This debate is rather over-subscribed. More than 20 people wish to speak. If everyone takes two minutes, I might be able to get most of you in; if people take four or five minutes, I will get seven or eight in. If you take interventions, the number will go down. It is all in your hands. I cannot impose a formal time limit, but think about your colleagues when you are into your sixth or seventh minute.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the claimant experience of the personal independence payment process.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hosie. I am going to be really stingy with interventions. I can already feel the wrath of my colleagues, but I have to do that because of the number of people who have put down their name to speak.
I called this debate because of the sheer volume of casework my constituency office receives regarding personal independence payments. My constituents find many aspects of the process difficult, not because they are not capable but because the forms are confusing and the assessment procedure is complex and exhausting. There are more face-to-face consultations, more regular reviews and more reassessments of awards than under the preceding benefit, disability living allowance.
The initial impetus for this debate came from my constituents, but as soon as I asked on social media for people to tell me their experiences, I realised the huge scale of this issue in North West Durham and all over the country.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does she agree that the Government made the situation significantly worse by passing regulations in 2017 that have been found to be blatantly discriminatory against those with mental health conditions?
I agree strongly. That ruling was a wake-up call for the Government.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I will make a bit more progress.
I asked people to comment and send me emails about their experiences, and I was absolutely deluged. I received more than 600 emails and 1,500 messages on Facebook and Twitter. Most of those people took a great deal of time to tell me what had happened to them. Individually, their stories are shocking; collectively, they shame the Government and the Department for Work and Pensions. They are testament to a broken and cruel system. I will come back to those harrowing stories in a second.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way. She mentioned her Twitter appeal and so on. An official survey shows that 76% of people in the system responded to say that they were satisfied. That itself is not a happy position, but it shows that her representation of people’s average experience as wholly negative on the basis of a Twitter appeal does not reflect the results of a scientific survey.
What an absolute joke that is. To diminish those people’s experiences, which made me weep, is an absolute disgrace. Those people took their time in extremely difficult circumstances to tell us about the difficulties with the system. To talk about another survey to try to diminish those experiences is a disgrace. [Interruption.] I will not take any more interventions. The Child Poverty Action Group handbook on personal independence payments states that the Government’s case for replacing DLA with PIP was that it had become an outdated benefit.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I have to make progress—just give me a minute.
DLA was criticised for having complex and subjective criteria and inconsistent decision making, resulting in too many awards and too few reviews of awards. The Government say that the PIP process is
“a more active and enabling benefit”.
I disagree in the strongest possible terms. The introduction of PIP was another cuts exercise. The coalition Government made the need to make savings a clear aim of the new benefit. [Interruption.] They said it themselves. According to the Library, PIP was expected to reduce expenditure by £1.5 billion, and 607,000 fewer people were expected to receive PIP by 2018. That kind of reduction cannot be achieved without the anguish and suffering of thousands of people.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Let me share the experience of a constituent from Kirkby who is a long-time claimant of DLA because of his post-traumatic stress disorder. He is unable to leave the house, so he has always had a home assessment. Since his last assessment, his wife has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. He was told, “No, we won’t do a home assessment this time.” Is it not a disgrace—[Interruption.] Well, he was denied. He came to me; I sorted it out. The Government need humanity, compassion and, frankly, some common sense.
Those stories are so, so common. The changes have hit those most in need of a social security system while reducing the overall welfare budget, and have taken away the safety net for a massive number of people. When cost-cutting is the motivating factor behind changes, we hit trouble, just as we have with universal credit. Let me take Members through some of the difficulties that my constituents and many other people—
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I am making progress. There are 20-odd people down to speak; it would be disrespectful to them not to do so.
The initial claimant form is often daunting and time-consuming. People have to rely on stretched services and support agencies to complete the form. At the same time, the questions are very restrictive and do not fit the description of everyone’s illness. Following that, claimants are invited to a medical assessment by an outsourcing company—Atos Healthcare or Capita Business Services, depending on their location in the United Kingdom. The accessibility of venues is often cited as a problem: claimants are invited to assessments miles away from their homes and in inaccessible rooms. Some say that that is a test from the outset. There have also been reports of assessments taking place in expensive gyms and spas in my area, which makes claimants feel on edge. Some people are sure that they were filmed upon entering the assessment, and I believe them.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate. I have lost several members of my family to motor neurone disease, a progressive disease for which there is no cure—people do not get better. Does she agree that people with terminal illnesses such as MND should not be up for reassessment?
There are hundreds of stories of people with conditions that will not change being reassessed. That is terrible.
There are extensive concerns about the suitability of PIP assessors—that was a clear theme throughout the correspondence—who often do not have the medical expertise to assess claimants with particular medical conditions. A midwife, for example, may assess a claimant with mental health problems, but they will not know every sign and symptom of every mental health condition, as they are not qualified. That calls into question the accuracy of the assessment.
Constituents have told me how brutal and gruelling the medical assessments are, as they lay bare the claimant’s disability and how they cope with it, but they are based on a medical model of disability rather than a social one. One person put it brilliantly: they said the assessment was like a functionality test, and that it did not capture or consider how someone can live their life each day. The fact that assessors do not take notice of professional medical assessments from doctors or psychiatrists, and that that information is considered only at tribunal stage, is not even questioned. Assembling that information at assessment stage is such a waste of energy for people, especially since doctors charge for medical assessment letters. In my view, that cost should be met by the state, not by the person making the claim.
I will take one last intervention, then I must press on.
I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. Does she agree that the costs that pile up at tribunal are in part a function of a mandatory reconsideration system that, again, does not look at additional evidence properly?
That is right. I will come on to mandatory reconsiderations in a second.
The outsourcing of the assessment process is very much part of the problem. Some 60% of assessment reports completed by Capita healthcare professionals and sent to the DWP were judged to be of an “unacceptable” standard. Neither Capita nor Atos has ever met the DWP contractual target that no more than 3% of reports should be found unacceptable. I wonder what it would take for those companies to lose a contract with the Government. No action is taken, because the Government are ideologically wedded to the outsourcing model, despite such poor results. Incredibly, I have read that those companies pay people bonuses for completing extra assessment reports, which in my view incentivises rushing and contributes to inaccuracies. Many feel as if they have been lied about in their reports—that is all part of the same inadequacies. I have even had reports of healthcare professionals who conduct the assessments asking claimants if they have thought about killing themselves. While I understand that it is a difficult subject to broach, sensitive language needs to used when dealing with such topics; otherwise, it can be damaging and triggering for that person.
If a claimant is not awarded the points they think they are entitled to, or they are told that they are not entitled to PIP, they must challenge the DWP’s decision through a mandatory reconsideration. Constituents of mine, and many people who have been in touch, have said that the process is completely pointless due to the DWP not reviewing medical evidence or investigating whether the decision maker’s report was accurate. Actually, DWP workers feel unable to challenge the assessor’s report. Advice and support agencies also state that hardly anyone has their decision overturned at that stage. I cannot help but think that is just another stage in the process to grind people into submission.
