huge costs that people face—never mind the stress and anxiety that hon. Members mentioned—that make it essential to get the processing of the change to PIP right. Those changes create anxiety every day, not just for the sufferer, but for their carers, who carry on caring while being denied access to carer’s allowance because the PIP process has not been completed.
If a visual assessment is being made, the outward signs can vary, depending on the progress of the condition: in the early stages, it can include simply slowness and stiffness when moving; breathing and walking difficulties; incontinence; and loss or slurring of speech. The less physical signs are pain, depression, anxiety and memory loss, all of which are exacerbated when the process goes slowly. I remind hon. Members that those diagnosed with some conditions of motor neurone disease can be dead within one year, so people can die before accessing the benefit if there is a delay in the process.
I stress the importance of paper-based assessments for people with such long-term conditions for which there is no relief, from which there is no going back and which mean a death sentence. It is nonsense that people are still being called in for face-to-face assessments. It is also nonsense that people are being assessed in places across the other side of a town, or a country area, that are difficult to access when people get to them, with, for example, long distances to walk or steps to climb. When they get to the assessment in such a place, having suffered the pain, anxiety and difficulty of getting there, they are told, “Well, you’re obviously well enough, because you’ve managed to get here.” It is nonsense. Will the Minister commission a detailed review of delays and problems with PIP, ahead of the independent review that is due in 2016?
Lord Freud said in the other place that the Government have speeded up the PIP process by giving paper assessments for those with incurable and progressive conditions. We all welcome that, but the evidence shows it is not happening. Will the Minister please make an assessment, with providers, and ensure that they adhere to the policy and report back to the House on progress?
I am sure that the hon. Lady was at the Motor Neurone Disease Association gathering yesterday. Les Halpin, a constituent of mine, had motor neurone disease. He told me that he had got a death sentence of between six and two years. It is just that simple. It is a dreadful disease: all the body’s organs close down one by one, except the brain. I have been listening to the hon. Lady. Will the Minister consider giving more guidance to the assessor, so that once a disease such as that is diagnosed, they have detailed notes on their IT systems on how it is likely to progress?
It ought, automatically, to mean that such a diagnosis leads to a rapid paper assessment, because people are facing a death sentence and their carers need to be given the financial support to help them cope with the horrible life that is ahead of them—and I promise hon. Members that it is a horrible life.
Finally, will the Minister meet Parkinson’s UK and the MNDA to hear first hand about the difficulties that people with those conditions are facing and that the PIP assessment is adding to their daily lives?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Graham Stuart) on securing this important debate. I am pleased to congratulate the Minister, too, and welcome him to his new position.
As we have heard, this debate is important for many of our constituents who have applied for PIP and experienced long delays, anxiety and hardship. We heard about the recent case of Ms C and Mr W, where it was found that the delays were unlawful. It is regrettable that we have not yet had any expression of apology from the Government for those delays. I hope that the Minister will take this opportunity to offer that apology.
Many MPs know of cases in our constituencies where assessments and decisions have taken a long time. In my constituency, in at least one case the waiting time, end to end, was more than a year and the Department had to pay compensation. This afternoon we have all welcomed the improvements in the time taken for assessment and processing since the benefit was first introduced, including welcome improvements to speed up assessment for special terminal illness cases including cancer. We have also welcomed today’s figures from the Department that show further improvements; it is now 15 weeks, end to end, for new claims, and 11 weeks for reassessments. However, we must recognise that these have been achieved because of a significant increase in the number of healthcare professionals and fewer face-to-face assessments than had been envisaged. In fact, this represents a significant policy change by the Department. An early criticism of DLA by the coalition Government was that it lacked face-to-face assessments; those were to be one of the marks of a new approach under PIP.
