[Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the administration of personal independence payments on Merseyside.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I welcome the Minister, who has been, though is not at present, the Minister for Disabled People. As a former Minister for Disabled People myself—I served for an entire Parliament, in fact—I am grateful for this opportunity to highlight a worrying deterioration that I have noticed in the administration of disability benefits in my constituency.
Personal independence payment is meant to help people with the extra costs of disability, and is payable regardless of income. None the less, many sick and disabled people who apply for it and receive it are often unable to work, tend to be poor and find it difficult to make ends meet. Many have chronic fluctuating conditions, and are very ill or very disabled. PIP is therefore usually, in my experience, an essential component of enabling people in such situations to live a decent and dignified life. It is a crucial benefit, which is all the more reason to get it swiftly and correctly to those who are entitled to it.
According to the House of Commons Library, since 2010 some £4.8 billion has been cut from disability benefit. Indeed, the introduction of PIP and the replacement of disability living allowance, its predecessor benefit, was intended from the start to cut entitlement to make it less generous, and to create monetary savings in the escalating cost of DLA. The expected savings of £3 billion a year have not materialised, but the Tory Minister in the Lib Dem-Tory coalition who introduced the benefit in 2013 said that PIP would be
“easier to understand and administer, financially sustainable and more objective.”—[Official Report, 13 December 2012; Vol. 555, c. 463.]
“Financially sustainable” means, in this context, cheaper in terms of the overall spend. That means cutting entitlement and awards when we get down to the circumstances of individuals.
Since PIP’s inception, administrative problems have been to the fore. In its first seven months, only 16% of the targets for resolving claims were met. The National Audit Office was critical, suggesting that the Department for Work and Pensions should
“set out a clear plan for informing claimants about the likely delays they will experience”.
I wish it had, because my constituents are increasingly experiencing delays, and I do not see any plan to stop them. Ever since PIP was introduced, constituents have complained to me about the way in which they have been treated when being assessed, the delays in the process of administering it, and subsequent reconsiderations and appeals. Whatever the outcome of the original assessment, it is hard to find people who are satisfied with the administration of the benefit.
Recently I have noticed that things are worsening. For the previous two years, until last December, I had a stable, steady number of cases coming through, spread over the months. I have been able to help with some cases and not others, but the flow has been pretty steady. However, during the first three months of this year my office has faced a threefold increase in complaints about PIP, and some of the circumstances my constituents relate to me are simply horrendous.
There are a set of different problems. For example, I hear about inappropriate questions at assessment, so that when people are disqualified from the benefit they consider the process completely unfair. Asking somebody who is debilitated by mental illness whether they can pick something up off the floor just does not seem relevant to that individual. In my experience, home assessments are rarely allowed, and when people cannot attend, usually for genuine reasons, they are simply disallowed the benefit.
I have one constituent who has been trying since December 2017 to be assessed. He has been refused, despite many debilitating conditions, including severe schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. There are physical and mental reasons why he cannot attend an assessment centre, but PIP administrators simply will not attend him at home. He has been unable to get to the 11 face-to-face interview assessments he has been set. Consequently, his last DLA payment, which was received in the middle of last year, has long since expired.
My constituent has lost employment and support allowance as a consequence. He has now lost almost £5,000 of income, and is financially reliant on his extremely elderly and disabled mother for the basics—all because he cannot get to an assessment. Why on earth can they not assess him at home? It is ridiculous that he has been asked to attend 11 times when he clearly has problems doing so. Why can we not have some common sense?
In addition, there are poor assessments and a poor attitude from assessors. My constituents report that they are often simply not believed. Some feel sneered at, and some are right to feel that way, from the accounts that I have heard. Inaccuracies in medical assessments mean that sometimes the reports that are produced end up bearing no resemblance whatever to what has been said at the face-to-face interview, and my constituents tell me that they feel as if a completely different case and person has been reported on.
May I reflect on the hon. Lady’s opinions regarding PIP? I am very involved in this matter in my constituency back home, with the changes that there have been. Does the hon. Lady feel, as I always have, that it is important that the assessor or officer who comes out to visit the person in their home, or takes them to an office for interview, has knowledge of the medical circumstances of that person? Also, when it comes to mental and emotional issues, does she agree that it is important to have someone there to support the person being assessed—perhaps as a witness as much as anything?
I agree with both those points. A lack of understanding and basic common decency sometimes seems to creep into these assessments.
I also have vulnerable constituents who are being prevented from getting help in explaining their situation to assessors. For example, I have a constituent who has a brain stem tumour, among other physical conditions. Perhaps not surprisingly, her mother was with her at the assessment. However, she was told that her mother could not answer any questions for her, despite the fact that my constituent has significant difficulty in processing information because of her condition. That goes completely against the PIP assessment guidance, which says that
“companions may play an active role in helping claimants answer questions”.
I have constituents who were prevented from having that kind of help and, perhaps not surprisingly, thereafter had their PIP stopped because it was felt that they had not answered the questions appropriately.
There are extremely long delays in assessments, reconsiderations and particularly tribunal dates for appeals. It is hard to justify the fact that the average waiting time for PIP is now 15 weeks. That is almost four months. It is completely unacceptable to make disabled people, who rely on that money to make their lives a little easier, wait so long for a first payment.
Reconsiderations are a necessary step to be gone through, but they almost never overturn the original decision. In my recent experience, I have not come across a single case in which that has happened, even when it is blindingly obvious that that is the point at which what has gone wrong can be put right with the least possible damage. Surely the purpose of the reconsideration stage is to apply a little common sense, but these days it just seems to be a way of wasting another two or three months, during which the individual does not get their benefit.
The wait for a tribunal is the killer. On Merseyside, the average wait is more than nine months, but I know of people who have waited for 12. It is an absolute scandal. How can the Government or the Minister possibly justify treating vulnerable, sick and disabled people in such a callous and horrendous manner?
I have also come across many reports of compassion fatigue among bureaucratic and indifferent contractors who are paid to assess vulnerable and desperate people. Compassion fatigue is not a new phenomenon, but it seems to be rife these days. It was reported in the newspapers recently that a DWP official had submitted papers to an appeal tribunal in which they referred to the appellant, a disabled person, as a “lying bitch”. How revealing of their attitude is that? Yet there is not much evidence of fraud in claims for these benefits: according to DWP figures, it represents only 1.5% of the total expenditure. That figure is put into context by the heftier 4.2% of total expenditure on making up underpayments to people who have not claimed their full entitlement—one can hardly argue that there is a huge problem of fraud that we need to crack down on.