If the mandatory reconsideration process is unsuccessful, the decision must go to tribunal, putting tribunals as well as claimants under enormous pressure. Advice and support agencies say that they are under a great deal of strain, trying to deal with the demand from people seeking representation. Latest figures show that 68% of PIP decisions are overturned on appeal, so the DWP’s systems are clearly not working. That is completely indefensible: all that trial and trauma for claimants to be proved right, if—it is a big if—they manage to go that distance. People have reported that they have to wait over a year for a tribunal date.
What is very clear is that the assessment process is working against claimants entitled to the benefit. Many campaigners believe that the companies who provide medical assessments are heavily encouraged to hit targets by the Government in order to cut the welfare budget, and I believe them. Perhaps it is because there is an ambivalence to these people, or—more likely—because the Government do not see it as the state’s role to provide that support.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I will give way once more to the Conservative side, and that is it.
I thank the hon. Lady. I would not necessarily disagree with some of the criticisms she is making of the assessment process. Some of my constituents face those challenges, and we would be happy to work across the House to try to fix them. Does she recognise that under PIP, 66% of claimants with mental issues now get the higher rate of benefit, versus 22% under DLA? Can I ask her for a little balance when she comes to look at the system rather than just criticism?
The balance is that thousands of people are locked out of the system and never even get an award because they are so ground down by the process. The Government need to realise what a cruel and callous system they are putting people through and the knock-on effect that has on our constituents. I am a bit shocked by the disbelief on the Conservative side—they look stunned that this is taking place. That is the reality for disabled people in this country. People are falling further into depression and self-harm, having suicidal thoughts and becoming reliant on food banks. All of those things are harmful for our society. Losing Motability cars was a consistent theme, along with falling into debt. The NHS is also being put under much strain.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I will make a bit more progress.
In the past seven years of this Government, the Department for Work and Pensions has become a harsher and colder organisation. A culture has grown through successive Secretaries of State that sees claimants as numbers and fraudsters instead of people with needs, and a burden on the state rather than citizens with potential. The Government’s own figures put the rate of fraud for PIP at 1.4%—not even worth talking about—yet the system is built on the presumption that people are lying and need to be found out.
Here is a symbol of that callousness: a few weeks ago in my surgery, one of my constituents showed me a decision letter telling her that she was no longer entitled to PIP—her lifeline. The letter was dated 25 December—merry Christmas from the DWP. That is far from the most shocking story. Over the past week, I have read several hundred testimonies from people who have suffered under the system.
A whole community out there has been frightened, mistreated and intimidated by the Government, the media and the DWP. I will read a few of those testimonies—they put things much better than me—before drawing my speech to a conclusion. One says:
“I hope change can be made as presently the PIP system is too brutal, rigid and unfair to people like me who want to live an able life despite disability”.
“Why are they treating disabled citizens as though we are undeserving of welfare support?”
“I do not want to be in this situation. I am not choosing this life or lifestyle. I am a human being with feelings and emotions. I need help, support and understanding, not being ridiculed or made to feel like a criminal and waste of space and a burden on society or that I am going to be caught out at any opportunity for my disability.”
This one was the most striking:
“being on benefits is like being in an abusive relationship with the state. We cannot escape our abusers, we need them, we are financially dependent on them”.
This is what I ask of the Government: remove the contracts from Atos and Capita with immediate effect and bring the assessments back in-house; remove the assessors’ bonuses; abolish the mandatory reconsideration step of the process, because it is utterly pointless; make it compulsory to take medical documentation into account at the initial assessment, because it is traumatic for people to have to go through their medical conditions in detail, and the evidence from professionals is already there. There must be consequences for inaccurate assessment reports about people’s health conditions, and we should redesign the assessment process alongside disabled people so that it accepts a social model of disability, not a medical model.
The judgment against the Government towards the end of last year when, as was mentioned, a High Court judge said the changes were “blatantly discriminatory,” should give the Minister pause for thought. It is an opportunity for reflection. What has become of not just this Government but our society when we treat people as criminals and fraudsters for being disabled? Do they really know what fear is experienced across this nation at the clatter of the letterbox? People are scared that there might be a brown envelope from the DWP. It is time for the Government to admit that the system is a disaster and that a review of PIP and the whole benefit system is urgently needed.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for North West Durham (Laura Pidcock), who clearly has a huge amount of passion about this subject. Although I would not necessarily agree with all of the stats she cited, it is important that we continue to do everything we can for those who are often among the most vulnerable people in society. Collectively, we will raise many examples and suggestions on how we can continue to improve the system.
I do not intend to speak for long—I have spoken in every debate like this for the past two and a half to three years, so I will try to avoid repetition. First, I want to make it clear that there have been mistakes. In any system there are mistakes. The hon. Member for Ashfield (Gloria De Piero) raised a classic example of a mistake. That should not have been the case; that is not designed to happen. If people need home visits, those should be a given. That was a genuine mistake.
There were claims that PIP was brought in for financial savings. The concept was actually designed under the previous Labour Government; it just happened to come in as we came into office. We are currently spending £3 billion a year extra, and that figure will increase every single year of this Parliament. That is not a cost saving by any definition.
Under DLA, only 16% of claimants got the highest rate of benefit, but under PIP it is 26%. Only 22% of people with mental health conditions got the highest rate, but the figure now is 66%. That is why we are spending £3 billion more a year, and rightly so. If someone with a mental health condition wanted to access the higher mobility rate, they had to be severely mentally impaired unless they had a physical disability, so only 12,660 people with a mental health condition accessed the higher mobility rate. Since the introduction of PIP, over 100,000 more people are benefiting from that rate.
Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that in the impact assessment from May 2012 for the introduction of personal independence payments under the coalition Government, the objectives were to ensure that expenditure was sustainable and to save £2.24 billion a year by reducing claimants by 500,000 a year?
And the reality is that we are spending £3 billion more on supporting the most vulnerable people. That is partly because we have an extremely proactive Minister who, rightly, meets regularly with charities, stakeholders, individual users and MPs from across the House. I did the same when I was a Minister, and the system continues to be improved.
Finally, under DLA the higher rate was given for visual impairment at 36%, but it is now 79%. The system is not perfect and we need to continue moving it, but we can all access the stats from the Library. They are independent of the Government. They are the reality. That does not excuse mistakes or times when the system lets people down, but it is a fallacy to think that the old DLA system was better. It was not better, which is why the charities and stakeholders support the principle of PIP.
Does my hon. Friend recognise that, taking the journey time for the end-to-end process, the waiting time has been reduced by 40 weeks to 13 weeks in the past four years? That has to be an improvement. There is a long way to go, but I am sure my hon. Friend would agree.
That is an important point. [Interruption.] There is an Opposition Member who favours randomly plucking stats out of the air. It is the official statistics, independent of the Government, that I am giving; our teams can go and research them in the Library. I shall give an example of a big difference being made. Those who are terminally ill now have their process speed-tracked and the decision is given within seven days.
I shall not speak for too much longer as many Members want to raise suggestions, but I want to address the question raised about lifetime awards. Under DLA 70% of claimants had a lifetime award, and when I became the Minister I thought, “That is sensible; it does away with the need for an assessment.” However, one in three people with a disability or health condition will have such a significant change within 12 months that their condition will have changed—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for North West Durham sighs, but for the majority of people—[Interruption.] Terminally ill people will be processed within seven days; I am talking about people applying for the benefit for the first time. Their condition will change within the first year—predominantly getting worse. If they enter the benefit on the lower rate and are put on to a lifetime award they will miss out on money they are entitled to. That is one of the most significant changes.
