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House of Commons Hansard
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Employment and Support Allowance: Underpayments
25 February 2019
Volume 655

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To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions if she will make a statement on the employment and support allowance underpayments.

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The Department is correcting some past underpayments of ESA that arose when people moved from incapacity benefit on to ESA. We realise how important it is to get this matter fixed. Clearly, the mistakes should never have happened, but we know that it is vital that it is sorted as quickly as possible. Last Thursday, I tabled a written statement that updated the House on progress since the previous written statement in October last year. We are on track to complete work on the majority of the original 320,000 cases by the end of April this year. As of 11 February, 310,000 of that overall number have started the reassessment journey. We have paid arrears of over £328 million to 58,000 people, which is significant progress. The Department has also increased the number of staff working on putting these cases right from about 400 staff to approximately 1,200 staff, which will enable us to continue to complete this important activity at pace.

Following the announcement in July last year to pay cases back to the point of conversion, I confirmed in October that this will require us to review an additional 250,000 cases. We have started this activity and will aim to complete this phase by the end of the year. Last Thursday, the Department published an ad hoc statistical publication on gov.uk that sets out further detail on the progress it has made on processing the cases, including an updated estimate on forecast expenditure and the number of people affected. The Department now estimates that about 600,000 cases require review and that by the end of the exercise about 210,000 arrears payments will have been made. The increase, compared with the previous estimate of 180,000, is based on additional sampling and very careful, thorough checking. Alongside the written statement that was published last Thursday, I also published an updated version of the frequently asked questions, and this has been deposited in the House Library.

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Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker.

On 21 February, the Department for Work and Pensions published a statement saying that 210,000 ill and disabled people could have been underpaid vital employment and support allowance after a grave error by the Department dating back to 2011, when it wrongly migrated them from incapacity benefit on to contributions-based ESA, denying them essential social security, such as the severe disability premium, to which income-based ESA would have entitled them.

The Government initially estimated that 70,000 ill and disabled people were underpaid. In October 2018 that number increased to 180,000 people, and now it has emerged that up to 210,000 ill and disabled people were underpaid, on average, £6,000 in social security. How can we trust that the number will not increase?

Thus far, 20,000 people have died before receiving the social security to which they were entitled. That is 20,000 people who will never be repaid what they were owed by the DWP. The Department estimates that more than £1 billion will be spent to rectify this catastrophic error, and we have now learned that it will employ up to 1,200 staff to do so.

How many people have been pushed into rent arrears, council tax arrears, debt and destitution? Will the Department listen to Labour’s demands and pay compensation to those who have been pushed into debt? What support will the Department provide to the estates of the 20,000 ill and disabled people who tragically died before they received their payment?

Given the scale of the issue in transferring to ESA, how will the Government avoid repeating this error when they transfer ill and disabled people from legacy social security on to universal credit? Given that there are currently seven reviews into ill and disabled people being underpaid, how much of the Government’s total expenditure is spent on underpayments? Finally, will the Minister apologise to the additional 30,000 disabled people, and their families, who have been denied thousands of pounds in social security, and to the 20,000 people who died before justice was done?

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I thank the hon. Lady for her questions. Let me make it absolutely clear that, each and every time I have addressed the House, I have thoroughly apologised on behalf of the Department for these administrative errors. This should never have happened, and I am very happy to apologise again today. Although I wish this had never happened, we are working at pace to make sure that people receive the payments to which they are entitled.

The hon. Lady is right to say that we have reviewed the cases of people who have subsequently deceased, but she is not right about the quantities of people who would have actually benefited from this exercise. We are only part of the way through, and we do not know, as yet, the total number of deceased people who, having reviewed their case, would have been eligible for additional payments. Where we review the cases of deceased people—of course, we are reviewing all of the cases—we make the payments to their family. We are working carefully and urgently to find the families so that we can make the payments.

On the additional resources that we have made available to complete this exercise, I am sure the whole House would agree it is vital that we get on and sort this out as swiftly as possible so that people can benefit from the additional sums of ESA and other disability premiums to which they might be entitled. I am pleased that we have been able to find the additional resources to enable us to do this. I made the commitment to the House that we would complete the exercise this year, and that is what we are going to do.