Let me give a few examples of cases in my constituency that illustrate my concerns. Some people’s benefits have been stopped, quite unfairly, when they have fallen foul of overly bureaucratic practices that take no notice of plain common sense and that apparently cannot be put right without the lengthiest process imaginable, causing extreme hardship and pain. I have a constituent with kidney disease who attends hospital weekly for dialysis. She was diagnosed with a very painful and severe complication of her condition and was treated for it as an in-patient. When she got home after being discharged last July, she was exhausted, disoriented and in severe pain. She was expecting a district nurse to attend her at home to change a dressing, but her carer was confronted at the door by someone who claimed to be a health professional, but who—sure enough—seems in hindsight to have been sent by the DWP.
The “medical professional”, who was turned away by the carer because my constituent was in no fit state to be seen, appears to have had a compassion bypass. Instead of being given another appointment at a more convenient and sensible time, my constituent had her benefit stopped last August because she was said to have refused to be interviewed. Not only was she in no fit state to be interviewed, but she had received no letter. Even if such a letter had been sent, she had been in hospital for weeks and was very poorly, so she certainly would not have seen it. Why on earth was another appointment not made as a matter of plain common sense? Her request for a reconsideration last October was refused. What is the point of having reconsiderations if we cannot reconsider a case like that?
My constituent applied for a tribunal hearing in December—given her very poor health, it took her that long to navigate the process of filling in all the required forms. For three months, she tried to make the best of things, but she came to see me last week asking how long she would have to wait for an appeal. As I have said, and as the Minister may know, the average wait on Merseyside is 38 to 42 weeks, so I had to tell my constituent that she might have to wait another six months before the matter could be resolved. I have no doubt that the decision would be overturned at a hearing, as happens in 75% of the cases that get that far.
When I asked my constituent how she was doing, she told me that she had no money for food. Her weight had reduced to just 6½ stone. On the day she came to see me, she had eaten two slices of toast—one for breakfast and one for lunch—and was planning a main meal of a bowl of soup. I would normally offer food bank vouchers to a woman in that condition, but my constituent has a special diet because of her dialysis, so she could not have eaten what a food bank would have given her. She was able to take advantage of Can Cook, a charity in my constituency that stepped in at my request to provide some fresh food commensurate with her dietary requirements—but most people do not have Can Cook in their constituency.
I happened to bump into the Secretary of State, so I asked her who I should write to about this scandalous case, given that the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) has resigned as Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work and has not been replaced. The Secretary of State got her officials to sort it out within two days, which is excellent, and I thank her for it. My constituent has been reassessed on higher rates of care and mobility than those from which she was disqualified, and she will receive full back payments this week. Thank goodness she came to see me, but she did not see me for 10 weeks—and what about those constituents who have not come to see me and who are suffering in silence and despair at home? What about those who are too vulnerable to get out to see me, particularly those who are debilitated by mental ill health and are struggling on with no money and no food?
I am quite moved by what the hon. Lady says. Many of us know of people in similar circumstances. At my constituency office, three people in 10 days came to see us who had fallen off the radar—no one knew about them. Their issues were clearly mental and emotional. Does the hon. Lady feel that someone in the benefits system should be following up on people who have been refused benefits? That would be a method of finding out what is happening to those people.
The hon. Gentleman is correct. One would have thought that the reconsideration would introduce an element of plain good sense, but it does not seem to be working in that way at present. There is a general issue with how the debility caused by mental ill health is not well recognised or sympathetically dealt with in the system. People who are debilitated with mental ill health often find it even harder than people who have physical disabilities to face up to filling in the forms and getting themselves organised to get some help, so they are even more vulnerable.
PIP has less generous criteria for its mobility component than DLA, because it is designed to save money: people are required to be less able to walk than under the older benefit system. Because PIP is the gateway to one of the world’s most innovative and practical disability entitlements —the world-leading Motability scheme, one of the best things that makes disabled people’s lives easier—problems in its administration hit recipients particularly hard. For many of my disabled constituents, access to a Motability car is a lifeline—it makes their lives liveable—yet in the last two years, the DWP’s own figures show that 44% of people who were getting the higher rate mobility component under DLA lost their entitlement under PIP. Of those who are being reassessed from the DLA higher rate mobility component to PIP, only 53% got the equivalent of the enhanced rate. The other half either got the lower rate, and therefore lost their car, or got no mobility component at all.
People naturally appeal when they lose so much, and they are entitled to do so. PIP appeals accounted for 52% of all social security and child support tribunal receipts, and 73% of PIP appeals succeeded. Too many people who should appeal do not; they put up with the loss of income and the hardship because they cannot cope with the process. For people who first joined the Motability scheme before 2012, the car has to go back once the benefit has been gone for 26 weeks. However, the average wait for a tribunal on Merseyside is nine months, which means that people’s cars have to go back even if they win the tribunal, as 75% of them do. What is the point of taking away a disabled person’s car only to give it back again? Is it any wonder that people feel messed around? They have been messed around. I have a number of cases where people have quite wrongly lost their Motability car. When they finally get to appeal, they get it back. Why mess them around in the first place?
One constituent has lost her car and is awaiting a tribunal hearing—she will have waited almost a year by the time she gets one. I tried to have her case expedited with the Courts and Tribunals Service, as I have with a number of others, as this young woman has to make three or four journeys to hospital, in different directions, to different hospitals every week. She and her parents, who are fairly low-paid workers, used the car to get her to those hospital appointments. Her journeys cost £17 per journey in a taxi, multiplied three or four times a week. When her mother came to see me, they were starting to decide which hospital appointments to go to and which not to go to. I asked the Courts and Tribunals Service to expedite the hearing, and it was put in front of the judge—that is the first time I have got that far—but he said no, so she will have to wait until this summer.
The Mayor of Liverpool has a mayoral hardship fund, with millions of pounds that were raised through the invest-to-save arrangements, which was supposed to be about improving the Merseyside economy. He now spends all of that fund supporting poor people, and the young woman now has her taxi journeys paid for. That is the only reason she is still able to attend her hospital appointments.
The Minister must recognise that there is a severe problem here, at the very least in the length of time it is taking to get appeal hearings, and in the way in which people are being messed around in the interim. The people who benefit from PIP are some of the poorest, most vulnerable and most disabled people in our society. They should not be being put through the mill to get their basic entitlement to an extra benefit. I hope the Minister will be able to show us that the situation is going to improve in future.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) on a powerful and passionate opening speech. She has addressed the injustices and spoken up on behalf of her constituents. We know that disabled people and those with long-term health conditions are much more likely to live in income poverty and significantly less likely to be in employment, and that they face barriers to participating in wider society and therefore to being able to lead active and independent lives. Personal independent payments and their predecessor, the disability living allowance, can be a lifeline for disabled people and their families, but, as my hon. Friend set out, all too often our constituents come to us in a state of great distress, having encountered an array of difficulties during both the application and assessment process for PIP.