If someone enters the system on the lower rate, the system will try to estimate when they might be in a position to access a higher one, and automatically trigger that. That is one of the reasons why we are spending an additional £3 billion on making sure people do not miss out—and not just for a few years; there were cases of people missing out on money they were entitled to for 20 or 30 years.
I will conclude with appeal rates. It is always a worry, looking at those. The hon. Member for North West Durham claimed every case was wrong—and some were; we need to continue to improve the system, because there should never be a mistake. However, the evidence from those independent appeals is that those cases are ones where additional written or oral evidence has been presented. Something on which I agree with the hon. Lady is that we should be able automatically to get access to health records. There are data protection issues, and we would need to get the consent of the claimant, but if they were willing to do it we would all support that approach. It would make everyone’s life a lot easier and the system a lot smoother. There is also huge support for allowing the claimant, if they wish to, to have sessions recorded. Again, that can be used on appeal.
I encourage the Minister to continue her great work of engaging not just charities and stakeholders—the users—but Members of both Houses. I urge all colleagues in the Chamber, if they are passionate, have first-hand experience and have taken the time to watch an assessment and talk to the staff, to take up the Minister’s invitation to meet and engage. Let us collectively continue to deliver an improved disability benefit.
Order. We have 35 minutes. Brevity is at a premium.
I congratulate my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Laura Pidcock), on the debate.
The hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) is right in what he says about how the system should operate, but that is not how it is operating in practice. In the Mind survey, 55% of those surveyed found that their PIP was either stopped or reduced. I also want to mention that study’s satisfaction rate for people with mental health issues. We are making the same mistake with that as we are with the work capability test. If we are going to have a system that is fair to people with mental illness, we need properly qualified assessors, and that is not happening. It was the same with the work capability test: the assessments were done by people who had no qualifications to give them an understanding of people with mental illness. That is not right.
Yesterday in the Chamber I did not get an answer when I asked the Minister, at column 708, what happens to the 22% of people with mental illnesses who, according to the Mind survey, did not appeal because of their condition. I know those cases will be looked at again, but do I advise constituents who have not appealed to make a new application, or will those concerned somehow get around to seeing them? We need clarity for those people, many of whom have valid claims but felt unable to appeal because of the onerous nature of the system. My hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham is right; in Durham, welfare rights will tell you the appeal waiting time is now more than a year for such cases.
I want to touch briefly on a couple of constituency cases. What the hon. Member for North Swindon said about lifetime awards and people missing out may be true, but I can give him an example of the opposite. A constituent was given PIP from 2016, and when his condition worsened he put in an application for the higher rate and, after an assessment, had his entire PIP taken away. The mobility issue is also creating complete heartache. A constituent of mine has got five stents and has had two heart attacks. He went for assessment in January and did not qualify for PIP. They said he was not entitled, so he will lose his mobility car. He got a letter the other day saying he had not been entitled to the car since last October. I do not know how that view was reached when the assessment happened in January.
I want to nail the idea that people on PIP somehow are shirkers, and the lazy of society. [Interruption.] I am sorry—that is some people’s narrative. I am not going to listen to anyone who comes in here as an obvious Whips’ plant to bolster the number of Tory MPs. Members who want to make a contribution should put in to speak. I give credit to the hon. Member for North Swindon, who at least made a speech rather than some cheap intervention that the Whips obviously told him to make.
In many cases, the people I am talking about are working. The worst case I know of is of a man in his 40s with a degenerative condition, who was a butcher and could not work. He retrained in IT, got a job, went for his PIP assessment and was not awarded the higher enhanced rate. Therefore he lost his mobility car. That is a guy who got off his backside, as he said to me when he came to my surgery, and went to get a job because he did not want his children to grow up in a household where the father was not going out to work. It cannot be fair that we are dealing with such people in the way we are.
The system as it has been designed is making all the same mistakes as the work capability test did. It is a sausage machine to get claims through. I would argue—to save money for the Government—for taking out the cases that we know will not improve. We are wasting our time on those individuals’ cases. As to making sure that the system works properly for others, especially those with mental health issues, we must have a system where assessments are done by properly qualified people.
The people who claim PIP do not choose to be in that position. Any one of us here today could end up on it if we had a serious illness or accident. Claimants do not want to be on PIP. The way to judge a society’s fairness is by how it treats its most vulnerable. I am sorry, but the system we have is not treating them fairly.
I congratulate the hon. Member for North West Durham (Laura Pidcock) on securing the debate.
One of the first constituency cases that I ever dealt with as a new MP was that of Pauline Kerrigan of Springboig. Pauline has Raynaud’s disease, as well as osteoarthritis. Previously, she was given a lifetime award of disability living allowance and transitioned on to PIP. She was then suddenly found miraculously fit for work. I have met Pauline at my surgery on more than one occasion, and it is clear to me that she is most definitely not fit for work. Indeed, the Government were right to issue a lifetime DLA award to Pauline in the first place, but because of the transition to PIP her life was unnecessarily turned upside down.
Like many colleagues in the Scottish National party, I remain convinced that this Government’s obsession with personal independence payments is little more than an ideological plaything. Week after week, my constituency surgeries are packed with disabled people who continue to feel the sharp end of the Government’s cuts to social security. I remain convinced that the entire system needs a complete overhaul, and today’s litany of horrifying constituency cases from other hon. Members only reaffirms that view. We need action from the Government sooner rather than later.
Last week, I and other colleagues from the SNP group met Scotland’s Minister for Social Security, Jeane Freeman, to discuss progress in implementing our new social security system in Scotland. Establishing a new social security system is the biggest challenge we have faced since the inception of devolution, but I am heartened by the Government’s determination to build a social security system that is underpinned by dignity and respect. When the new social security system is established, my constituent Pauline will finally be treated again with the respect and dignity she deserves. The challenge for the Government today is to ensure that Paulines in Preston, Prestatyn and Penzance are treated with dignity, and the only way that will happen is if the system is fundamentally overhauled.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Laura Pidcock) for securing this important debate and for her passionate speech.
Our welfare state was founded by a Labour Government, based on the principles of protecting the most vulnerable in our society and providing a safety net for everyone, rich or poor, should they ever need it. Yet under this Government we have seen our welfare state eroded into a completely dehumanising and cruel experience. Yesterday, the Minister refuted my claims that the welfare system we see today is cruel; if it is not cruel, then what is it? These people have been put through the wringer and squeezed remorselessly—and all for nothing, as we now know.
I am like other hon. Members: rarely does a day go by when distressed constituents are not reaching out to me about their PIP assessments. The dread and anxiety that comes with an impending PIP assessment are overwhelming. That is not surprising, given the life-or-death situations constituents find themselves in. A survey by the Disability Benefits Consortium found that one third of those who have had their funding cut in the middle of a benefits shake-up said they were struggling to pay for food, rent and bills.
That is what happened to my constituent Deborah. Since failing her PIP assessment six weeks ago, she has been living on biscuits. Despite the cold weather in the north-east—it has been freezing—she has been unable to put her heating on. Sadly, Deborah, who suffers with severe mental and physical health problems, has been through this once before, so she knows the physical and psychological effects it can have on claimants and their families. Deborah does not want to go through that again, nor should she.