The hon. Lady rightly asks what lessons we are learning, especially as we are now planning for the managed migration of people from ESA on to UC. The key lesson we have learned is to make sure that the claimant is involved in that decision. For all the right reasons I am sure, it was decided to migrate people from incapacity benefit on to ESA without contacting them—just passporting them over. I have heard Opposition Members make that call to me as we approach the managed migration, and that is the key mistake that was made. The opportunity was missed to check in with people claiming the benefit to make sure that their circumstances had not changed and that there were not additional payments to which they might be entitled, and that was the cause of this particular problem. I am determined that those lessons are learned so that, as we do the managed migration in a measured and careful way, the mistake is not made again.

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How is it possible for someone with a long-term condition to have their ESA changed and their mobility car taken away without there having been any assessment or contact with them at all?

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I point out to my right hon. Friend that we are talking about ESA, and the entitlement or opportunity to have a Motability car comes with personal independence payments. We are talking about a decision that the previous Labour Government made to introduce ESA and migrate people to it from incapacity benefit.

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We are extremely disappointed that the Minister had to be forced to come to the House by an urgent question, rather than doing what she should have done and made this announcement via an oral statement. On Thursday, we discovered that the DWP had identified nearly double the number of cases to be re-examined and that the errors we believed to have ended in 2014 actually continued through to 2015. Those ad hoc discoveries are extremely concerning and beg the question: what other errors has the DWP missed?

What investigations is the Department doing to ensure that no other payment is affected in such a way? The most alarming aspect of this entire scandal is that 20,000 people whose claims were due to be reviewed have since died. Are the Government undertaking any investigation to determine the circumstances surrounding those deaths and whether this underpayment in any way contributed to or exacerbated those circumstances? Finally, we know that the Department is putting more resources into investigating this, but will the Minister confirm that that is new money and is not coming out of existing DWP budgets?

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The hon. Gentleman asked me a range of questions. First, let me say that nobody has dragged me to the House. I regularly update the House; it is a matter of record how often I update the House through a whole series of written statements and by publishing a lot of data. I have made those commitments to the House and I regularly honour those commitments.

In terms of the additional resources, the hon. Gentleman will know that ESA has not been open for applications since the end of last year because people now apply for universal credit, so we now have extremely experienced ESA decision makers who have the time and capacity to support us with this exercise. We had recruited an additional 400 staff before the announcement that I made today.

In terms of the number of people who sadly will have deceased since we recognised this problem and who could have benefited from additional payments, we are very anxious to ensure that we contact people as soon as possible, and if we can find people’s families, we will make those payments to them. Virtually every time I come to the House or Westminster Hall, Members make allegations about the causal link between people being on benefits and them tragically taking their lives. Members need to be very careful when they say those things. As our deputy chief medical officer, Professor Gina Radford, has said, and as the NHS’s survey data show, we cannot make causal links between people being on benefits and them tragically taking their own lives.

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Given that people with learning difficulties find the prospect of a face-to-face interview quite stressful and distressing, what more can the Department do to support people in that situation when they need to claim benefits?

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My hon. Friend makes a good point. In not only the process for claiming new benefits but this particular exercise, a lot of effort is going into ensuring that we find people and engage with them to check whether they are eligible for these additional payments. That happens through letters, telephone calls and even home visits, to ensure that we contact people in the most appropriate way possible for them.

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What is the Minister’s current estimate for how long it is going to take to complete this exercise and to correct all these very serious mistakes?

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We anticipate completing the exercise this year.

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What financial support is available for disabled people who incur costs relating to their condition that welfare payments are not designed to meet?

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I think my hon. Friend is talking about the benefits that are available for the additional costs of disability. There are three benefits there: disability living allowance, attendance allowance and the personal independence payment. As a country, we are going to spend over £50 billion on those benefits this year, which is a £4 billion increase on 2010, and those benefits are of course uprated each year.

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As the Minister knows, I have met a lot of people who suffer from acquired brain injury. Quite often, they find that the system does not really meet their needs, because the trajectory of their condition may not be clear and straightforward. They may have periods when they go through much worse phases, and Wednesday may be considerably different from Thursday. All too often, unfortunately, the way that they have been treated through all of this process has made it more difficult for them to get their minds in the right place. Will she please make sure that all 1,200 of the staff she is talking about are aware of the needs of people with acquired brain injuries?

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his active engagement with me in coming into the Department so that we could absolutely get this right. It is very important, for people who have not only acquired brain injury but a whole series of conditions that are variable, that the way we do the assessments truly understands their needs. We are utterly committed to make continuous improvement not only to the work capability assessment but to the PIP assessment processes.

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I welcome the overall tone of the Minister’s statement and her replies to questions so far. Will she confirm what work the Department will be doing with advice charities locally to ensure that people are aware of this process and when they can expect to be repaid the moneys they should have been due?