The feedback from my constituents and from organisations working in my constituency is much the same as that set out so fully by my hon. Friend. Claimants say they have little trust in the application process; they find it unfriendly, distressing and opaque. They experience difficulties completing the application forms and understanding the basis on which they are being assessed. Many say that the staff conducting the assessments for Atos and Capita frequently lack the expertise to make accurate decisions on claims involving a wide range of mental and physical health conditions. Claimants often find that their assessment reports include basic factual errors and omit relevant details, and they are therefore ultimately a misrepresentation of the assessment.
I want to highlight the case of a constituent who has schizophrenia and a personality disorder. She struggles with every aspect of daily life, including maintaining her tenancy and her home, paying essential bills and maintaining a relationship with her son, who is in care. Because of paranoia and panic attacks, she is not able to use public transport, but she is physically healthy. In her assessment, she was able to perform activities such as standing up from a chair and touching her toes, and she also told the assessor that she occasionally went jogging to support her mental health. As a result, she was awarded nil points. She was also refused PIP at the mandatory reconsideration stage. My experience of reconsideration is much the same as that of my hon. Friend—very few receive a reconsideration that results in a different decision.
On appeal, my constituent was represented by my fantastic constituency caseworker at the tribunal. She was awarded the standard mobility rate and the enhanced daily living rate of approximately £400 a month, which is a life-changing amount of money for her. However, during the period when she was not entitled to PIP, she was forced to use food banks on several occasions. She was unable to visit her son because she could not afford to pay the taxi fares. As my hon. Friend set out so clearly, it simply takes too long for appeal decisions to be made.
As we have already heard, the latest figures from the Department for Work and Pensions show that the average time to appeal a PIP decision successfully has more than doubled since 2014-15, to a national average of 31 weeks, while the average time is longer for the Liverpool tribunal venue, at 38 weeks. Those delays force some of our most vulnerable constituents into isolation and destitution. They are left struggling to pay for food, rent and bills. Indeed, benefit delays and changes are the main reason why people are referred to food banks on Merseyside, and the Trussell Trust has warned repeatedly that benefit changes are forcing people to turn to food banks, as I know from my own experience volunteering at the North Liverpool food bank at St John’s church in Tuebrook. I pay tribute to the selfless and dedicated individuals who work at food banks across the city, and across the country.
My constituency of West Derby has a PIP claimant rate of 8.6%, which is the 13th highest PIP recipient rate of all the constituencies in Great Britain. The case of my constituent is by no means unique; we have heard the cases cited by my hon. Friend. I am struck by two observations—first, the high proportion of claimants who are eventually successful in winning their PIP appeal and, secondly, the particular difficulties faced by individuals with mental health issues.
As my hon. Friend said, around three quarters of all PIP refusals that go to appeal in Liverpool are successful. That appeal rate comes as no surprise to me, my casework team or charities in Merseyside, who have worked tirelessly to help local people receive the support they are entitled too. I thank the numerous organisations across Merseyside that support our most vulnerable constituents to navigate the complex benefit system. I mention in particular St Andrew’s Community Network in north Liverpool, and Merseyside Welfare Rights, now known as the Merseyside Law Centre.
I anticipate that the Minister will say that decisions are overturned because claimants submit more evidence at appeal stage than they did earlier. I appreciate that that is a factor, but surely something is fundamentally wrong in the system when the figure for successful appeals is so high. We need to look at both the assessment and reconsideration processes for reform.
I finish by saying something about the disadvantage and challenges faced by people who are struggling with mental ill health when navigating the PIP process. For those who have mental health issues, the assessment process can be a doubly challenging experience, with the stress of undergoing an assessment exacerbating existing health conditions. Research by academics at York University released earlier this year found:
“Overall, claimants with a psychiatric condition were 2.4 times more likely than a claimant with a non-psychiatric condition to have their existing DLA entitlement removed following a PIP eligibility assessment.”
Mental health conditions are very common among PIP applicants, but our benefit system appears to continue to discriminate against people with mental ill health. We have a long way to go to achieve parity of esteem in the social security system for physical and mental health.
Today I received an example from one of the charities working on behalf of my constituents. It has
“been supporting a gentleman who is coming to us for life coaching. He had previously been awarded High rate DLA for life due to his injuries from an accident in work, his mental health & Type 1 diabetes. He had to go to an assessment for PIP and…made to walk the whole length of the building to the assessment room even though he asked her if there was a closer room as he was struggling only to be told no and to hurry up!!! He said the interview was very rushed…he felt really uncomfortable and made to feel like he was making his illness’s up. He wears a monitor on his arm”—
because of his diabetes—
“so his blood sugar’s can be read constantly and when the report was sent it stated he had a gadget on his arm but not sure what it was,”
even though he had explained that during his interview. The charity’s letter continues:
“He then received a letter stating that he was going to be getting a drastically reduced rate as he didn’t need special care and that his mobility was fine so he would also be losing his mobility car. The report also stated his pain medication was moderate!! Did the examiner have the medical knowledge & Qualification to make that assumption?
He has since slipped into a total depression and on our last coaching session he just sat and cried and said he didn’t know why he was even bothering. He hasn’t had the enthusiasm to see his 3 young boys, which he used to see daily on the school run. He is terrified that once the car is repossessed he won’t be able to see them at all as they have recently moved.
He has sent off a mandatory reconsideration with the help of us and PSS however some people don’t have this support and wouldn’t know where to go for this kind of help. This process has totally turned his already unhappy life totally on it’s head and his self harming is more apparent than I have seen in the last 12 months.”
The letter finishes with the rhetorical question:
“Why when a person was awarded DLA for life should they have to be reassessed???”
As the local charity said to me today in an email, this story has a number of policy implications. They include the question of reassessment when an award had previously been made for life; the way that interviews are conducted and how that leaves claimants feeling; the perceived lack of appropriate medical qualification, especially in complex circumstances such as the example that I have described; and the eventual reconsideration on appeal, which, in the words of the local organisation,
“will end up costing a fortune and is likely to reverse the original decision.”
Time and again, the PIP process lets down some of our most vulnerable constituents. As a result, trust in its administration is in desperately short supply. I hope the Minister will listen to these concerns and the example cases we raise through our speeches, so that we can work together to ensure that in the future we have a PIP system that really works for all disabled people.
