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Disability Benefits

Volume 747: debated on Tuesday 26 March 2024

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Personal Independence Payment and other disability benefits.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Latham.

I am grateful to the House authorities for allowing me to secure this important debate on an issue of huge concern to many across our country, including in my constituency. Often, constituents have come to my advice surgeries with tears streaming from their eyes, in absolute despair at the predicament they face, especially when they are struggling to make ends meet in the midst of a cost of living crisis.

This evening, I stand before the House to draw attention to the state of disability benefits in our nation. Those in our society with disabilities and other health conditions that often prevent them from working are valuable members of our society. They cannot be summarised by statistics, nor by how much they cost the public purse. Behind every such figure is a disabled person.

Successive Conservative Governments have again and again undermined social security in our country, whether through cutting support, a punitive culture towards disabled applicants, or—perhaps most disappointingly—divisive rhetoric about the most vulnerable in our society from none other than senior Government Ministers. My belief is that how we treat the most vulnerable is a benchmark of how healthy our society is.

I am proud to say that under a Labour Government, every stage of the social security system will be supportive and accessible. Labour understands the importance of every person with disabilities being treated with the respect and dignity that they deserve. Unfortunately, that is not a view shared by everyone in our society. Under the Conservatives, many disabled people feel that the Department for Work and Pensions is failing them, with an assessment process that does not understand their needs.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech on a very important subject. Elinor, one of my constituents, got in touch with me recently. She had a young child and was pregnant; she was reassessed, her money was dropped—she found out just before she had her second child—and then the money was reinstated on appeal. Does my hon. Friend agree that the assessment process is mad at the moment? It is crazy. It is not sensible. We need to change it, and fast.

I thank my hon. Friend for making the case for Elinor in her constituency. Indeed, my hon. Friend is a strong champion of her constituents, and no doubt she and other hon. Members in this place will have helped constituents to regain thousands of pounds in support that they are due. I agree that the assessment process is something that needs to be looked at, and I hope the Minister will give us some good news at the end of this debate.

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. We have unfortunately had some tragic cases in recent years, including people who have gone through the transition from the disability living allowance to the personal independence payment. One person in particular sticks in my mind: Philippa Day, who took her own life because of the appalling transition process and all the mistakes that were made. We need to ensure that we have policies and systems in place, for health assessments and elsewhere, that protect vulnerable people and do not make things worse. I am sure he agrees.

My hon. Friend speaks with a great deal of experience, having served previously as a shadow Secretary of State. The word to use is indeed tragedy. There have been countless tragedies. That is why the likes of me have been calling on the Government to deal with issues with compassion and empathy. These are real people that we are talking about and often, unfortunately, they have lost their lives or been put in a state of such despair that they do not know how to get out of their predicament.

My Slough constituent, Monika, told me about her struggles being assessed for PIP. Monika was informed that she was required to have a health assessment to extend her PIP. After appealing against 27 pages of discrepancies and outright untruths in the report from her previous assessment, she was predictably very worried about how she would get through the process again. Her assessment ended up being delayed for a month and taking place when she was suffering particularly ill health. Monika was again left in the lurch by the DWP and faces another appeal, which she is dreading.

Unfortunately stories like Monika’s are, as my hon. Friends have already eloquently explained, not news to any of us. We all have constituents who are failed by the system and by the DWP. Labour has a plan to replace the Government’s current flawed system of work capability assessments with a system that can support people to live with security.

Many benefit claimants are aspirational, but fearful that if they go back into work and find themselves unable to cope, they will be left high and dry—assessed as being able to work, but finding themselves unable to work full-time. Labour’s plan was born out of a desire to deliver for disabled people, helping those who can work back into work.

Too many disabled people say the current system does not work for them. Labour has pledged to introduce the “into work guarantee”, which I hope the shadow Minister will explain at length. That will allow claimants to agree with their benefits adviser that, if they try paid work and it does not work out, within a period of a year, they can go back to the exact benefits that they were on without fresh health assessments. With 288,000 PIP claims outstanding in October 2023, does the Minister agree that Labour’s plan will help to reduce the number of disabled people who want to work, but do not want to risk having their benefits reassessed?