Another of my constituents, Kelly, applied for PIP on behalf of her 17-year-old daughter, who has anti-myelin oligodendrocyte glycoprotein disease: a rare neurological illness. Kelly’s daughter has limited movement in her spine and 50% lung function, due to a severe spinal scoliosis, and now has titanium rods running the length of her spine. Kelly was told that her daughter did not qualify. Susan, who has severe osteoarthritis and fibromyalgia, is in constant pain and can barely walk. She was told she did not qualify. On behalf of my constituents, I ask the Minister exactly how disabled and affected by their disabilities people have to be to qualify for PIP.
The system in place now is not what our predecessors imagined when they founded the welfare state. They expected kindness and compassion for those who need support during difficult times. Yesterday, the Department for Work and Pensions tried to play the compassionate Conservative card and announced that everyone receiving PIP will have their claim reviewed. What does that bittersweet announcement mean for the constituents I have mentioned today and the many others across the country who have already had their payments stopped? Will the Minister provide some clarity on whether and when the Department will consider those claims again?
Given the suffering that my constituents are already going through as a result of PIP, they simply cannot wait any longer. I ask the Minister, please, to confirm today how long this complex exercise is expected to take. I hope, given what we have already heard and will no doubt continue to hear for the rest of the debate, that the Minister will finally put an end to the pain and suffering that so many have had to endure as a result of the Government’s heartless policies—that has to be said—and give people a chance to live with dignity.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I also congratulate the hon. Member for North West Durham (Laura Pidcock) on securing this important debate. Time is tight, so I will concentrate on one group for whom I have raised issues many times, and for whom the term “PIP” has perhaps most resonance: the terminally ill.
For any person facing a PIP assessment, the idea of an assessment creates a lot of worry and stress. For the terminally ill, the pressure is multiplied many times over—on the individual involved, who has been given that terrible diagnosis, and on the families who have to deal with the fallout of that situation. Even insurance companies—private firms—acknowledge that cancer patients and people diagnosed as having a terminal condition need special treatment and pay out immediately. They do not hang about waiting to assess people; they know that the condition is not going to change.
I am grateful to the MND Association, and I will read their description of that terminal illness:
“Few conditions are as devastating as motor neurone disease (MND). It is a fatal, rapidly progressing disease of the brain and central nervous system, which attacks the nerves that control movement so that muscles no longer work. There is no cure for MND.
While symptoms vary, over the course of their illness most people with MND will be trapped in a failing body, unable to move, talk, swallow, and ultimately breathe. Speech is usually affected, and many people will lose the ability to speak entirely. Some people with MND may also experience changes in thinking and behaviour, and 10-15% will experience a rare form of dementia.”
Yet people with MND have to go for PIP assessments. The cost to terminally ill people and their families is much more than just the pain of that shortened journey to the end of their life. Research done for the MND Association shows that people with terminal illnesses face £12,000 a year more in costs, not including loss of income.
Transferring from DLA to PIP, 15% of people living with MND have had their awards reduced. A progressive condition, a terminal illness and a reduced award: surely that cannot be right? I have raised concerns many times over the challenge for many terminally ill people facing the six month rule—the requirement of a
“reasonable expectation of death within six months”.
That language is surely incompatible with the variable nature of conditions and terminal illness. The DWP should review its guidance on the use of DS1500s to reflect that terminal illness is not an exact science. Will the Minister review the process for the terminally ill? Will she tell us how many people have been turned down? Will she tell us how that injustice will be urgently addressed? Will she tell us, now that there is to be a review, what appeal process will be made available to those not contacted by the DWP, who rightly feel that they are entitled to an enhanced payment?
I will focus my contribution on how the PIP system treats those with less visible disabilities by talking about epilepsy. Epilepsy Action has said that nine out of 10 people with epilepsy felt that the Government’s decision maker did not understand their condition—and no wonder! The assessment forms, the descriptors and the face-to-face assessments are not set up in a way that accurately reflects the nature of epilepsy.
It comes as no surprise that three out of five people with epilepsy who were already on benefits had their award decreased when they applied for PIP. In raw numbers, that is 18,000 people, 20% higher than for any other condition. I am concerned that the Department’s previous announcement on supervision and safety—the change that could have the most impact for people with epilepsy—is in danger of being neglected.
People with epilepsy have contacted the Epilepsy Action helpline with their key concerns. First, what is the review’s timeframe? People are waiting to find out whether their award has been changed, but as they will only be notified if there is a change, how will they know when to stop waiting? Secondly, why are claims disallowed before 9 March 2017 not being reviewed, when it is clear that the guidance was wrong before that date? Thirdly, if the DWP has reviewed a case and decided there should be no change, does the claimant have a right to appeal?
There have already been two significant reviews, and many problems with the PIP assessments remain. There are three changes the Government should urgently introduce. First, they should make sure that only those assessors who have received training for a particular condition, such as epilepsy, are allowed to make decisions on that condition. Secondly, they should increase the timeframe for providing evidence from one month to two months, to make it easier for an applicant’s doctor to provide the supporting evidence that they need. Thirdly, they should commit to a full review of the “repeatedly and safely” requirements and issue guidance to ensure that it is being applied correctly for people with less visible conditions.
Taking those measures will not ease the stress of the undoubtedly stressful application process, but it may go some way to helping achieve a fairer system and to granting applicants what was promised in the name of the benefit: independence.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I shall keep my remarks short, out of respect to the other Members who want to speak. I congratulate the hon. Member for North West Durham (Laura Pidcock) on securing the debate, which is of particular importance to my constituents. I have to say that I am slightly disappointed at the state of the two Scottish Conservative Members who turned up to the debate with a clear intention to disrupt the opening speaker. They have now left the Chamber and not stayed for the debate.
This is a timely debate, given the announcement that the UK Government are to review PIP claims, at a cost of £3.7 billion, by 2023. It is hardly a surprise that the High Court concluded that the Government’s changes to PIP were “blatantly discriminatory” to those with mental health conditions. That has been self-evident for some time. Of course, this disaster is of the Government’s own making: they tried to rip off the most vulnerable people in society and now we are all paying the price. The taxpayer will have to foot the bill for those mistakes. What is the human cost? Claimants pushed to the edge and living their lives on the brink. When will the Government get anything right first time?
This fiasco could have been avoided had the Government approached disability benefits with humanity and compassion, rather than—as usual—as a cost-saving exercise. By the time we get to 2023, the UK Government will have delivered the worst possible outcome: a more expensive system that delivers less for applicants. Other Members will be aware—we did not need a court case or reams of statistics to know—that the changes to PIP are having a negative impact; the many distressed constituents who have visited our constituency offices or surgeries in tears are testament to that. They have spoken of feeling humiliated and degraded. They have been made to justify their disability through an intrusive, pseudo-medical assessment conducted by officials working with ambiguous criteria.
Ultimately, we in Scotland can be relieved that PIP is one of 11 benefits being transferred to the Scottish Government. I have no doubt that that will mean a noticeable improvement in the way people are treated, as the Scottish Government seek to create a Scottish social security system that gives claimants dignity and respect. For example, they have announced that claimants in Scotland are to be given the right to have a supporter with them in meetings and assessments. That small but noteworthy change is proof that Scotland will do things differently. Perhaps this Tory Government could yet again learn from the Scottish Government’s example.