It is a pleasure to be here, although I wish we did not have to discuss this extremely difficult issue. I pay tribute to my sister and hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) and other colleagues who are here to talk about this important issue. I want to spend a bit of time relating what is happening with personal independence payments on the other side of the River Mersey, on the Wirral. For the Minister’s interest, I will mention five cases. I will give him a letter with the more important details, and I hope that he will help me to deal with the three that are outstanding.
Wallasey is 25th in the table of PIP cases and our authority, Wirral Council, is 22nd out of 380 local authorities for volume of such cases. Within Wallasey, what are known as psychiatric disorders were the most common reason for claiming PIP, which is why I associate myself with all the points made so far by my hon. Friends on how cruel and disruptive the stress people are put through when making claims is. Psychiatric disorders include anxiety and depression, learning disabilities and autism, and 36% of people who make claims for PIP in Wallasey belong to that group. The system should take much more account of the effects that the process is likely to have on those who are already suffering from mental illness or depression, or who have learning disabilities that mean they cannot—even with the best will in the world—operate effectively in the kind of system that the Government’s PIP reforms have placed them in.
The second most common reason for awards was musculoskeletal disease in general, which includes osteoarthritis, inflammatory arthritis and chronic pain syndrome. In Wallasey, waits at the Birkenhead tribunal were 33 weeks, but as of two weeks ago that had risen to 38 weeks—that is nearly 10 months, on average, to get a re-assessment and an appeal. Some 73% of appeals found in favour of the claimant by the end of last year. That is what the statistics say. Once more, we see the same pattern of extremely and unacceptably high, and increasing, waits for access to tribunals. It is close to a three-quarters success rate for people who appeal. I join my hon. Friends the Members for Garston and Halewood and for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) in saying that we worry about those who do not make claims, do not come to see us at our advice surgeries, and are suffering an often catastrophic loss of income in silence when we can see that they might well be entitled to support from the PIP benefit.
There are some general themes about how Atos Healthcare runs the contract for PIP assessments. I will go through some cases—I will not use names—and then spend a bit of time pointing out the themes that worry me the most. Constituent one has a benign brain tumour, epilepsy, short-term memory loss, anxiety, mild depression and an adjustment disorder. He has had brain surgery and will need to have it again in the future. He has regular seizures, which cause loss of awareness, perception and consciousness.
On 10 January he had a reassessment, which was carried out at his house, although, funnily enough, it was not requested that it should be. He has received DLA, carer’s allowance and mobility for the past 15 years, but in this assessment he scored only six points, despite medical evidence stating that he needs help at home. There were also discrepancies between the points scored and the information in the report. Medical evidence states that he cannot prepare food or clean himself without supervision, but his PIP assessment report states that he can do both unaided. He was recorded as being able to carry out complex budgeting calculations because he recognised a £5 note. The assessor recorded him as having good eye contact and focus, despite the fact that he was crying and shaking throughout the interview. There is no mention in the report of this man hurting himself and other people in the middle of the seizures that he has regularly. It was emphasised that he is not safe alone either inside or outside of the home because he is a risk to himself and others. Despite my constituent showing the assessor some of his injury marks from seizures, which were not mentioned in the report, and his doctor’s letter that references them, he had reductions in his benefit that leave him and his wife £578.20 a month worse off.
Constituent two has 95% hearing loss, agoraphobia and anxiety and has been on DLA for 17 years. Because of her severe anxiety she asked for a home assessment, having previously had severe panic attacks when she attended the jobcentre. It was initially refused, but I intervened and a home assessment was granted. At the assessment in September last year, a sign language interpreter was not provided. Her father sat in the interview and asked if he could write the questions down for my constituent so that she would know what was going on, because she has 95% hearing loss. The assessor refused to allow that, claiming my constituent was making it up and could hear the questions. The assessor terminated the interview early, and the DWP claimed it had no knowledge of my constituent being deaf, despite the fact that she had been claiming DLA for her disability for 17 years. The Department must surely have known that. In February this year my constituent received a letter stating that her PIP claim was terminated because the interview ended early. It was the assessor who terminated the interview and the DWP did not think the fact that she could not hear was a good enough reason. She has now been without benefits for almost a year.
Constituent three received a wheelchair from the local NHS service because her mobility and health was declining. She was advised to apply for PIP as the wheelchair she was fitted with does not fit in her car and she is unable to get around independently as a result. In the assessment she stated that she could walk for only 10 to 15 metres, but the assessor recorded her as having the ability to walk for 50 metres. The assessor also failed to record other issues with mobility and health that my constituent mentioned. The incorrect information meant she did not score highly in the assessment and as a result was not awarded PIP. The case has gone for mandatory reconsideration and she is waiting to hear back.
A couple of issues have been resolved now. Constituent four has had multiple sclerosis for 30 years. He was diagnosed with secondary progressive MS in 2003. He received DLA and qualified for higher rate mobility. Yet at his most recent assessment for PIP in November last year he lost the higher rate mobility component and was worried that he would lose his Motability car, which has been specifically adjusted to allow him to drive to work. He has an electrical stimulator in his leg to help him move, and he uses crutches, which means he has tennis elbow and carpal tunnel syndrome, and he has lost fine motor skills in his right hand. Despite that, the assessor said that he could use crutches and so his hands were fine.
Despite not seeing my constituent walk more than 15 metres at his assessment, the assessor claimed he could walk between 20 and 50 metres with aids. My constituent provided 13 letters of support from medical professionals, including neurologists and consultants, but despite all that and despite having multiple sclerosis, which is a deteriorating condition, it was decided he needed less support, not more. After I wrote to the DWP and raised his case with the jobcentre, his mobility component was reinstated last month, but it took four months. Just think of all the anxiety that my constituent suffered as a result, none of which helped his condition.
Constituent five was on PIP enhanced daily living from 2005 and received the mobility element because he has epilepsy. He has depression, anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and cancer in the pituitary gland. He asked in advance of the assessment if it could be recorded because he has problems with his concentration and memory. He was told by the DWP that it would not provide a recorder and it would accept only a double tape machine, such as the police use. At interview the assessor wrote that he was relaxed and coped well when he was actually anxious and upset, and he was crying because he had to attend the assessment on his own as his family live in Northern Ireland. The assessor listed medicines that my constituent does not take and omitted medicines that he does take. He was also not warned that as a result of his claim being reduced he would lose the enhanced daily living component and the ESA enhanced disability premium. Consequently, he struggled to manage to live and feed himself. A reconsideration took place relatively quickly, thanks to my intervention, and the benefit was reinstated. Having heard about such cases, the Minister must surely see what is going on.