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For the first phase of people we have contacted, we have nearly completed the exercise. Most of those people will have been contacted and we will have paid them their arrears by the end of April. As we start on the next phase, we will be contacting people by letter. We have really good stakeholder engagement with a range of disabled people’s organisations and charities to make sure that people know this is happening and, when they do receive the letters and communications, that they understand what we are trying to do, which is to make sure that they get all the benefits to which they are entitled.

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I welcome what the Minister had to say about the lessons learned from this catastrophe. Will she assure us that she will take the upcoming migration pilot as an opportunity to ensure that an alternative is found to the hard stop, so that claimants who do not make an application in time for universal credit do not have their benefits cut off?

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We are absolutely determined to learn the lessons from this particular situation, but also from all other situations, and to make sure that people have the personal, tailor-made support they need so that they can make a smooth transition on to universal credit.

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The incorrect transfer of people from incapacity benefit to employment and support allowance since 2011 has been a big and costly mistake, with over 600,000 cases examined, potentially at a cost of £920 million. May I congratulate my hon. Friend on getting on top of this issue and sorting it out? Is not the big lesson here that, when it comes to new benefits such as universal credit, it is important to get these things right before they are rolled out?

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I very much thank my hon. Friend for what he says. This is why the Government are taking such a measured and careful approach to the managed migration of people on ESA on to universal credit. It is absolutely essential that this is done accurately, with compassion and treating everyone with dignity, and that nobody has a loss of benefit.

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I welcome the work that my hon. Friend is doing to deal with this massive issue. What more can she do, though, for those people who have, quite rightly, received a significant sum of back payments but who find that they have gone over the £16,000 savings threshold as a result?

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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point and I want to reassure him and all other hon. Members. This was an official error, so the additional payment that people will get and to which they are obviously entitled—it is a back payment—is discarded for all income-related benefits, including universal credit.

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Administrative errors and other mistakes in strategy and practicality flow from values, so what is the Minister doing to inculcate into her Department a set of clear values, and to narrow the gap between operations and aspiration?

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The hon. Lady makes a very important point about the culture of the DWP and the need to make sure that it is a learning organisation, so that people on the frontline feel empowered to escalate any errors or problems to their managers and that those managers are supported by the Department’s senior officials. I have been working closely with the permanent secretary to make sure that new approaches are brought into the Department to enable that learning culture, which ultimately will safeguard all of the often vulnerable people with whom the DWP works.

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These Government errors have led to extreme hardship and destitution for some of the most vulnerable in society—the people who can least afford to find themselves in this situation. Will the Minister agree to examine the case of my constituent Gillian, who as a result of changes to her benefits is unable to attend urgent hospital appointments for a long-term condition, because she cannot afford the transport costs? I was deeply distressed to learn of her situation. She has been told that that she may well have to wait up to 18 months for a resolution. That is not good enough.

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I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I would of course be delighted to meet her and discuss Gillian. Clearly something is not right. It does not sound like it is related to what we are talking about today, but clearly something has gone wrong and I would be delighted to meet the hon. Lady as a matter of urgency.

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I thank the Minister for her response so far. Underpayments to my constituents have ranged from £3,000 to one massive sum of £22,000. The issue affects some of my constituents when it comes to housing benefit. Can the Minister assure me that none of my constituents will be disadvantaged by something that is not their fault?

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I thank my hon. Friend for raising that question. This was an official error, so the income disregards do apply and his constituents should not be disadvantaged in the way he describes.

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Given that 20,000 disabled people have died while the review has been going on, it is a shame that the issue had to be investigated via an urgent question rather than an oral statement. We know that the figures have been amended since the last update and that 30,000 more people are being reviewed. Is it likely that the number will continue to change?

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I disagree with the hon. Lady about our motivation. Since the issue came to light, we have had ministerial statements, written statements and debates in the House. We are absolutely determined to do the right thing by claimants.

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Twenty thousand people have died—that deserves an oral statement.

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As I have said, we have repeatedly come to the House and discussed with hon. Members what is happening. It is really important, as I have said, that we do the right thing as urgently as possible.

I will answer directly the question about additional estimates. Because we want to be so thorough in making sure that we are not leaving anybody out of this exercise, we did some additional sampling. We were not satisfied that people had always been given the right benefits since 2015, even though new measures were brought into the Department, and that is why there are some additional numbers. I would have thought that Members on all Benches would welcome the fact that we are being so thorough as to make sure that everybody who can benefit will do so.