This January, the latest statistics from the House of Commons Library found that the most common main disabling conditions among claimants of PIP were psychiatric disorders. Nationwide, 37.7% of PIP claims were due to those. With mental health waiting lists ballooning under the Conservatives, it is unfortunately not a surprising statistic. When the Government leave suffering people for far too long—people often see their condition worsen before being able to access treatment—it is no wonder that the number is so unacceptably high. I believe that begs a question: will the Minister admit that her party’s policies on mental health over the past 14 years have significantly contributed to the PIP backlog?

The latest numbers from Macmillan Cancer Support show that claimants are still waiting 15 weeks on average for their PIP claim to be processed. Unacceptably, that is higher than it was at the same time last year. Four in five people living with cancer are facing an increased financial impact from their diagnosis, even before the pandemic and the cost of living crisis. It is unacceptable that the Government have failed to fix those issues, which affect our constituents at some of the most difficult periods in their lives. The Government announced extra funding for processing disability claims in the Budget, but can the Minister clarify how exactly that will be used to reduce delays?

Among PIP claimants in my Slough constituency, 16.3% of claims are due to musculoskeletal disorders. MS Society research found that the current disability assessment system is not fit for purpose for those living with multiple sclerosis, a condition that significantly varies in its impact from day to day. A staggering three in five people with MS have reported being unable to explain adequately the effects of their condition on the standard application form. That figure highlights a systemic failure to capture the true extent of disabilities that are not constant, but fluctuate, and underscores the Government’s failure to create a nuanced system that understands the lived realities of those with MS and other conditions.

Furthermore, based on its findings, the MS Society urges the Government to consider the elimination of the 20-metre rule used in mobility assessments, and to seek a more flexible approach that accurately reflects the variable nature of MS. Current criteria fail to accommodate the day-to-day changes in symptoms that people with MS experience. On one day, walking 20 metres is achievable; on others, it is downright impossible. That clearly leads to assessments that do not reflect disabled people’s actual needs.

Incorporating those changes into our approach to disability benefits would not only make the system fairer, but ensure that individuals with MS and similar fluctuating conditions receive the support that they truly need. I am proud that Labour is committed to delivering a system that works for disabled people, ensuring that every person with a disability receives the respect, support and dignity that they deserve.

In conclusion, I thank the constituents who have asked me to share their stories. I am also grateful to various voluntary organisations that make such an enormous impact to help those in dire need. As we conclude this debate on personal independence payments and other disability benefits, let us remember the essence of what we are discussing: the lives and wellbeing of some of the most vulnerable members of our society.

The accounts we have heard serve as a stark reminder of the critical work that lies ahead. It is evident that our current system, in its rigidity and lack of understanding, falls short of providing the necessary support to those living with conditions such as MS. The call to reform, to dismantle barriers such as the 20-metre rule and to embrace a more nuanced approach to disability assessment is more than just policy revision; it is a moral imperative.

We stand at a crossroads where the choices we make can significantly enhance the lives of thousands. By advocating for a system that truly understands the variable and complex nature of disabilities, we advocate for a society that places dignity, empathy and support at its heart. This is not just about adjusting guidelines or streamlining processes; it is about ensuring that every individual feels seen, heard and valued. Our commitment to reforming PIP and other disability benefits is a testament to our dedication to justice and equity for all citizens, regardless of their physical or mental health challenges.

Let us leave this room with a renewed dedication to serving those within our constituencies and beyond, ready to enact the changes necessary for a fairer, more compassionate benefits system. Together we have the power to transform lives. Let that be our guiding principle in the days ahead.

I will try to be as brief as possible, so that others can contribute. Before I come to the general topic, I want to make one specific point to reinforce what my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) said.

I am a champion for Action for ME, the myalgic encephalomyelitis campaign. The organisation has written to a number of us to emphasise its concerns about how narrow PIP assessments are. ME sufferers are losing the ability to access the relevant benefits themselves as a result. They are simply asking the Minister to commit to what the previous Minister committed to, which was to meet them so that they can work to co-produce a system that enables them to have full access. I dealt with my first ME case about 25 years ago, when ME was not recognised and there was a lot of stigma attached to it. These people have suffered on the quiet. It behoves the Government to sit down with that group and work through the process.