Assessors are not adequately prepared for the assessments that they must do. For example, sign language interpreters are not provided, but the assessor carries on with the interview regardless. The DWP claims it is not aware of someone’s major hearing loss when it has been paying DLA for hearing loss for 17 years. It takes no extra care to ensure that the constituent involved can have a fair assessment.
Over and again, the process is demeaning and dehumanising. It is a grossly unfair system. It is flawed and uncaring and puts people through the mill. Recently the Disability News Service put in a freedom of information request and although the DWP said it would be too expensive to produce figures for all the claims, it did produce figures for a sample of 100 cases. In 97 cases decisions were made without the DWP making any attempt to seek further advice or clarification from Atos, despite ongoing complaints about assessors’ inaccuracy and omissions since PIP was introduced in 2013. That must be why so many appeals are successful. All the relevant evidence is considered a second time around, and it is hard not to come to the conclusion that claimants are assumed to be lying if assessors do not record things accurately. Are targets set by the DWP or by the organisations that have the contracts for knocking people off disability benefits such as PIP?
There seems to be a pattern of behaviour not being caught by how the system runs, and it causes some of the most vulnerable people in our society massive amounts of distress. It deprives them of the money that is not only their entitlement, but which they rely on to live and to afford the basics. It does not give them any chance to appeal until an average of 10 months have gone by, often leaving them destitute. We ought to be able to change the system to take account of the very important and special needs that some of the most vulnerable have. I hope the Minister will accept the envelope containing the three outstanding cases that I mentioned in my speech and I very much hope we can get a resolution for them sooner rather than later.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) on securing this important debate, and I agree with all the comments that she made. The situations recounted by my hon. Friends who have spoken today echo the experience of my constituents.
My constituents’ experience of PIP is marked by gross unfairness and sometimes blatant deception. The assessment system itself is not fit for purpose, and there are too many examples of clear disregard for claimants. Sometimes, reports do not reflect the interviews that have taken place. I want to highlight the experience of my constituent, Mr A, a highly intelligent man who has undertaken skilled work over many years, despite a long-term and permanent disability caused by serious illness in early childhood. He has faced many operations. His Motability car makes it possible for him to work. It is his lifeline.
My constituent’s PIP assessment sought to remove his enhanced mobility benefit, which meant that his Motability car would be withdrawn, resulting in the loss of his employment. The decision was reached five years after his previous award, although he had been informed that it would not be revisited for 10 years, in view of the ongoing nature of his disability. He was distraught. At his mandatory reconsideration he was unsuccessful, and I supported him in pursuing his case to a tribunal. In preparing for that, my constituent uncovered evidence that the report submitted by Atos for the mandatory reconsideration was not an accurate record. Indeed, it was fabricated. It was simply an exercise in cutting and pasting from the earlier failed assessment. No separate examination had taken place.
Confronted with that clear evidence, the DWP withdrew its threat to remove Mr A’s car, reinstated his enhanced mobility award and restored the original commitment to a 10-year assessment period, in view of the ongoing permanent nature of his disability. The tribunal was cancelled. I was delighted with that result, but I was, and remain, appalled by my constituent’s experience and by the knowledge that he was put under such stress. I was outraged to hear that the report that was to decide about his future and his health was simply made up. It is disgraceful that that could have happened, and it was only my constituent’s diligence that unearthed it.
There are wider questions, however. How many similar injustices have taken place, and how many of those went unchallenged by people without the knowledge or resilience to pursue the matter? My experience suggests that there are many such instances. It is not good enough. The questions for PIP eligibility are not framed to elicit the correct information to describe the claimant’s condition effectively. Sometimes the reports that are drawn up do not reflect the assessments that were done, and sometimes, as in my constituent’s case, they are simply made up.
I see many constituents who make representations about the withdrawal of benefit. I see injustices too often, and I see too much suffering. Sometimes people pursue their claims to a tribunal and often they win, but as we have heard this afternoon it can take nine to 12 months for a tribunal to take place, and by that time many of my constituents have become destitute—and what of those who do not appeal? It is time that there was an investigation of the assessment procedure for PIP. That investigation should include the reliability of the assessors. The DWP appoints Atos and Capita, which act in its name. It is the Government who are ultimately responsible.
I know that the Minister will be concerned to hear the example that I have cited, and those given by my hon. Friends. I call on him to act, and to investigate the whole process. It is a matter of justice.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) on securing the debate, and on her speech.
Personal independence payment has been debated in this House on many occasions. Members have highlighted their constituents’ experiences and the failings of the system in their constituencies. The fact that we are here today yet again highlighting the failures of the PIP system and the resulting impact on our constituents speaks volumes about the Government’s inaction on the issue. We already know that there are too many people being denied the support that they need. We need only look at the figure of 28,000 mandatory reconsiderations of benefit decisions taken by the DWP, or the fact that the Ministry of Justice cleared nearly 21,000 benefit appeals in the quarter leading to December 2018. The figures for mandatory reconsiderations and appeals are even more staggering when we consider the rates of success: 89% of mandatory reconsiderations in January 2019 led to a change in the DWP’s original decision, and 73% of appeals were decided in favour of the claimant in the quarter leading to December 2018. It is clear that people are being denied the support that they need, not because of their own actions but because of a systematic failure at the heart of the Government’s welfare reforms. The success of claimants in challenging the decisions taken by the DWP highlights that clearly.
As I have said, the Government’s inaction is shameful and impacts negatively on the lives of ordinary people every day. There have been repeated calls for action, from charities, third sector organisations, parliamentarians, claimants and even the United Nations. The Select Committee on Work and Pensions made some key recommendations in its 2018 report on PIP and employment and support allowance assessments, including that face-to-face assessments should be recorded, and that claimants should be provided with a copy of the assessor’s report. Another recommendation related to using contractual levers to improve contractor performance. Yet claimants are still being denied access to assessors’ reports and most assessments pass with no record of the proceedings. Private companies such as Atos that hold contracts for PIP and ESA assessments in both Scotland and Merseyside continue to make profits while denying vital support to claimants.