Given that the DWP will continue to manage Scottish PIP cases until 2020, will the Minister outline whether this crisis will affect the smooth transition of PIP to the Scottish Government?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I will primarily raise issues around the access to assessments, and I will run through some examples of constituents who have approached me. This is by far the biggest area of casework that I receive in my office.
Mr M’s daughter had a stroke and is partially paralysed. She was expected to get to an appointment 40 minutes’ drive away in Scunthorpe for 9 am. There is no direct bus service so they would have had to have caught the 7.34 am train from Grimsby to get there on time, and they did not know how to get to the assessment centre from the railway station. That all put additional pressure on an older parent who is responsible for somebody who has suffered a stroke.
K has mental health issues and other difficulties, including domestic violence issues that impede her ability to freely leave the house. Despite being advised of those difficulties, requests for a home visit or a local appointment were refused and she was expected to attend in Scunthorpe. C is vulnerable because of her alcohol dependency, alongside her depression and anxiety. She has no means of transport but was expected to attend in Scunthorpe. M has learning difficulties, but no exception for that, or consideration of it, was made. There was no real humanity in dealing with that individual.
Another constituent, J, had a stroke. After parking his mobility vehicle away from the assessment centre, he made the extraordinary effort to walk what is a very short distance but what took him more than 25 minutes, with frequent breaks on the way. Having made that journey and dragged himself to the assessment, he was deemed to be sufficiently mobile not to require his mobility car, which has put enormous pressure on him, his family and his ability to live a normal life. Those are a few examples, but there are more: Hogan, Arnold, Snell, Read, MacDonald, Lamb, Jones, Stewart and Godfrey are just a few of my constituents who have all had barriers placed before them just to get to an assessment.
I have had conversations on this and have had questions responded to, and we managed to get additional assessors in the area. However, issues with appointments, maternity and sickness—the assessors made available were under such pressure with the volume of assessments that they went off sick themselves; I hope they did not have to go through the assessment process, because that would have been a double injustice—mean that we do not have enough assessors in the local area to support the needs of my constituents.
I have been able to assist in some of those cases and resolve some of the issues, but why do these people have to come to their MPs or place enormous stress and strain on other support services, which also have issues with their funding, to receive that advice? Why is the system so complicated? People should not have to come to see me to have these issues resolved.
When the courts ruled that the system was wholly inadequate for those with mental ill health, did that extend to the ability to access the assessment process in the first place? My constituents face not only the physical challenge of their condition but poor public transport links, the removal of Motability vehicles and the cost of alternative transport, such as private taxis. There is also a lack of consideration when those with autism or Asperger’s have to go somewhere different, travel in an unusual vehicle or simply be around other people in crowded environments, or of those who struggle with depression, anxiety or agoraphobia when they are asked to go on unfamiliar routes to unfamiliar places. It is all too much and too overwhelming and it is placing these people under enormous stress.
I will make one final point, because I know lots of Members want to speak. Surely we deserve a properly resourced assessment centre locally, with more flexibility given for assessors to undertake home visits and support people, rather than to target them.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Laura Pidcock) on securing this important debate. I will reinforce the points made by a number of Members this morning. To put it quite bluntly, I believe that the emotional trauma caused by PIP and the Government’s approach to its administration has led to suffering on what can only be described as an enormous scale.
I will give one example of a constituent, as her case illustrates the fundamental problems with PIP, and then make two other brief points. My constituent suffers from chronic long-term and debilitating back pain, which was made worse in the aftermath of an operation, during which she suffered terribly. However, after her disability living allowance was terminated, she was awarded much less support through PIP and her mobility car was taken away from her because she had not scored enough points in the arbitrary assessment. Ironically, it can be said that, in this and many other cases, personal independence payments reduce people’s personal independence and mobility. That is one of the fundamental problems with this system that we need to consider today.
I will briefly address two other points; I realise other colleagues would like to speak. First, the length of time that people suffer because of the trauma caused by the system is a problem. It is important to note that, all too often, the ordeal does not stop with the assessment, which is just the beginning of a very lengthy process. My constituent lives in flat so small that there is not even room for her husband to stay. She has to contend with living alone in cramped conditions and in pain. As if that were not bad enough, she is having to find the strength to challenge her initial assessment report formally, because it does not reflect her condition or what she said to the so-called health professional.
There is a wider issue, which was mentioned earlier, about whether due weight is given to medical evidence. In certain cases, the written evidence of GPs and consultants has been discounted or not given proper consideration because, according to the DWP, they are regarded as the applicant’s advocate and are therefore, in the warped world of PIP assessments, somehow biased. The irony is that the Government give total credence to the advice given by their own so-called health professionals, who, as we have heard, are not necessarily trained in the area of medicine that they are due to assess. Reconsideration of that issue in particular should be a top priority for the Government.
I want to set out the case of a constituent who came to me. A medical professional, he was terminally ill and had weeks to live, but he was advised that he would be eligible for PIP only from December of that year. His partner was distraught, as was he. He wanted to use that money for the last few weeks of his life. It turned out that there had been an administrative error, but they had to come to me to sort that out. That is a disgrace.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I would like to make a suggestion to the Government. How about going back to the drawing board and designing a system that listens to people and allows them to express their issues in their own words. Above all, how about developing a system that demonstrates real compassion and decency, which we had for many decades in our welfare state? The Government can and must do better. It is so obvious that the current system is designed and contrived to cut public spending. I ask the Government to think again.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie.
Let us imagine how anxious someone must feel, knowing that they have to sit through an interrogation process that will deem whether they are quite disabled enough to be eligible for a helping hand. Not only does that person have the already huge day-to-day disadvantage of being disabled or suffering from mental illness, but now, thanks to the Government, they are forced to sit through a point-scoring process to judge whether they are fit to work. PIP is not fit for purpose when it comes to many physical conditions, and it certainly has not been fit for purpose for those suffering from invisible illnesses. How disgraceful that in 21st-century Britain a Government are implementing public policies that clearly disadvantage those with mental health problems.
My constituent, George, suffers from a range of debilitating conditions, and he is prescribed a huge amount of medication just to enable him to get through the day. He is also almost completely reliant on the use of a wheelchair. After working for his entire life, George, at 63, thought that when his health deteriorated, there would be support to help him to survive and pay his bills. At first, that support was there, and George received higher rate mobility and the highest rate care components of disability living allowance. However, when he was called for his PIP assessment, things took a dramatic turn for the worse.
George will not mind my saying that he is reaching an age at which he would be likely to retire soon if he was fit and well, but he has been put through a process whereby he was tested to see whether he was disabled enough. One observation that was made during his assessment was that he could walk unaided for 20 metres, but not 50. That is not considered a restriction on his ability to walk. Leonard Cheshire Disability, the charity for disabled people, makes the point that the change to the criteria obviously means that far fewer individuals qualify for the enhanced mobility component of the benefit. That is penny-pinching at the expense of someone’s dignity.