I want to take the debate up where my hon. Friend left off: on the impact of the system on individuals. Those who were at the Select Committee might recall the evidence that was provided with regard to Michael O’Sullivan. I dealt with his case 10 years ago; I met his family, the lovely Anne-Marie and Declan. He had suffered mental health difficulties and had attempted suicide already. He was then assessed; he was declared fit for work, and he could not cope with it. He committed suicide. That was 10 years ago.

Some Members will know John Pring from the Disability News Service, who performs an excellent role monitoring cases and providing information to many of us. He has particularly monitored recent cases that relate to people coming under pressure when seeking to apply for universal credit. He gave three examples from the past couple of years. I will give brief details; I will not use any names.

A disabled woman who was left traumatised by the daily demands of universal credit took her own life. Days earlier, she had been told that she would need to attend a face-to-face meeting with a work coach. She would shake and cry every time she had to log on to her universal credit journal, which she had to do every weekday to check whether she had received instructions and to avoid a sanction. She had already had a six-month sick note from her doctor explaining that she was not fit to work, but she was expected to go through the whole process, and she could not cope with it. The DWP was told about her mental distress, her suicidal thoughts and her fear of the Department. She took her own life.

There was another suicide months later. Someone had a long history of depression and anxiety and had been engaging with mental health services. He had been detained under the Mental Health Act 1983; he was then discharged. A psychiatrist who saw him two days before he took his own life told the inquest that he believed that the anxiety had been exacerbated by the whole process of the universal credit application.

Another person died a month after taking an overdose that caused irreversible damage to her liver. The coroner did not believe that she intended to take her own life, but nevertheless the coroner wrote a prevention of future deaths report to the DWP highlighting how the DWP had failed in its duty to maintain protection.

I raise those cases because John Pring and others had to put in a freedom-of-information request to get a report that was produced by the Prime Minister’s implementation unit on the harm caused by the process and the suicides that were taking place. It was four years before that report was produced. It had been covered up in the PMIU, and publication was prevented. Some of us have been calling for that report on the Floor of the House of Commons, but we have been denied access. We were calling for it because there were recommendations in it about the duty of care that the Department owed to people identified as vulnerable, and specific actions needed to be put in place. There is a further report that should be produced with full openness and transparency. I commend Disabled People Against Cuts, which has run a campaign year in, year out about the issue.

When it comes to disability benefits for PIP, the work capability assessment, the application process for universal credit and the pressures that people are put under, the system is putting lives at risk. What Anne-Marie called for, which I think is right, is a statutory duty of care to be placed upon the Department, with particular regard to vulnerable people. I also agree with Anne-Marie and others that there should be an independent public inquiry into the harm the Department has done over the last 14 years through the brutal way benefits have been administered, particularly for those who are vulnerable with mental health problems.

I thank the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) for his persistent and thorough questioning of the DWP on matters pertaining to disability benefits. I support him in these debates in Westminster Hall and the main Chamber. This word is often used, but it is good to have a champion on this side of the House. His work has been excellent.

There will not be one engaged Member of the House who does not have an awful story of someone being turned down for help when they are so much in need of it. I have a constituent who is a plasterer. I will not mention his name; I will just tell the story. At 50 years of age, he had many years of work ahead of him. He had never been out of work, because he had done a good job all his life. That was his plan, but he has had a number of strokes and has been in the intensive care unit. He has been told that he will never regain enough strength to work and that he will struggle with daily life. His wife is a care assistant in a special needs school, and she has been able to help him in many ways; he never dreamed that he would need that sort of help.

He has been turned down for the personal independence payment. For the life of me, I cannot understand how someone who needs help or daily care from his wife, mother-in-law and daughter has been given no points in that assessment. The system has clearly let him down. I can see the difference, because I know the guy. I have known him all his life. My staff will assist him in his appeal, of course, but I always thought that the idea of the benefits system was to help those in need; the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) referred to people who need help.

Looking at this issue really depresses me. The recent Supreme Court judgment has shown that assessments have not been carried out in the correct way, meaning that 250,000 cases are to be reopened to ascertain whether the correct assessment criteria were used. I am not boasting, but I fill in benefits forms regularly for people and I know the system very well. I have a staff member who does nothing but look after benefit queries, so we are on the frontline. She is incredibly overworked.