I am pleased that there is now a commitment that the next Labour Government will ban the outsourcing of public services for vulnerable people to companies such as Atos. We should be looking after the vulnerable, not penalising them so that private companies can turn a profit. In preparation for the debate, I looked at the statistics produced by the Library about the administration of PIP on Merseyside. I was struck by how much the Merseyside situation resembles that in my constituency. Liverpool Walton, Birkenhead and Knowsley all have higher PIP claimant rates than most constituencies and the overall rate for Merseyside is higher at 7.1% than the UK rate of 4.4%. The figure of 5,040 PIP claimants in Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill contrasts sharply to the 3,700 average per Scottish constituency. A majority of PIP claimants in Merseyside were reassessed from disability living allowance, as were a significant proportion of claimants—46%—in my constituency. In Merseyside, the percentage of awards decreased following reassessment is higher than the national average, and that is also true of the rate in Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill, compared with the Scottish average. We are twin towns. It is clear that the people of Merseyside are, just like my constituents, being let down by the Government. The next Labour Government will end unfair PIP assessments and invest in proper support for vulnerable people across the country.
To conclude, I would briefly like to refer to the situation in Scotland. Members will be aware that the Scottish Parliament is due to take responsibility for 11 benefits, including PIP. The Scottish Government have established a new agency, Social Security Scotland, which will be responsible for the administration of those benefits.
Order. We must relate the debate to Merseyside at all times.
It is still related to Merseyside, Sir Edward. The point I am trying to make is that the Merseyside connection is the same as the Scottish connection. We can see that there are no Tory or Scottish National party MPs here to stand up for their constituents as I am doing. There is a twin connection between Scotland and Merseyside. In 2024 the SNP will get that administration of benefits—but they have rejected it just now.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) on securing this important debate. As a former Minister for Disabled People, she is well aware of many of the issues and barriers that disabled people face. I mean no offence to the Under-Secretary of State, but it is appalling that to date we still do not have a Minister for Disabled People, given that it is nearly two weeks since the former Minister resigned. However, given that the Under-Secretary is, himself, a former Minister for Disabled People, I am sure he will address some of the concerns that have been so eloquently raised by many of my colleagues.
My hon. Friend raised some important points, and highlighted the dire situation in her constituency. She started by mentioning the increase in complaints about the personal independence payment, and said that in the last three months alone, there has been a threefold increase in appeals. There are multiple issues and problems with the assessment framework, beginning with the lack of provision that means that people who require a home assessment are not given one. Inaccurate assessment reports are provided by assessment providers, and many individuals who are assessed do not even recognise what has been written. Some providers do not comply with guidance that allows supporters to be in the room to contribute to the assessment or support the person they are with.
The most important point, which was highlighted by many hon. Members, was the delay in PIP award decisions, and the long time that people have to wait for appeals. One person had to wait more than 12 months for an appeal, and the average is more than 36 weeks, which is not acceptable. There are a high number of mandatory reconsideration cases where decisions are not overturned. That stage was introduced by the Department to help get the decisions right, but that is not happening, as demonstrated by the number of assessments that are overturned when they arrive at tribunal.
My hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood and my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Dame Louise Ellman) referred to a culture of indifference among assessment providers, and other Merseyside MPs made strong cases and represented their constituents well. Frankly, however, they should not have to come here, plead, and bring forward their cases. It is great that we can do that, but the Department should be getting those decisions right in the first place. The problem is that that is not happening.
My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) highlighted the experiences of his constituents who have been turned down for PIP. Those decisions are often overturned at tribunal, but in the meantime people are left destitute and have to turn to foodbanks, which cannot be acceptable. We also heard about the experiences of those living with mental health distress, which we know causes untold problems. My hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) highlighted the experiences of her constituents; in her area people wait an average of 33 weeks for an appeal, and more than 70% of those decisions are overturned at tribunal. She highlighted five cases, and in each one the decisions made were wrong, and people were left financially worse off. The personal independence payment is supposed to help meet people’s extra costs, but if those costs are not being met, what happens to the lives of those individuals? We should be supporting ill and disabled people.
It is deeply moving and troubling that so many people’s lives are affected in this way by what appears to be poor quality administration by some staff in the Department. I realise that civil servants are under intense pressure, but does my hon. Friend agree that there is perhaps a need for much greater training to try to avoid the terrible problems of delays and people having to resort to foodbanks?
Order. If one is going to intervene, it is normal courtesy to be present for most of the debate beforehand.
My hon. Friend makes a valid contribution to the debate, and he is absolutely right. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside spoke about the assessment frameworks and providers, such as Atos, with which there are countless issues.
When PIP was first introduced, make no mistake, it was a cost-cutting exercise. The Government wanted to cut expenditure and the disability living allowance case load. However, that has not happened, and the Government have spent £4 billion more than anticipated, despite thousands of disabled people losing out on vital support. I frequently hear from disabled people from Merseyside to Merton who have been pushed into destitution by the poor administration of PIP.
Earlier this month, the Liverpool Echo covered a case of a lady whose epileptic mother had been left penniless after her PIP was suddenly withdrawn. In Merseyside, as in the rest of the country, disabled people are suffering because of the fundamentally flawed PIP assessment framework. Thousands of disabled people on DLA have been denied vital support when reassessed for PIP as a result of the assessment criteria.
There is no better example of that than the changed criteria for those who claimed the enhanced mobility component. Under the DLA, a person qualified for that component if they were unable to walk 50 metres, but under PIP that has reduced to 20 metres. That has impacted on many people who received the higher rate mobility component and who had access to the Motability scheme. Indeed, 51,000 disabled people have lost their Motability vehicles, as have those who challenged decisions, and who then had to get their vehicle back when the decision was overturned in their favour. One lady who wrote to me said that having her car taken away was like “losing her independence”, which is unacceptable. Why will the Government not take note of such experiences, and understand that the criteria must change?
We know that 72% of PIP decisions brought to tribunal are overturned, which demonstrates the appalling inaccuracy of the assessment framework and the poor decision making. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey highlighted, in her constituency 76% of appeals are overturned, and disabled people are forced to wait on average for nine months, or 36 weeks, for cases to be heard.
In the past year, the Ministry of Justice has spent £104 million administering social security and child support tribunals. The Government have spent more than £1 billion on outsourced contracts to assessment providers such as Atos and Capita, which have repeatedly failed to meet the Department’s own quality standards. A survey by the Disability Benefits Consortium found that almost two thirds of people claiming PIP felt that their evidence was not taken into account by their assessor. Recent figures released by the DWP show that more than 3,500 people died within three months of being denied PIP. Does the Minister agree that there is no stronger indictment of a failing system than thousands dying after being deprived of social security? When will he finally recognise that it is time to bring those assessments back in house and end the outsourcing?
The DWP is currently carrying out seven reviews into disabled people being wrongly deprived of social security, and four of those are due to the unfit-for-purpose PIP assessment. Most recently, we learned that the DWP is conducting a review into 4,500 people who were on DLA but wrongly denied PIP. In 2017, the tightening of the criteria for those experiencing psychological distress was ruled by the High Court as “unlawfully discriminatory”. That led to a review of 1.6 million people’s PIP cases.