We are pleased to see the improvements. However, as hon. Members have noted, Ministers now face a significant new challenge in embarking on the mass migration of the 1.5 million DLA cases to PIP, which is due to commence in October. The independent reviewer, Paul Gray, has said that this is the most challenging phase of the roll-out of the benefit. It is not just challenging for the Department and the assessment companies; it is causing uncertainty and anxiety among many DLA recipients. It is also causing uncertainty in respect of the public purse. The Office for Budget Responsibility, which has already revised spending forecasts upwards by £1 billion per annum between 2014 and 2015, said in the welfare trends report last week that structural changes to welfare benefits, such as migration from DLA to the new benefit, PIP, mean that any spending forecasts made are
“subject to even greater uncertainty”.
It is important, as we have heard, that this mass migration is not botched or rushed. That is the lesson from the earlier phases of the roll-out of this benefit, and from the roll-out of other benefits with intrinsic assessment processes, particularly the work capability assessment.
The Minister said on 15 June, in a written answer to my question 1541, that roll-out will be “commensurate with capacity” and
“on a post code basis”.
That still causes a great deal of anxiety to claimants: they are not sure where they fit in that postcode lottery. It is not clear what it means for the overall profile of public spending on the benefit, and it is unclear when the end date of the migration will be. Will the Minister assure us that there will be sufficient capacity, both in the Department and among the independent assessors, and say what extra cost is being incurred to ensure that that capacity is sufficient? During the migration, how many face-to-face assessments does the Minister expect there to be, or what proportion of assessments would be done face to face? How many home visits will there be? What use is the Department making of the opportunity to share information with other assessment processes, as Paul Gray suggested?
The hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) rightly highlighted appeals. It has been assumed that 40%—a very high level—will go to appeal. I hope the Minister assures us that not just the Department, but the Courts and Tribunals Service, can handle the appeals that are expected. Can he say how many people are expected to lose benefit or receive a lower payment than under the disability living allowance? We know from Motability that 40% have already lost the higher-rate mobility award and therefore their Motability vehicles. It would be interesting to hear what further forecast the Minister makes.
Most worrying, as my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) said, is the backdrop of £12 billion of welfare cuts—“Newsnight” suggested yesterday that it could be as much as £15 billion—and what they might mean for the roll-out of the personal independence payment. In the House of Lords on 10 June, Baroness Campbell of Surbiton pointed out that the Prime Minister said during the general election campaign that PIP would be enhanced and protected. In response, Lord Freud only confirmed that disabled people would be “supported”, which is not quite the same thing. As has been pointed out, in response to a question from my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) on 3 June in the House of Commons, the Prime Minister failed to rule out cuts to disability benefits. Indeed, he claimed that the Government had increased the benefits paid to disabled people by introducing PIP, which he said was more generous to the most disabled. That is a startling statement, given that there has been no change in the top rate of payments as regards PIP and DLA, that 40% have already lost the higher-rate mobility award and that the Government introduced the benefit with the intention of making a 20% budget cut.
A little patience might be useful, might it not? We have heard in this debate about the very vulnerable people who rely on this payment. Rather than shroud-waving and trying to second-guess the Chancellor and what might be announced on 8 July, might it not be better not to further worry people who might already be worried?
What would give disabled people the most reassurance is if the Minister categorically said this afternoon that PIP will not be subject to the proposed £12 billion of cuts. Perhaps he will take that opportunity.
Finally, will the Minister say what progress has been made with the independent reviewer’s recommendations? Paul Gray highlighted a disjointed claimant journey, a lack of trust in the process and a lack of transparency. He also highlighted the nonsense of so-called interventions, which mean starting a new assessment process pretty much as soon as the last one has been decided. He proposed a series of actions to address some of those concerns. We have also heard about ongoing operational problems with venues, inaccessibility, long journeys and difficulties in rural areas. Sheffield citizens advice bureau in particular has highlighted problems in that regard. Inappropriate expertise or behaviour from assessors was mentioned in a recent report from Inclusion Scotland. As one Member said this afternoon, there have been delays when circumstances have changed in the middle of a claim. I am grateful for the chance to ask the Minister questions. This issue is the major challenge facing the Department when it comes to disability benefits, and the history is not entirely encouraging. We need to know that lessons are being learned, and we look forward to his response.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, especially as you were the first to invite me to come on an official visit to a constituency. I am very much looking forward to it, but we will wait to see whether I will be invited a second time. The tone and the constructive and proactive nature of the debate are a real credit to Members. It is such an important subject, and Members gave a lot of first-hand experiences that will help shape how I take things forward, and I am grateful for that.