It is clear that the criteria have never followed the spirit of the law. The spirit is to ensure that those who need help with daily life can get it, but the reality is that incredibly ill people are being made to feel like liars, spongers or fakers. They are made to feel that they have no right to help and that the world is judging them. From grown men with cancer who require their wives to catheterise them multiple times during the day to those who are severely affected by lifelong learning difficulties and are forced to have their awards renewed and their routines disrupted with assessments, the system lets people down regularly. It needs to be changed. It needs to understand, with compassion, the issues that our constituents face. Yes, I understand that we need to ensure that those who claim are entitled to the system, but the way in which that is assessed needs to change now.

We say this to the Minister beseechingly and with honesty, on behalf of our constituents. We want to ascertain how quickly these changes can be made so that men like my constituent, who feel worthless and embarrassed to claim only to be told that they are not deserving of help, will actually be assessed on the needs that they have now. It is not about the needs that my constituent had five or 10 years ago, but about the needs of the man he is today—the man who needs care for life. He has worked for 34 years of his life in a physically demanding job. When he needs help, he should have a social welfare system that does the job. It should deliver for him when he has a dire need, with changes to his health and personal life.

This debate is so important and necessary. We need an assessment that takes people’s health conditions into account and that understands with compassion why they need help. It should understand the evidential base from their doctor, medical expert, wife, carer, mother-in-law or daughter. That is all the evidential base we need. I cannot for the life of me understand why it is not taken on board.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) on securing the debate. There are two points that emerge from the recent work of the Work and Pensions Committee. First, PIP assessments should routinely be recorded. We know that the assessments very often go wrong—we have heard lots of examples of that already—but we do not know why. They should routinely be recorded, with an opt-out available for claimants who do not want a recording to be taken. All the providers agree with that proposal, but for some reason the Government will not accept it. The Minister’s predecessor gave a number of reasons, which were all valid but all surmountable. Because we do not record the assessments, we do not know what is going on, so the problems just carry on and will not be fixed.

Secondly, the cash provided by PIP is designed to cover the extra costs arising from people’s disabilities. Of course, the amounts will vary from one person to another, but during the Select Committee’s recent inquiry on benefit levels, the New Economics Foundation told us that on average PIP covers only just over a third of the additional income that a disabled person requires to afford a decent standard of living. I welcome the Government’s commitment, in last month’s disability action plan, to set up an extra costs taskforce that will assess those extra costs. Can the Minister tell us when that taskforce will start its work? One practical proposition is to increase the number of levels in PIP—there were more in DLA—so that a better proxy for people’s extra costs could be provided.

It is a pleasure to take part in this debate; I congratulate the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) on securing it. All speakers have made some important points, although, as is often the case, many different strands get mixed up because there is a confusion between WCA, PIP and Access to Work support. That is not a criticism: it is a very complicated system. Before universal credit was rolled out, people—often some of the most vulnerable people in society—typically missed out on £2.7 billion-worth of benefits to which they were entitled, because the system was far too complex. Frankly, someone would have needed a nuclear physics degree to understand it. About 700,000 families were missing out on the support that we all agreed they should get.

I recognise that there are real challenges, which is why this debate is important. That is why the Minister is here and why she was at the Select Committee this morning—a busy day! I welcome the fact that in real terms we have increased by £11.3 billion the support to people with disabilities and long-term health conditions. We must not lose sight of the fact that both PIP and WCA, which are predominantly what we are talking about, were introduced by the former Labour Government.

I pay tribute to all the stakeholders and to all the independent reviews that have taken place. They have delivered hundreds and hundreds of improvements, which have made a difference, but there is still a considerable way to go. Under the old system, just 16% of claimants got the highest level of support; that figure was 32% a couple of years ago, and I imagine it has continued to increase. On mental health in particular, people are now six times more likely to get the highest level of support under PIP than they were under DLA, which often under-recognised the issue. We can also all celebrate record disability employment.

