I thank my right hon. Friend for the opportunity to meet him recently and reassure him that I am committed to looking into this area. I want to do and want my Department to do more to make sure we gather more information earlier so there is less need to go to tribunals and, where there is a need to go tribunals, the amount of time people have to wait is reduced.
I have a constituent, Susan Hatton, with an eight-year-old daughter, Jessica. Jessica suffers from achondroplasia; she cannot wash herself, dress herself or brush her own hair; she frequently falls over, is regularly on concussion watch and wakes up several times every night. Her mother needs help. In August, Jessica’s DLA was withdrawn despite her condition worsening. While an appeal was ongoing, the Department recommended she put in a second claim to hope for a better outcome. Eight months after that, they went to court and the judge said that because the second proposal was in play, he could not answer on the first one. So not only did my constituent have to wait an unduly long time for her appeal to be heard, but she now finds herself facing the entire process over again. Every month’s delay in fixing this problem is another month of deprivation, distress and uncertainty in very young lives. I know the Secretary of State is committed to correcting this problem, but I urge her to spend whatever it takes to do this as quickly as possible.
I thank my right hon. Friend for raising such an important case, and I am very sorry to hear of the circumstances he has set out today. I have set up a new process for listening to MPs about particular cases; I now have a surgery open to all MPs about a week after having oral questions, and if he wants to come along and discuss that case, or of course have a separate meeting about it, I will certainly do that.
The Secretary of State will have heard of Stephen Smith, because I wrote to her about him a couple of weeks ago. Stephen Smith was found fit for work, and by the time he went through the appeals system, he was obviously dying. He died shortly after the Secretary of State’s Department’s decision was overturned. What lessons does she draw from the tragic circumstances of this Merseysider, and when is she going to reply to my letter asking for an inquiry?
I have a constituent who has now waited a year for a DLA appeal, having previously waited a year for a successful appeal. She is a chronically disabled teenage girl and faces endless errors in the Department and constant demands for more information and more signatures, and she has come to the conclusion that the Department has engaged in deliberate foot-dragging, not merely incompetence. What assurance will she have that thousands of cases like this, including the ones we have just heard, will be dealt with more expeditiously in the future?
I can reassure the right hon. Gentleman that we are spending more money and investing more effort to make sure we get the decision right first time. I am working very closely with the Ministry of Justice, which is recruiting additional people to make sure there is less of a wait for the tribunal. I know how distressing that wait can be, and I am determined to reduce that time.