The charity has also gathered the information that 74% of disabled people surveyed did not feel as though the assessor understood their disability. That was and remains one of George’s biggest frustrations: he did not feel that the assessor listened to him, understood his needs or treated him with any compassion. How can someone hold so much weight in determining the future of an individual’s life without being held accountable? Also, why cannot assessors consult experts in any condition or disability to help to fill their knowledge gaps? That would surely ensure that they asked the right questions in the assessment and accurately determined the individual’s ability to carry out an activity reliably, repeatedly, safely and in a timely manner.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I am sorry, but I must get through my speech; I am conscious of the time.
George was assessed by Atos on 1 June 2017. He is now going through the process of appeal, but the timescale is being put further and further back and he still does not have a date for his case to be heard. He is struggling to survive financially, and he has said that he is feeling more depressed every day and having sleepless nights. He has stated—this is the important bit, to me—that if it were not for his wife, he would feel as though he could not go on any more, and he has contemplated not taking the medication that he needs. The way in which he and many, many others in my constituency have been treated is absolutely diabolical. I urge the Government seriously to stop burying their head in the sand and face up to the reality that has been created by their own policies.
I intend the summing-up speeches to start after the next speech, so if anyone wants to make a last intervention, they know what to do.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Laura Pidcock) on securing this important debate and on making a powerful opening speech.
At Prime Minister’s questions a few weeks ago, I asked the Prime Minister whether she agreed that the PIP assessment process was fundamentally flawed, and what action she intended to take to avoid the undue stress and hardship being caused to my constituents and thousands more across the country. It is very clear to hon. Members here and the people whom we represent that the process is not fit for purpose.
The chaos that is being caused is having a cruel impact on thousands of people across the country. The Prime Minister’s reply was that the assessments are being conducted as well as they can be, and that people are getting the awards that they should be getting and are entitled to. She also stated that since the Government introduced the personal independence payment, 8% of cases have been appealed and 4% of the decisions are changed on appeal. In my easy calculation, about 50% of decisions are overturned on appeal, and things are getting worse.
Does my hon. Friend agree with my view? My constituent, Sarah Hassell, has cystic fibrosis, a degenerative disease. She is 30 and will not see retirement. Not only was she taken to a tribunal, but after that process, she was brought forward again for assessment. Her benefit was taken away, and she tried to kill herself because of this process, which she had already gone through once. The system is simply not working, and the tribunals are not working. When I wrote to the Secretary of State to ask for a response, I was just sent to a civil servant and was not graced with a response. My constituents need much better from this process.
My hon. Friend outlines a very sad and tragic case. It is one reason among many why the Government have to take note and listen.
The Prime Minister also stated that in the majority of cases, the change at appeal is due to the presentation at appeal of new evidence that was not presented at the original case. However, in the vast majority of cases that are brought to my attention at my constituency office and through Merthyr Tydfil and Caerphilly citizens advice bureaux, no new evidence is presented at appeal. The appeals are agreed, because the appeal panel recognises that constituents are genuinely in need of PIP and it supports the appeal. Furthermore, a growing number of assessments are consistently refused, and people are forced to go to mandatory reassessment and to appeal. I understand that currently about 65% of claims are overturned on appeal at tribunal. The growing number of appeals means that tribunals are taking longer to get to court—in my area, they are taking anything between four and seven months.
Every one of us has an email inbox full of these claims. Every single week, a new claim comes forward. The Minister has spoken about home assessments, but home assessments are not being done. It can be seen in Westminster Hall today how supportive the Labour party is, and how unsupportive the Tory party is, in relation to the whole PIP process.
My hon. Friend makes an important point, with which I wholeheartedly agree. The number of cases being brought to appeal and the length of time taken highlight the unnecessary cost of taking the cases to a tribunal. It stands to reason that if a large percentage of appeals are accepted, the original decisions are fundamentally flawed.
Does my hon. Friend agree that for those with long-term conditions, such as muscular dystrophy, the right level of assessment is important to avoid the need for people to go to appeal, given that an understanding of the condition could avoid that appeal?
My hon. Friend highlights the current state of affairs and how necessary it is for the Government to take action.
I will conclude by briefly highlighting one of the many cases that has been brought to me. A client in my constituency—a gentleman who lives with his wife and three children in a housing association property—suffers with epilepsy, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, anxiety, depression and heart problems. He was already in receipt of PIP and was awarded enhanced daily living and mobility at tribunal in February 2015; that award was backdated. He switched his enhanced mobility for a car through the Motability scheme.
My constituent was contacted about the renewal of his claim in April 2016, and the renewal was sent to him. The local citizens advice bureau assisted him with completing the form, and medical evidence went in. His condition had deteriorated, but he was awarded zero points for daily living and mobility. So he had to return his mobility car, which he relied on, and borrow money from a family member to purchase a car.
The mandatory reassessment was lodged, and my constituent was awarded nine points for daily living and eight points for mobility—on appeal, those were enhanced further. The case went to tribunal and the judge advised him to go back to the Motability scheme as soon as possible and get his car back, but in the meantime he had wasted money on purchasing one. Interestingly, no additional evidence was given at the appeal stage that the DWP had not had prior to the tribunal. That is just one of many cases, and I am sure that Members across the country have similar concerns. The situation is grave, as most Opposition Members and our constituents know.
Before my hon. Friend finishes, I want to make the point that there is a fundamental lack of understanding and compassion among assessors. Unbelievably, one assessor telephoned my deaf constituent and left them a message, which they would never, ever be able to access. How many penalties would they have for that? That is so basic that it is a disgrace.
My hon. Friend highlights an interesting point, and it is something that the Government need to get a grip on.
Unfortunately, the Government seem unwilling or unable to see the mess that is being caused or to do something about it. Will the Minister take stock of what she has heard in the debate this morning, give us some answers and get a grip on the situation?
It is a pleasure to sum up for the SNP in this debate with you in the Chair, Mr Hosie.
I congratulate the hon. Member for North West Durham (Laura Pidcock) on securing this debate and on her recent promotion as shadow Minister. She made a typically impassioned speech outlining the experiences of her constituents and the thousands who have got in touch with her before the debate. Those are experiences that many of my constituents have sadly shared. She was right to point out how scunnered disabled people are with the PIP process. I have had constituents across the surgery table whom I have been trying to convince to go through an appeal process, but they have been so fed up and upset at being turned down for PIP that they have told me in tears that they refuse to go through an appeal process, despite clearly being entitled to, and in desperate need of, the support that should be provided. They and many others are effectively denying themselves support that they should be entitled to.
Members have raised a range of concerns about the PIP process, and I will touch on some of their speeches. The former Minister, the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), acknowledged that mistakes have been made and that improvements could be made. He is right. One of the biggest mistakes was the UK Government’s attempt to deny people with mental health conditions access to personal independence payments. They were ruled discriminatory for doing that. Perhaps the UK Government should look at making improvements that improve people’s experience and are not discriminatory.
The hon. Members for North Durham (Mr Jones) and for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) described issues faced by their constituents in applying for PIP. My hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) rightly raised the additional difficulties being faced by people with terminal illnesses and touched on the briefing from the MND Association.
My hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) made a very good speech based on his constituents’ experiences. He was right to highlight the total disrespect of a couple of the Scottish Tories who came in with prepared interventions and were clearly trying to upset and disrupt the opening speeches. They showed total disrespect to those Members who have prepared speeches and not been called, and total disrespect to the disabled people watching this debate. They turned up to get their names on TheyWorkForYou and up their speaking record, then cleared off halfway through the debate. That is cynical, disrespectful behaviour and I hope they will reflect on it.