When it comes to making improvements, I have a few asks of the Minister. I apologise, because I asked this at oral questions, but I do not think I was very clear, because I got a different answer. First, when somebody has been assessed for PIP, they get a level of financial support—we can debate whether that is enough—but we do nothing else. If we identify somebody who has a primary health condition, we never signpost them to formal or informal support in their local area. We all know of different groups in our constituencies that support people, but often those who would benefit most are unaware of them.

Secondly, has there been any progress on mandatory reconsiderations? We did a pilot where we proactively reached out to the claimants and asked them to tell us, in their own words, why they were challenging the decision. More often than not, it was because they were unable to get the supportive evidence from their GP or whomever, which we would then assist in securing. Has that progressed? Is it still double? Is it higher? That was certainly an area that we thought would make a significant difference.

Covid fast-tracked our use of telephone and video assessments. We were looking at piloting, testing and introducing them over a decade; instead, we had to introduce them over days. Stakeholders warmly welcomed them, because people did not necessarily have to travel long distances to, in some cases, inappropriate assessment centres. The other advantage is that because the person is no longer tied to a geographical location, they can in theory have their assessment with somebody who has specialist knowledge of their primary condition. Is that what is happening, and are stakeholders involved in training and updating the skillsets of the specialists who would recognise those?

I was delighted when finally we got the special rules for terminal illness over the line; that nearly broke me when I was a Minister. Is there an update on how that is working? By matching the definition in the NHS, we took the period from six months to one year, so we removed the double assessment that was happening. Is there any progress on convincing Scotland that, although it likes to be different—often for the sake of being different—in this area it should have mirrored our view, which was the one shaped by the stakeholders?

I pay tribute to the work the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) has done regarding vulnerable claimants. Have we made any progress on asking the person at the beginning of their application to provide the name of a trusted colleague, so that if they drop out or stop responding for whatever reason, we have a trusted point of contact to whom we can say, “The claimant is no longer responding. Are you aware of an issue?” In most cases, it is because their circumstances have changed, but in the absolute worst cases, it would allow us then to chase up support for them rather than them being left behind.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) on securing this crucial debate. To boil the debate down to its essence, the situation that disabled people in our constituencies and across the country are facing can be summed up like this: too often, disabled people are scapegoated. Too often, they are treated like dirt. The social security system does not give disabled people the financial support that they not only deserve but so fundamentally need, and that needs to change. Benefits are simply too low.

As we have heard, last week the Work and Pensions Committee published its report considering benefit levels for working-age people and whether they are meeting the needs of claimants. We need to look very closely at three issues arising from that report. First, shortfalls in the support provided through health and disability benefits are found to have a negative physical and mental health impact on claimants, which could in turn affect their ability to work. Secondly, the Committee recommends that the DWP set out a new benchmark for benefits that actually considers living costs. Thirdly, it suggests using the methodology in the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Trussell Trust essentials guarantee. Those charities estimate that, even after benefits are increased in April, universal credit will fall short of the money needed to survive by £30 each week.

In relation to the situation facing disabled people in our country, in our society, we need to look very closely at the breaches of the United Nations convention on the rights of persons with disabilities. During the hearing on 18 March, the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities accused the UK Government of demonising disabled people and treating them as “undeserving citizens” by preparing to fund tax cuts through slashing disability benefits.

The hon. Gentleman is making an important point. I have a constituent who until 2016 was in receipt of disability living allowance. She was then told to apply for PIP and was rejected. She then went to tribunal and had the decision overturned, and her payment was increased on review. Now, however, in 2024, she has been told that she was never entitled to it and is being pursued by the Department for Work and Pensions for £49,000.

The hon. Member has eloquently set out an excellent example of how the system puts disabled people into an appalling situation, as we see in our constituency surgeries.

The United Nations special rapporteurs described the UK’s current policy and practice as

“a pervasive framework and rhetoric that devalues disabled people”,

which tells disabled people that they are “undeserving citizens” and makes them “feel like criminals”, particularly those who are trying to access the social security system. The committee members also cited examples of how the Government had continued to breach their obligations under the UN convention on the rights of people with disabilities, and pointed to a benefits system that traumatised claimants, leading to some even taking their own lives, increasing rates of institutionalisation, and a disproportionate number of disabled people who are now too poor to heat their homes or buy food.