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ESA passports people to other benefits, so when they get the backdated ESA payments will they be reimbursed for the other benefits they have missed out on?

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If people were eligible for additional disability premium, then absolutely they would be backdated and going forward they would have those. Other Government Departments have other schemes which can benefit people who claim ESA, but they are the responsibility of those Departments.

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I am dealing with a very difficult case at the moment of a man who is in recovery from drug addiction. He had to apply for universal credit to get himself off the streets and into a house. Unfortunately, that meant he lost his severe disability payment. He is now wondering what the point was of getting clean and getting off the streets. He is much worse off and really in a very bad way. I am going back to him later this week. What should I tell that gentleman?

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I am absolutely delighted that he has got off the streets and into a substance misuse programme. That will enable him to really turn his life around. There will be lots and lots of support in the jobcentre from his work coach to help him to take those steps to work. I would really praise him for being so brave in tackling his substance misuse and working with his work coach so he can live a full and independent life.

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What breakdown has been done of the type of conditions these ESA claimants have?

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Our focus has been to make sure that people receive their back payments as soon as possible, so we have not looked at the particular conditions for which people were applying to ESA. We do produce ad hoc statistics, so I will certainly take away that request on how we might provide that for the House in future.

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This feels like a perpetual war of attrition with the DWP. I have a constituent who, despite having numerous chronic medical conditions and depression, recently had a work capability assessment where she was stripped of ESA even though her GP certified her as unfit to work. She now has to go through the mandatory reconsideration process which is already adding to her anxiety. Coupled with that, she has been stripped of her housing benefit. What is the Minister going to do about this situation? Will she meet me to discuss this particular case? Will she review the unacceptable rate of ESA claims that are reinstated after mandatory reconsiderations?

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Of course I am willing to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss that particular case. I assure him that we are absolutely committed to improvements to the work capability assessment, but for the vast majority of people the process works well.

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The Carers Outreach Service says that young disabled people in Wales face confusion and possible injustice at the age of 19 when migrating from child benefits and tax credits to claiming ESA. Education, health and social services are all devolved in Wales, and ESA problems could be resolved with proper co-ordination between those services and the DWP. Is it not therefore obvious that it could be very beneficial if key elements of the benefit system were also devolved to Wales?

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for a question that goes way beyond what we are discussing today. He makes a very good point about when children are growing up and move from childhood benefits to adult benefits. Those young people will now be applying to universal credit, which has the huge benefit of the personalised tailor-made support that is available through the work coach.

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I am a bit concerned that a Minister of State does not understand the difference between making a statement to the House and what an urgent question means. She has been brought to the House. This is not the first time I have made these comments to this particular Minister. I want to ask about the 20,000 people who have very sadly died without receiving the money they were entitled to. Is the onus now on the Department to seek out those families? If so, what steps are being taken to find those families?

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I am happy to provide the hon. Lady with that clarification. The onus is on the Department. The Department is working really hard to find the family members of anyone who is deceased, so we can make the back payments of their benefits to them.

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The Minister must be aware of the hardship and misery that these errors in payments have caused to some of the most vulnerable in our communities, but does she understand the complete lack of trust felt by the sick and disabled towards the entire DWP system, in which there is a hostile environment towards the sick and disabled in which these administrative errors thrived? What steps will she and her Government take to rebuild trust with these groups?

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I reassure the hon. Lady that we are spending record levels of money to support people with disabilities and health conditions. I am absolutely determined to make sure that we are constantly reforming the system to ensure that everybody gets the support to which they are entitled.

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On Friday, an email from In Case You Missed It News included an item about my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), revealing that the Department’s presenting officers have not attended 80% of the tribunals that it forces disabled people to undergo to access their ESA and other entitlements. Have those officers been reassigned to address this backlog—one cock-up leading to another cock-up— and does this not reveal that the Department would be better off not wasting millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money on avoidable assessments, mandatory reconsiderations, presenting officers and avoidable, unnecessary tribunals, and that it should overhaul the whole process?

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I assure the hon. Gentleman that we are absolutely focused on making the right decision the first time, but we do not force anyone to an appeal. It is up to them whether they would like a mandatory reconsideration or whether they would like to go to appeal.

On the presenting officers, we never, ever intended to send a presenting officer to every tribunal. We send them to a sample so that we can learn—[Interruption.] I am very happy to answer questions, but I would appreciate it if people did not chunter from a sedentary position, because it makes it very difficult for me to listen and respond to them in the way I am sure the hon. Gentleman would like me to. Those presenting officers are there to make sure that we are learning from where things go wrong so that we can get them right.