In this otherwise informative and impassioned debate there were good speeches from the hon. Members for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn), for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy), for Reading East (Matt Rodda), for Crewe and Nantwich (Laura Smith) and for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones). This debate could not be more topical, as we have been hearing about and debating the UK Government’s approach to PIP in the past week. We have had a written statement, two urgent questions and a stream of written questions on the UK Government’s response to the High Court ruling on PIP. The High Court ruled that the UK Government’s PIP regulations were “blatantly discriminatory” against people with mental health impairments. That follows the damning report from the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which found “systematic violations” of disability rights.
We welcome the fact that the UK Government are finally going to accept that they got this wrong and will implement the High Court ruling, but this whole shambles prompts a number of questions. It is going to cost £3.7 billion for the Government to review all cases and to rectify the error of excluding people with mental health issues, but how much has it cost the Government to oppose the matter in the courts? How much has it cost people who have applied and been turned down for PIP support, not just financially, but in terms of their health?
Yesterday the Minister was angry that my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) suggested that some people’s experiences of PIP and other benefits may have led them to consider suicide. The sad story that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) gave in her intervention, and a case that I have shared with a previous Secretary of State, will hopefully allow the Minister to reflect on her comments yesterday. It is absolutely clear that there is an issue in this regard, and I hope she will reflect on that.
I also raised a case yesterday with the Minister of someone who had followed the process correctly, had completed their review forms and had submitted them in the timescales, yet were called to refund all the money they had received thus far. That was the administrative failure of the Minister’s Department. That case is exceptionally bad. We talk about reducing harms for people in society, but it shows that when the DWP fails, the onus is on the individual to suffer the consequences and not on the Department to compensate them and deal with the issue.
The hon. Gentleman was right to raise that case yesterday, which I saw him do, and I hope the Minister will reflect and respond on it.
Yesterday, the Minister suggested that savings will not be made to cover the £3.7 billion cost, but I would appreciate it if she categorically ruled out any further cuts to any other aspect of social security to fund the review, and if she explained how the DWP intends to cover the cost. Does this shambles not expose the urgent need for the UK Government to review the whole PIP application process? We hear time and again, as we did this morning, about the appeal process success rate and about how Ministers have lost court cases on their policy. We have also heard personal testimony about the way in which the application process impacts those who apply and need support.
This is topical because PIP will be devolved to the new Scottish social security agency, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (David Linden). The Bill to create the agency is currently being debated in Committee in the Scottish Parliament. The Scottish Government are seeking to make a number of changes to the way in which PIP is assessed to make sure that it treats people with dignity and respect. First, the Scottish Government are seeking to make an automatic provision that would allow the agency to gather all the relevant medical or related information at application stage, which would reduce the number of face-to-face assessments, reduce the burden on the applicant and hopefully ensure that the correct decision is taken at the outset, rather than people having to go through the flawed mandatory reconsideration and appeal process, which was raised by the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green).
Secondly, the Scottish Government will ensure that private contractors are not involved in the assessment process. There are a range of other measures that the Scottish Government will take to ensure that we get the system right for those seeking support. In conclusion, hopefully the Minister will consider the new system in Scotland once it is up and running, and the UK Government will look north and learn some lessons.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Laura Pidcock) on securing this important and timely debate. She made some valid points and highlighted the sheer volume of responses that she received when she put out a call on social media. That demonstrates the clear problems with the PIP system and with the benefit.
My hon. Friend talked powerfully about the outsourcing of the assessment process, which we all know is simply not working from our experience with the work capability assessment. It is about time that those assessments were brought back in-house because there is poor-quality decision making and no scrutiny. Frankly, it is unacceptable that taxpayers’ money is going out to those providers.
Does my hon. Friend agree that outsourcing decisions waste money and are against the interest of claimants? Discrepancies between Capita, which sees 59% of claimants at home for a home assessment, and Atos, which does the vast majority of PIP assessments but sees only 16% of claimants at home, expose the divisions in the private sector and show why the assessments should be brought back in-house and monitored properly.
It is important that the Government listen to the valid point made by my hon. Friend, and I hope the Minister will address it. We have heard testimony about the Department’s approach to disabled people. People said that it felt cold and that they were not treated as human beings, but they have to engage with it.
I pay tribute to my many hon. Friends who have spoken—it is important that so many of them are here—including my hon. Friends the Members for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), for North Durham (Mr Jones), for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy), for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn), for Crewe and Nantwich (Laura Smith), for Reading East (Matt Rodda), and for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones), and the good interventions from my hon. Friends the Members for High Peak (Ruth George) and for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green).
My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby highlighted the points about face-to-face assessments well. The assessment process, the centres and the information provided have to be accessible, but that is not happening on all occasions. That needs to change. This debate has been called because of the crisis in the claimant experience of personal independence payments.
Having witnessed the way in which the Tory party did politics in the run-up to the 2010 election and having sat opposite them between 2010 and 2015, this is not an accident. It is a deliberate part of the party’s electoral strategy: to demonise the poor and to say that this country’s problems are caused by the most vulnerable people in our society. The experience that claimants receive is a deliberate part of the Conservatives’ political strategy.
My hon. Friend is spot on. Let us be clear: from the outset in 2010, the Government’s fundamental aim for the new benefit was to make savings and to reduce the case load of disability benefit claimants. That is a fact. The expectation was to make a saving of 20%, which equated to around £1.5 billion. It is untrue to say that that was not the case. PIP was supposed to cover the additional costs of living with a disability, but that has not been the case in practice. The assessment framework is flawed and it causes delays.
Having heard the cases that have been discussed, does my hon. Friend agree that the process is dehumanising? It degrades individuals who are at their most vulnerable. Does she also agree that we need to take a two-pronged approach? The private sector makes millions of pounds and causes misery for others, but we must also bear in mind the fact that the policy itself is seriously flawed.
My hon. Friend, too, makes a valid point. We have to look at the policy intention behind PIP’s introduction—to make savings and to reduce the number of disabled people who were entitled to the benefit.
The assessment framework creates a series of financial problems. Poor-quality decision making has led to disabled people losing vital financial support. The evidence is damning—it is there for all to see. When decisions are challenged, in 68% of cases taken to tribunal the finding is in favour of the claimant. That indicates that there is a problem. The process is lengthy and stressful, and many people do not know how to challenge a decision or what they need to do, so many will go without and lose that financial support.
If a claimant wants to challenge a PIP decision, they must first ask for a mandatory reconsideration, as my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham discussed in detail. That was supposed to improve the claims process, but in reality, it has had the opposite effect. Many disability organisations have noted the number of decisions on claims that have passed through the supposedly rigorous mandatory reconsideration stage, but have gone on to be overturned at tribunal.
According to the Department’s own figures, about 20% of PIP MR cases lead to the decision being revised. It seems that the appeal tribunal process is being used as a backstop for poor decisions that should have been resolved at the initial stage or at the mandatory reconsideration.