A survey by the disability charity Euan’s Guide found that 50% of respondents in this country—one of the richest on Earth—were concerned about their energy bills, while 51% were worried about grocery bills. The Government reported in the autumn statement that there would be a consultation on a social tariff on energy, but that was quietly shelved. A social tariff would have helped financially vulnerable consumers and disabled people with higher energy usage. We need to go back to that.

We should all be shamed by the way that disabled people are treated in our country. A real change in direction is needed. We must move completely against the scapegoating and demonisation of disabled people that we see in much of the right-wing media. Disabled people deserve respect, support and a social security system that works for them. We need to move forward in a way that is inclusive, empathetic and supports everyone in our society. After all, we are all equal.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mrs Latham. I thank the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) for bringing forward this important debate.

The rationale for PIP and other disability benefits is to create parity between disabled people and their non-disabled counterparts, but we all know that that is not the case. Sense has called on the UK Government to increase PIP so that it truly reflects the extra costs that disabled people feel and face, and to increase universal credit and the employment and support allowance so that disabled people can reach a minimum living standard.

The hon. Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon) referenced the social tariff on energy and I hope he will support my private Member’s Bill to that end, because I am not giving up on that either. The UK Government continue to short change the disabled community. I think he was reading my speech because I was going to use the same quotes from the UN rapporteur, but I will not for the sake of brevity. It is shaming for the UK that the rapporteur thinks that is how disabled people are treated by the Government.

In my casework and my engagement with disabled people and organisations, I hear all the time that disabled people feel disrespected, devalued and demonised by the Government and the UK media, which is utterly shameful. One in five people in the UK have a disability and we could all be disabled tomorrow—a point worth remembering. It is time that disabled people had the recognition and support they deserve. We do not even have a disabilities Minister, as has been raised many times; I mean no disrespect to the Minister, but we need a disabilities Minister to focus on this part of the portfolio.

With good reason, there is little trust between the disabled community and the DWP. According to Z2K, since the introduction of PIP in 2013, 76% of claimants have ended up with a better outcome following an appeal, either via lapse or in an independent tribunal. That compares with just 28% at mandatory reconsideration, where the DWP marks its own homework.

This lack of trust in the DWP is why there is so much worry about the health and disability White Paper proposals. The abolition of the work capability assessment is welcome, but it comes with grave risks; it means that there are much higher stakes for people. Half a million people who are not well enough to work but are not receiving PIP are at risk of losing out altogether. It is imperative that the White Paper proposals are halted until PIP can be trusted to deliver reliably the correct decisions. Since 2018, more than 200,000 people have been awarded no PIP at the initial decision, only to be awarded some at the mandatory reconsideration or tribunal. In more than 70,000 of those cases, the individual subsequently received at least one higher or enhanced element. The system does not work.

This is indicative of a system that is not fit for purpose—it forces disabled people to endure gruelling assessments that have huge mental health impacts. It is about time the Government started treating those with disabilities better. I had a constituent who was diagnosed with terminal cancer and who put herself through gruelling trials. When she was reassessed for PIP, they more or less said to her, “Oh, you are still alive. You are supposed to have died.” The mental health impact on all disabled people undergoing this cannot be underestimated.

The hon. Member for—I am so sorry.

The hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) referred to the Scottish Government. This is why they started a system different from the one in Westminster—a system that is based on fairness, dignity and respect. They collect the information from doctors and others about the case of the individual who is claiming the adult disability payment. Is that not a better way of doing things? They have VoiceAbility, which helps people to fill in the forms correctly so that, more often than not, they get the right decision at the first point of contact. It really defies belief. I have said this and I keep repeating it: look at what is happening in Scotland. People who have worked for Social Security Scotland that came from the DWP say the difference in how they have to treat clients, how they have to treat people, and how the system works, is like night and day.

The Scottish Government have made a difference with interventions such as the adult disability payment, the child disability payment and the carer support payment. They ensure that both disabled people and carers get all the financial support they are entitled to, which allows them to live with dignity.