In the limited time I have, I will try to respond to as many of the points that were made as I can. If I have missed something, I will follow up on it after the debate. The debate is a credit to my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Graham Stuart), who is widely respected for standing up for his constituents. He faces the challenges of representing a rural community, and he has done it a good service today. I am delighted that the particular cases that were highlighted at the beginning of his contribution have, we believe, been resolved. It was absolutely right, however, to highlight the principle.
This is my first debate as the Minister for disabled people. As a Conservative, I am very proud that, when William Hague was the Minister, we introduced the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. We have made a clear commitment to halving the disability employment gap, which we would all welcome and support. It is a role where I know I can make a tangible difference. I have already spent a huge amount of time engaging and working with stakeholders, and I have made numerous visits.
During my five years as a constituency MP, I have done a huge amount with local organisations, charities and businesses acting in that area, and the one big thing that I get when I talk to people is that they are enthused about opportunity, and in particular about the opportunity to work. Only this morning, I met Liz Sayce of Disability Rights UK. She said that disabled people are too often seen as recipients when all they want is to be net contributors. That was brought home to me when I went to the fantastic charity Whizz-Kidz. I met the Kidz Board ambassadors, George Fielding, who is the chair, and Kayleigh Miller. George is a politics student, and he knows more about politics than all of us. He will come to take our jobs before too long. They made it clear that they want a focus that gives them the same opportunities that their friends enjoy in going to work. They both have fantastic career prospects. As a former employer who has employed people with disabilities, I would snap them up without hesitation.
It is important to reflect why we are doing what we are doing. There was a real need for reform. DLA was too often a crude, blunt instrument in providing support. Only 6% of claimants had a face-to-face assessment. Some 50% were assessed without any medical evidence and 71% of people were given an indefinite award, yet one in three will have their circumstances change within 12 months. It could be that their circumstances got worse and they were not getting appropriate support. The system needed to be changed. PIP considers how impairment affects a person’s life, rather than labelling individuals on the basis of their impairment. It rightly recognises that every disability is unique.
Through the face-to-face assessment, there is an opportunity to articulate individual challenges that cannot be done purely on a paper-based form, and in my visits, it has been repeated to me how important that is. Trained healthcare professionals can tease out exactly what support is needed. I have sat through an assessment in my constituency of Swindon. Those professionals do it in a fantastic manner and try to be supportive. I understand that people are nervous, and I am keen to see a lot more videos put online so that people can see in advance what to expect. That is an important message that has come forward today, and I want to see more work on that. Crucially, the system will pick up on such things as mental health conditions and learning disabilities, which it was felt that the paper-based system simply did not pick up on, and there is broad stakeholder support for that. For the most vulnerable people who need the most support, 22% of people who go through the system will expect to get the highest rate of support. Under DLA, that was only 16%.
Members have rightly highlighted that there have been delays, and in some cases that is clearly unacceptable. However, a huge amount of work has been done by the Department, the providers, my predecessor and me. I am having two or three meetings a day on PIP, and am beginning to dream about it. The headline is that we have quadrupled the number of healthcare professionals. I went to Cardiff to sit through a claimant’s entire journey, and I will continue to look closely to try to find ways to improve that process. We have over 200 more assessment rooms. We have doubled the number of DWP staff. In the initial stages, productivity levels for decision makers was at about four cases a day; it is now up to about eight a day, which is making a big difference. The IT systems have been improved and are a lot more reliable, which was greatly welcomed by the staff in Cardiff at a question and answer session I attended. There are also more prompts in the system, so if the same things are being written repeatedly, that will be picked up. Again, that improves productivity.