We have heard that Liverpool City Council is introducing a support scheme, but it should not have to do that. I urge the Minister to think about overhauling the assessment framework for PIP, rather than merging the assessment frameworks for PIP and ESA. It is time for a radical overhaul of the system, because PIP has created a hostile environment for disabled people—the very people we should be supporting.
It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I understand that we are waiting for a permanent Minister for Disabled People, but in the meantime—I am sure it will not be long—it is a great honour to be here. I formerly served as the Under-Secretary with responsibility for disabled people, but the role has been significantly enhanced. It is an extra pleasure to be here in the enhanced role, albeit temporarily.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle). We met just last week about a separate case, and we had a debate earlier this year, I think, on a similar topic. As a former Minister, she has genuine feeling and passion for supporting the most vulnerable people in her constituency, backed up by her genuine knowledge about this issue. I am happy to look at the cases that hon. Members have raised. I will take that envelope—I can see that it is ready. I also pay tribute to the hon. Members for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), for Wallasey (Ms Eagle), for Liverpool, Riverside (Dame Louise Ellman) and for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova). There was a common theme: it is clear that they all genuinely care about vulnerable people who rely on people like us—the decision makers—to get it right. Although I did not necessarily agree with everything they said, I understand why they made those comments.
The PIP assessment is meant to be high quality, objective, fair and accurate, and it should focus on the fundamentals of living an independent life. Today we spend somewhere in the region of £55 billion supporting people with disabilities and long-term health conditions. In real terms, that is about £10 billion higher than when we first came to office in 2010. That is about 2.5% of GDP and 6% of all Government spending. It is an incredibly important area of Government expenditure. There are just over 2 million claimants on PIP, and many more are coming into the system or are due to do so.
Currently, 31% of PIP claimants access the highest rate of support. That contrasts with just 15% under DLA. I do not wish to diminish any of the points that hon. Members made—I will cover many issues about which we still need to do more—but we must remember that the system has come a long way from the old legacy benefit. One thing that is consistent among all stakeholders and charities that I speak to in my current role, and that I spoke to formerly when I was the Minister with responsibility for disabled people, is that nobody advocates going back to the old DLA system.
Under PIP, 45% of people with autism spectrum disorder will have the highest rate of support. For motor neurone disease, the figure is 85%. For multiple sclerosis, it is 53%, and for Parkinson’s, it is 55%. Many hon. Members rightly spoke about mental health. Under PIP, 31% will get the highest rate of support. Under DLA, only 6% did, so under PIP five times as many claimants with a mental health condition will access the higher rate. That does not mean that we are getting it right all the time, but there has clearly been a significant and much-needed improvement. In cash terms, the average claimant is getting £15.04 a week more on PIP, compared with DLA.
Yes, it is an average, and we are highlighting cases. I will come on to that.
The old DLA system relied solely on self-assessment. For many claimants, the very complex DLA forms were a barrier too far, and people who were in genuine need of support were missing out. Although the lifetime awards were seemingly attractive, they missed the point that many people enter the benefit on a lower rate of support, because conditions can get progressively worse. People on a lifetime award were often told, “If things deteriorate, please contact us for reassessment.” People often did not, either because they did not want to risk losing their benefit or because they did not appreciate that getting a reassessment could work to their advantage financially. Bear in mind that one in three claimants’ conditions changed so significantly within a year that they could be a due a change in those circumstances, and the majority would be higher.
The Minister is making a case for the benefit, but nobody is arguing that it is fatally flawed. We are asking for the assessments to be more accurate, because they are causing problems. He is making a case about conditions that deteriorate, but I have brought to his notice cases of people with deteriorating conditions whose awards have been lowered.
Order. May I just make one point? This debate is about the administration of personal independence payments on Merseyside, so we want from the Minister talk about administration and Merseyside.
It is important to set out the overview of where we are. That is why it was so important to highlight those cases in Liverpool and Merseyside, which shape how we do the administration. All our work is done in conjunction with stakeholders that have frontline experience. Hon. Members highlighted the excellent charities and support groups in Liverpool and Merseyside, which are feeding in. They are right to challenge, shape and help us implement the changes. I have seen many cases in which their frontline experience has brought to our attention common sense that should be applied. That has been done, but that work is not complete. I do not know all the details of the examples that hon. Members highlighted—sometimes there are two sides to a story—but presumably their offices have looked into the cases extensively. There are clearly issues that need to be looked at. Hon. Members have my commitment that we will look at those cases very carefully.
The Minister says that he will look at those cases, of which there are many, but does he recognise that there is a significant problem? We have had a snapshot from just one part of the country—Merseyside—but we know that there is a wider issue with the administration of PIP. Does he recognise that?
We always recognise that there is a need for improvement, and we continue to review all the processes—not just PIP, but all parts of Government activity. It is right to do that, and I am sure any party in government would make the same commitment.
Some 92% of claimants complete the forms, but that still leaves 8% who have challenges with them. We have already tried to make improvements by changing the language, tone and style, and shortening the paragraphs. We commissioned further independent research to support further changes. For those 8%, ahead of further changes, we can grant an additional two-week extension. We try to identify vulnerable claimants whom we may have to help with the initial application. With the support of charities and stakeholders, we have produced videos to explain the process. We are trying to make it clearer and remove claimants’ understandable anxiety. For claimants who have severe mental or behavioural conditions, learning disabilities, development disorder or cognitive problems and who cannot engage with the claims process, we will try to offer what support we can, beyond the excellent work of local organisations, which has been highlighted.
Many of the concerns that hon. Members raised were about the assessment process. We encourage help from carers, family friends, social workers or local support workers. I am really disappointed to hear the two examples from Liverpool and Merseyside of people who were trying to provide that support, which would have resulted in a better quality assessment. That should not be happening, and we should look into it. That is an incredibly important part of the process—not just because people are anxious or because demonstrating all their individual challenges is a complex process, but because for some people, particularly those with long-term health conditions, their issues have become a given. They no longer see those issues as a challenge and do not raise them, so they do not get the support that they should be getting. It sometimes takes having someone with them to say, “Actually, that isn’t right. We need to do something.”
I thank the Minister for giving way—it is a bit hard with twins. He said he was disappointed to hear the examples that my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) and I gave of that going wrong, but can he explain what he is going to do to stop it happening? It is a fundamental problem with administration.
I will come to that. Fear not; I have woven in as many of the answers as I could.