I hold quarterly poverty action network meetings. I held the last one on Friday, at which there was a representative from the Scottish social security system. They come every quarter and they are there to help local organisations who work in Motherwell and Wishaw to improve people’s lives—

Will the Minister please look at what is happening in Scotland and reform this outdated and unworkable system?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Latham. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) on securing this debate. When he was a member of the shadow Transport team, he joined me in meeting disabled people to discuss accessibility, and he continues to champion their rights in his constituency and beyond. He spoke passionately about stories of his constituents in tears. My hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones) spoke of the challenges that her constituent, Elinor, faced when finding that her benefit had been cut, before being reinstated; this causes multiple problems all the time. My hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) spoke about the consequences of an inhumane transfer from DLA to PIP and how Philippa Day sadly took her own life because of it.

I am shadow Minister for disabled people, so it is no surprise for Members to hear me say that PIP and other disability benefits are a regular feature of the conversations that I have with disabled people, and disabled people’s organisations and charities. I can assure the House that even a brief mention of the phrases “PIP assessment” and “work capability assessment” is enough to strike genuine fear into the hearts of many. Disabled people tell me they feel demonised and humiliated by having to explain their conditions over and over again.Quite simply, as many have said, they do not trust the DWP to make the right decisions.

It is not difficult to see how we got to this point. Welfare reforms brought in during the coalition years, coupled with austerity, seemed to have been based on the premise that disabled people are undeserving and out to defraud the system. These moves, coupled with the fact that disabled people have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic and the cost of living crisis, have led to a regression in disabled people’s rights over the last 14 years. That is not just my opinion. As my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon) so passionately put it, the UN agrees. I am ashamed to say that eight years ago, the UK became the first country ever to be found to have breached the UN convention on the rights of disabled people.

As has been referenced, Rosemary Kayess, the chair of the UN committee said:

“We find a pervasive framework and rhetoric that devalues disabled people and undermines their human dignity. Reforms within social welfare benefits are premised on a notion that disabled people are undeserving and skiving off and defrauding the system. This has resulted in hate speech and hostility towards disabled people.”

Put simply, the current system is flawed. It is little wonder then that we see so many desperate constituents in our advice surgeries who are afraid that the DWP will take away their income. Quite frankly, we should all be ashamed.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) asked the Minister to meet the ME community to look at how we can reform the system. I really hope that she remembers to respond to that point. I know that issues with the benefits system cannot be fixed overnight, but as my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Sir Stephen Timms) said—I have heard him say this many times—why do we not just make sure that assessments are recorded as standard? That is a simple thing that can be done straightaway.

A future Labour Government will provide a reliable safety net for people who lose their job or cannot work due to ill health or disability. Where appropriate, we will help people on their journey back into work by allowing them to try paid work without the need for reassessments if it does not work out. We will also replace the current system of work capability assessments with a system that supports people to live with dignity and security. In doing so, Labour will work with employers, trade unions and other stakeholders to support the wellbeing of workers and their long-term physical and mental health. Most importantly, a future Labour Government are committed to working with disabled people to break down the barriers they face in everyday life. We know they are the experts by experience.

I am grateful for the opportunity to close the debate, and it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Latham. I thank all hon. Members for their invaluable and insightful contributions this afternoon, and in particular the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) for bringing this timely debate to the Chamber.

Collaboration remains vital as we address the critical matters that we have discussed today, essential for supporting many in our communities. I appreciate that people are passionate, but the perception of a punitive, divisive culture, and the rhetoric used this afternoon, does not reflect an approach that I or my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) have ever taken or would ever take in our time and commitment doing this job. I want anybody watching this debate this afternoon to feel reassured that whether they come to us through a complaints procedure, or into an MPs’ surgery, or work with one of the charities in this area, they will get the support they need. We at the DWP, as much as anyone else, strive to give the most vulnerable the right support. We have the right policies and the right system in place so that we can be fair to those in need and be fair to the taxpayer, but always listen to disabled people’s voices. I have absolutely been striving to do that in the full-time role that I hold. I am not going to disagree that I have not looked at housing and youth alongside that, but many of the transitions and challenges apply to disabled people as well.

I am very happy to meet the gentleman from the ME community who the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) says needs to meet me. I am also keen to look at Monika’s case, at the case raised by the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake), and at other cases that have been raised this afternoon. I say to hon. Members, “Please share these cases with me. It’s no good you only having them in your constituency. It’s really important that we look at them and learn from them at the DWP, so we can get beyond the perception and the feeling that people have.”