My constituent, Anthony, who visited my surgery on Friday, has a chronic illness. He has been through the process up to the point that my hon. Friend describes and he is awaiting a date for the appeal court. He will lose his car in April. He has been to advice centres to seek advice, but they are full with a backlog, so he has now come to me. Without a date for the appeal process, what can be done and what should the Government do? He faces months and months of distress.
Perhaps the Minister can clarify what my hon. Friend’s constituent should do. We cannot have individuals losing their vehicles unnecessarily.
Poor decision making is taking place. It has become so bad that the most senior tribunal judge said that the evidence provided by the Department was so poor that it would be “wholly inadmissible” in any other court. There has been a 900% increase in complaints about PIP.
I will talk briefly about the High Court decision. There was an urgent question yesterday, but I am not sure that the Minister answered all the points that were made. The regulations were introduced to reduce the number of claimants who qualify for PIP. The High Court said that they were “blatantly discriminatory” against people with mental health conditions. What is most scary is that but for the High Court decision, the Government could have just carried on as usual.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I cannot take any more interventions—I apologise.
Where do we go from here? Clearly, the Government have no idea when the examination of those 1.6 million claimants will take place. Will it be weeks, months or years? The Minister has not provided a good timeframe and I ask again if she can give us a timeframe as to when the PIP assessment guide will be updated. When will the backdated payments begin to be paid? Will there be compensation for PIP recipients who have incurred debt as a result of those regulations? Will the Department update its administration and staffing costs, which are also expected to be published? Will the Minister guarantee that no claimant will lose out as a result of their case being reconsidered? Given the damage that has already been caused, it is simply not good enough that Parliament and PIP claimants are being left in limbo while Ministers are trying to get their house in order. There have already been two independent reviews by Paul Gray, but the recommendations of the most recent one were accepted only in part by the Government.
The Minister has accused the Labour party of scaremongering. That is wholly untrue. The wealth of evidence presented today has highlighted the human impact of these benefits policies. The UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has found the Government in breach and is still waiting for them to respond. The Equality and Human Rights Commission has called on the Government to carry out a full cumulative impact assessment of their welfare reforms, but they still have not done so. Only last week, the European Committee of Social Rights found the Government to be in violation of the European social charter. Something is clearly wrong. Labour has made it clear that we would scrap the assessment regime and replace it with a good, open and holistic assessment framework.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I thank the hon. Member for North West Durham (Laura Pidcock) for securing this really important debate. I always welcome every opportunity to discuss PIP with parliamentary colleagues from all parties, and I hold regular advice surgeries.
I have so little time and have been asked so many questions that it will clearly not be possible to reply to them all, but I shall try to respond to as many as I can, which means that I will not be able to take any interventions. However, I have already set out a calendar of forthcoming events at which Members can come and speak to me. I understand how busy colleagues are, so if it is more convenient they can ask their caseworkers to come, bringing the cases that have been raised today so that we can go through them in detail.
It is clear from the cases that have been raised passionately and sincerely today that there are problems—I readily acknowledge them, and we are working hard to fix them. However, I have also heard a lot of confusion. Some hon. Members have raised issues that relate to ESA, not to PIP. Clearly some people are not aware of other financial support programmes such as Access to Work, which could help in some of the cases raised. A lot more support is available than hon. Members may realise, which is why I am running detailed teach-ins to ensure that all Members fully understand the wide range of support available.
Before I answer hon. Members’ detailed questions, I really want to set the record straight. Accusations have been made today, about me as a Conservative and about all Conservatives, that frankly I am not going to accept. It is simply not fair to say that Conservatives think disabled people are scroungers or do not deserve the support that we so want them to have. Conservatives want to ensure that everybody in our society can play their full part. We want to support people with disabilities to do so. Judge us on our actions.
Myths have been cited repeatedly that we are cutting spending on supporting people with disabilities or health conditions. Independent data shows that that is simply not true. Every single year since 2010, the coalition Government and now the Conservative Government have spent more and more money, and we are committed to spending more. Expenditure on the main disability benefits has increased by more than £4.1 billion in real terms since 2010 and is set to reach a record high of more than £23 billion this year. It will continue to grow each year to 2022.
People have been scaremongering because they do not remember that people on disability benefits are exempt from the benefits freezes and that their benefits will rise again this year. PIP is not included in the benefits cap. As I said yesterday, it is really important that we get the facts out there. It really concerns me that people who really need support will be put off from going to jobcentres or contacting us to get the benefits that they need and richly deserve.
We have heard a lot about the claimant experience and the customer experience. In my short time at the DWP, I have visited DLA processing centres, assessment centres and Jobcentre Plus offices, where I have seen DWP staff who are highly motivated and well trained to provide a good service to some of the most vulnerable people in society. I really encourage hon. Members who have not done so to visit their local Jobcentre Plus, speak to job coaches and see the excellent work that goes into supporting people with disabilities and ensuring that they get the support available. That includes support into work; a huge number of people with disabilities want to work, and we want to enable them to.
Hundreds of thousands more people are now getting support as a result of PIP than with DLA. In the constituency of the hon. Member for North West Durham, as we migrate people from DLA to PIP, 900 people’s awards have been increased. Some 41% of her constituents who have moved from DLA to PIP are getting more money. When Opposition MPs say, “Let’s scrap PIP and all go back to DLA,” they are saying that they would deny their constituents an opportunity to benefit from PIP. More people, particularly with mental health conditions, are being supported now than were ever supported under DLA.
I want to bust a myth. In this country, we are all rightly proud of our welfare state, but there is a myth that it was a Labour invention. Developing the welfare state took many MPs from all parties over a considerable period. I am just as proud of the modern welfare state as any other Member of this House. The first woman MP in Cornwall, Beatrice Rathbone, was a Conservative. She worked with her auntie Eleanor Rathbone, and together they were pivotal in the legislation that brought in the welfare state—a milestone whose anniversaries we still celebrate. It was people reaching across the political divide, working for the benefit of the most vulnerable in our society, who enabled us to develop the modern welfare state. Conservative Members are just as passionate about ensuring the best possible support for the most vulnerable people in our society.
I assure all hon. Members that, like my predecessors, I am committed to continuous improvement. We have commissioned independent reviews of the PIP process and we are taking their recommendations on board. We are working closely with stakeholders. Only last week, I had a meeting with my PIP stakeholder group, which includes representatives of all the main UK disability rights organisations and charities, including disability rights organisations from local authorities around the country. I will be setting up panels of ESA and PIP claimants to ensure that we listen directly to their experiences as we embark on our continuous improvement process.
It is also important to revisit current experiences. I accept that we always have to make improvements, but 89% of people said that they felt that the assessor treated them with respect and dignity. Undoubtedly we have more to do, but I am committed to making the improvements that we all want to see.
Ms Pidcock, you have only 30 seconds, I am afraid.
I am completely astounded by the Minister’s use of her time. She ignored every single one of our points. I would like her to write to every single Member who took time to set out in detail the inadequacies of the system, because they were all completely ignored while she spoke about Conservative Members, the history of the Conservative party and justice on welfare.
The Minister said that the Government would be judged on their actions. They certainly will. Every single disabled person in this country is waiting to see what the Government will do to remedy the system’s inadequacies. An alternative reality is being presented by Conservative Members—
Their use of figures diminishes disabled people’s experiences. It is a shambolic system.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).