The average length of time for assessments is now 15 weeks, and it has actually fallen. Initially, in July 2014, when it was at its worst, it stood at 42 weeks, so it has fallen by two thirds to 15 weeks. We got it down to about 13 weeks, but feedback from stakeholders and charities suggested that it was better for assessments to take a bit longer, to help people—particularly the most vulnerable claimants—to gather evidence.
The assessors must be health professionals—occupational therapists, nurses, physiotherapists, paramedics or doctors—who have had at least two years’ experience since they became fully registered. Although there has been understandable criticism of some important cases, the vast majority of the staff on our frontline are well-trained and exceptionally hardworking, and they have claimants’ interests at heart. I think that we all recognise that. In the skills that assessors must have there is an emphasis on assessing people with conditions affecting mental health, intellectual or cognitive functions. There is comprehensive training on how health conditions and impairments affect claimants’ day-to-day lives.
Hang on; I will address the previous intervention. What are we doing to ensure that cases such as those that hon. Members have mentioned do not happen? First, there is the independent audit for quality assurance, which is separate from the Department. It is important that we look at that. Our own DWP clinicians will also observe cases, and we get a considerable amount of helpful feedback from stakeholders.
Such examples are part of the reason behind the call for video recording. We agreed to pilot that in the autumn of last year, and it has progressed encouragingly. If there is no backlash from stakeholders, we will look at making that a given by the end of the summer. Video recording would make a huge difference, particularly in cases where something clearly is not going right. We would be able to look back at recordings, which would hasten our addressing of problems, and recordings could be used for appeals.
Satisfaction in 2015-16 was at 76%, and it is now at 82%. It still has some way to go, but the direction of travel is improving.
I raised a case of someone who was 95% deaf. Her father was not allowed to write the questions out so that she could see them. The interview was terminated early, and the assessor was of the opinion that my constituent could hear but was pretending that she could not. How on earth is that allowed to happen if the system is as good as the Minister claims?
It is difficult to comment without having seen the details. I am not saying that what the hon. Lady says is not true, but if that case is exactly as she describes, that should not be happening and needs to be looked at, which is why I have committed to doing so. In general—as in the case about which I met the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood last week—common sense is not being applied. We must make sure that the rules and guidance that are in place are consistent across the board.
A number of hon. Members highlighted that in Liverpool and Merseyside, home visits are not offered. Between 15% and 20% of claimants in Liverpool and Merseyside have actually been offered home visits, as they should be. If, for a variety of medical reasons, travelling to the assessment is a barrier to accessing the benefit, that should be taken into account. Certainly, when I was the Minister with responsibility for disabled people, we improved the communication by making it more proactive to encourage that. We want the assessment process to work for the claimant.
I also welcome our introduction of the video relay service for those who are deaf and use British Sign Language. That is important not just for PIP, but across all frontline services.
I thank the Minister for giving way when he has only a little bit of time left. The delay to tribunal hearings is a severe problem. Can he address that before he concludes his remarks?
That is the key thing that I will address, but I will cover one last matter first.
Some 600,000 claimants currently access the Motability scheme. I echo the comments about what a wonderful scheme it is. I think it is the second-largest purchaser of motor vehicles after the Chinese army, so it has significant buying power and is very important. I visited a car salesroom that dealt with Motability and that said it was the dream customer. Some 144,000 people who were formerly on DLA and did not access the higher rate of mobility now do, following re-assessment, and they can therefore access the scheme. That goes back to the point about the 31% against the 15%.
Those who were on DLA on a higher rate, and who could therefore lose their car, will get to keep the car through the £175 million transitional fund that was set up. They keep the car for eight weeks, and then they can either take £2,000 or keep the car for up to six further months, but with a lower payment at the end if their appeal is unsuccessful. That provision was brought in because of a recognition that the appeal process, which I will come to in a moment, often took longer than the time for which the claimant could keep the car. That meant that a car could be taken away, only to be given back two weeks later. When the difference is very close, Motability Operations can exercise some discretion. Fundamentally, the challenge is the length of time of appeals, and that is probably the most tangible concern that has been raised by all who have spoken. I emphasise that the absolute priority is getting it right first time. If we could get every decision right first time, we would not have to worry about mandatory reconsiderations and the appeal process. We all agree on that.
The MR process was introduced to try to intercept cases in which mistakes are made and stop them having to go through the appeals process, which is a real challenge and reduces capacity, and thus bring down the time for other cases. Although I accept that very few decisions appear to change, about 22% of cases are actually picked up by MR. It is absolutely right to focus on that, however, and I think we all recognise that more decisions could be changed. Often, a lot of the MR process is just checking the current processes. The nub of the matter is that the appeals process often considers late, additional evidence. The common-sense point is that we should be doing a lot more, and we are testing that concept by asking whether there are any obvious gaps that we can pick up. Has there not been a GP note? Has supporting evidence that we suspect will be presented not been submitted?
The case that I mentioned, which has now been fixed, involved a woman who should really just have had another appointment at home. That was not picked up on a mandatory reconsideration. There is surely a point at which some common sense should be injected.
Absolutely. That is what we are testing, so that we can assist claimants by strengthening areas where there are obvious gaps. It would be quicker for the claimant, and we would benefit, because those gaps reduce capacity in the process. We are working with Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service to try to address the capacity issue, in terms of both the new digital service and recruiting additional judges and tribunal panel members. That cannot come quickly enough.
It is true that the majority of successful appeals are successful thanks to late evidence. We should see that as an opportunity to look at how we can do more to get such evidence in the first place. We are committed to learning those lessons to improve the process for everyone.
It has been a pleasure to respond to this debate. The group of hon. Members who have spoken are passionate about this matter, and they are real champions for their constituents. I have listened to all the points that have been raised, and I will look at the individual pieces of casework. We have a collective duty to keep applying common sense to improve the situation, and we are heading in the right direction. That is welcomed by stakeholder groups, but there is still more to do, and I am committed to doing what I can to support that work.
I am grateful to the Minister for his constructive approach to the points that have been raised, and I am glad that he and the Department seek to improve the administration of the benefit. From our experience on Merseyside, there is still some way to go. Some simple things can be done, such as getting the assessments right and doing more to ensure that those who conduct them are properly trained and conduct them correctly.
For goodness’ sake, let us cut the amount of time that it takes to get through the process and restore some basic common sense, so that our constituents, many of whom are the most vulnerable people in our communities, are not put through the mill to obtain a benefit that should be theirs by right and that is intended to make their lives easier. Instead, because of the way that the benefit is administered and the mistakes that are made, it ends up making their lives much harder.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the administration of personal independence payments on Merseyside.