On communications, letters are being improved to remind people of the types of evidence they need to bring in so that the system flows more smoothly for them. We are being proactive: when people are sent forms to fill in we would expect them to be returned within 28 days. If after 20 days we have not heard anything, the system automatically triggers two telephone call reminders, as well as a letter, and we are now looking at text messaging. We are trying to be proactive, and that is making a big difference. We are clearing the backlog. Since August 2014, every month, month on month, we have seen cases being cleared. Between January and April this year, we cleared about 71,000 claims a month, against an average of 52,000 new claims a month coming into the system. That is four times the rate in January 2014.
I welcome the Minister to his post. I appreciate the statistics he is rolling out, but they do not reflect the comments that I hear from my constituents. There are concerns that the delays will continue. In that vein, will he consider supporting the devolution of all welfare powers to the Scottish Parliament through the Scotland Bill? That would be supported by Enable Scotland and Inclusion Scotland. Will he also consider delaying the roll-out of PIP until that process is complete?
My job is to continue with the roll-out. Greater minds than mine are continuing the discussions, and it may well be that welfare powers will be devolved, but we will leave it to the greater minds that represent us both to decide that.
Average claimant waiting time has been reduced by around three quarters since June 2014, so we are now looking at a new claimant waiting just five weeks for an assessment, with reassessments down to four weeks. Crucially, the median time for the whole journey, end to end, is now 11 weeks, which is a considerable improvement. Having cleared significant amounts of the backlog, we expect to be operating as “business as usual”. That is very welcome. The end-to-end time for terminally ill people, which was highlighted, is now down to six days, with 99% of claimants awarded.
I am conscious of time, so will try to rattle through—
I am afraid I will not because I have only a very short amount of time.
We have made sure that legacy cases are a priority, but they are unique and complex. Often, the cases brought to me are not black and white. We have to recognise that everyone’s application is unique and the medical evidence is complicated. Sometimes, people choose to reschedule their appointments themselves. Sometimes, people chose to fail to attend; are in hospital, which makes face-to-face assessments difficult; or are in prison. Nevertheless, we are making it a priority to clear any legacy cases.
My hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness is a strong voice for his constituents and he rightly highlighted the need to tackle delays. We have demonstrated that we are making good progress, but I will continue to keep a close eye on that. We are looking at rural coverage and have increased the number of assessments. Currently, the rule is that people should be within 60 minutes’ travel in a car, which most people are, or within 90 minutes by public transport. I know that there are challenges in rural constituencies, particularly in Hull. I think my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Peter Heaton-Jones) would have raised that point, and an excellent one it would have been too. People can get face-to-face assessments, they can ask for a taxi, and all travel costs are refunded, so there should be no reason not to come out.
I am conscious of the time, but I want to pick up on some of the points that Members made. I will correspond on any that I miss. My hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) has a very proactive approach. I have visited the centre in Swindon that we share, and I am encouraged. The hon. Member for Workington (Sue Hayman) made a good point about language, and I would be happy to discuss further any areas we can improve, but it is important to remember that carer’s allowance is backdated.
In answer to the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams), yes, we have strictly applied service credits, and rightly so. Appointments can be rescheduled, and, if 9 o’clock in the morning is not appropriate, some centres are looking into changing their opening hours if that is what claimants want. We have done some of what was recommended in the full PIP review, and will continue to look at that. I will update Members further in due course.
In response to the hon. Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds), assessments are evidence-based and sensitive to conditions. We will continue to learn because quality is vital. The personal experience of the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) is also vital. I attended the Motor Neurone Disease Association event yesterday, and I would be delighted to meet both it and Parkinson’s UK. I extend that invitation to the hon. Lady.
There are many points that I do not have time to address, but I will quickly say that the roll-out will match capacity and will be done in a calm and cautious manner. I welcome all feedback. The debate has been very proactive, and PIP is a real priority for me so I will keep a close eye on it.
I thank Members from all parties for their contributions, and the Minister for his extremely constructive response. My final message to those listening or viewing this debate is that they should contact their Member of Parliament with any problems because we will take them straight to the Minister and ensure that his aspirations are real and delivered on the ground. We must all work together to ensure that that happens so that disabled people everywhere are treated fairly.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered processing of personal independence payment applications.