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A number of constituents have contacted me because they thought that may be entitled to payment, but after some investigation, it does not seem that they are. However, how can my constituents and the rest of us in this House have any confidence in the DWP getting this right when the mistakes have been so rife, so egregious and so huge?

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Of course, we will be contacting people who are concerned, but I reassure everyone in the House that the Department has taken this issue extremely seriously and has undertaken a very thorough review to make sure that everybody who can benefit from being back-paid will receive those back-payments.

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Given that fraud and error payments are usually published in official Government statistics together, is the Department planning on making sure that they are published separately so that the public are clear that the error lies with the Government and not with individuals claiming falsely?

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We published ad hoc statistics last week so that we could very clearly respond to the question that the hon. Lady raised.

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We know that many people who fall on hard times can go on and off the radar, and some who have been underpaid may since have become homeless. Will the Minister tell us what efforts the Government are making to find these people to give them the money that they are owed and that they will be in desperate need of?

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I reassure the hon. Gentleman that people would have been on benefits, so it is not fair to say that—or to characterise the situation as one in which—people would not have had any benefits. Clearly, some people would have benefited from additional payments because we did not give them the right amount of money, but people did have those payments in the first place.

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The Minister is sorry and says lessons are being learnt, but where is the sense of accountability for this terrible error, which has had such a profound effect on many thousands of people’s lives? Where are the extra staff and resource coming from to sort out this problem? Which areas of the DWP’s work are being deprioritised to make this right?

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On the question about accountability, of course the National Audit Office has undertaken an inquiry into this issue and so has the Public Accounts Committee. There has been a lot of scrutiny, and it is quite right that there has been so much. I do not hold back from saying that this should never have happened. It is a very serious situation that we do take very seriously and are working hard to rectify. Please be assured that that is the case, that we have made the resources available, and that we will complete this exercise this year.

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One of the many people in my constituency who have suffered from a catalogue of errors by the DWP is supported by Cantraybridge College. He had no ESA payment from the start of November until I intervened earlier this month. He was told there was a fault on the claim but given no other details. What does the Minister say to people such as my constituent and others who have had to rely on the support of friends and family to get through desperate times while those errors have gone on?

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, but it does not sound as though that particular case relates to what we are discussing today. Clearly anyone who needs support should receive that support. The person the hon. Gentleman describes will now be claiming universal credit, and the huge benefit of universal credit is that that young man will have a relationship with his work coach, and they can work together to make sure he is getting all the support that he needs.

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Many of my constituents fall into debt through arrears of payments, whether of universal credit or of other benefits, particularly PIPs. Can we not reduce the waiting time for people on universal credit from five weeks to two weeks, or even a week, because some of them are in destitute situations?

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If people have not got any money and are destitute in the way that the hon. Gentleman describes, they need to go to their job centre and speak to their work coach. They can be signed up to universal credit and go away with an advance on the same day. I wholeheartedly agree with the more general point about making sure that we make the right decision the first time so that people are not delayed by going through mandatory reconsideration and appeals, and that is what we are working to do.

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When it comes to the 20,000 deaths, the Minister says that we as MPs cannot draw cause and effect in terms of underpayments. But surely, as a Minister, she cannot rule out any contributory factors unless we have a proper review and investigation into the circumstances in which those people died and what the effect of underpayments was. When will that review and investigation take place?

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Let me reassure the hon. Gentleman and other Members that if anyone makes an assertion to the DWP that in some way the treatment of someone’s benefits contributed to them taking their own life, that matter is taken extremely seriously and a full investigation is undertaken into the circumstances.

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Some 20,000 people have died since failing their work capability assessment in one way or another. Regardless of the circumstances of their deaths—we have to remember that six Secretaries of State and various junior Ministers have stood at that Dispatch Box and denied any link between social security failure and food bank use—surely it highlights the failure of the veracity of the work capability assessments, which require fundamental review. Will the Minister advise from which work streams the additional members of staff will be moved in order to deal with this problem?

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Let me provide some clarification to the hon. Gentleman. What we are talking about today is people who were underpaid benefits. As they came across from IB on to ESA, they were put on to a contribution ESA when they could have been entitled to an income-related ESA. It is nothing to do with the work capability assessment, so the basic premise of his question is inaccurate.

On previous points, the morbidity surveys that the NHS undertakes looking at suicides are a matter of record. They are a very serious matter and are reported by the NHS.