I am determined to ensure that I work with disabled people and listen to them speaking about their everyday lives. I was recently in Hastings to discuss our new trauma-informed approach. I will be at the new health model office in Gosport on Thursday to make sure that compassion, empathy and understanding are at the heart of what we do.

I am grateful that the Minister has offered us all the chance to share our cases with her, but I hope she realises how many there are. Some of us have raised one or two cases today, but I have literally hundreds and hundreds of examples of things going wrong.

I am very happy to look at specific cases. Only recently, I met one of hon. Lady’s colleagues, with members of the blind community and people with a visual impairment, to discuss how we can learn directly from their experiences. My hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon made exactly that point.

I have a speech to make, but first I want to respond to some points that Members have raised. On vulnerable people and vulnerable groups who need specific support, will they please look at this morning’s Work and Pensions Committee sitting, at which the Lords Minister and I covered the topic of safeguarding? We have a vulnerable claimant champion; safeguarding concerns are rightly referred to social services.

I am happy to write to my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon on the point about end of life. The point that he made about appointees was covered this morning, in recognition of the work that we need to do to ensure that people have the suitable voice that they need and that there is progress in this area. As we speak, we are growing our visiting officers team to 700 to go out and support people in the way that my hon. Friend described, and we are making sure that we go to the people we need to hear from. On the mandatory reconsideration trial, it is too early for definitive results, but there was a very pertinent reminder for me to be dialled into it.

The Chair of the Select Committee, the right hon. Member for East Ham (Sir Stephen Timms), asked about audio recording. We have taken an opt-in approach, but I am happy to go away and look at the specific point that he raised.

The Minister talks about compassion. The medical evidence that has been presented is very clear in what it says. May I ask respectfully whether the staff looking at these matters are trained to understand the medical evidence?

We have a new chief medical adviser and 4,000 clinicians in this area, with a statutory duty and an understanding that is very much among the learnings that we have gained. I hope that that reassures the hon. Gentleman, but if there is more to say, I will write to him. Questions have been raised about how the evidence is looked at and how it works; I am asking those questions myself, individually, and am happy to continue to do so.

I am grateful to the Minister for picking up my point about default recording and for her offer to look into it. When she does so, will she bear it in mind that all the companies that provide these assessments favour default recordings?

The right hon. Gentleman makes a good point. The companies want to get it right and they are keen to do what is right. I am very happy to look at that, feed back to him my thoughts and pick that issue up in the Department under my tenure.

Of course we aim to make the right decision as early as possible. We recognise that the numbers are high. By the very nature of things, anybody who comes to an MP’s constituency surgery has invariably had a very poor experience; they would not come to us otherwise. That is why I want to take away the particular cases that have been raised today. However, those cases must be seen in the context of overall decisions—

I will give way to the hon. Gentleman shortly.

With PIP, there were three million decisions from October 2018 to September 2023; 8% were appealed, with 5% cleared at tribunal and 3% overturned. However, I appreciate that the hon. Member for Slough made the point, of which I am very mindful, that none of these statistics are just statistics; they are individual people with individual needs, and we should be very mindful of that.

I thank the Minister for giving way. Given the time, I would like an answer to one of my various questions. The Government announced extra funding in the Budget for processing disability claims. Can she clarify exactly how that will be used to reduce the huge delays?

Yes—I am keen to try to come on to that. There were many questions this afternoon and I am trying to get through as many of them as I can.

The chance to work guarantee was mentioned, which will effectively remove the work capability assessment for most claimants; they are already assessed without work-related requirements. That will remove the fear of reassessment and give the group the confidence to try work within the existing permitted work rules in employment support allowance and work allowance rules in universal credit. I am absolutely delighted about what we have done around disability employment. I am keen to do and say more around it, which should feed in again to the process of trying to allay some of the concerns that have been expressed this afternoon.

The proportion of those people in receipt of PIP with a mental health condition who are getting top rates is actually six times higher compared with DLA—PIP is at 41% and DLA is at 7%. I will just point out that customer satisfaction for PIP customers was 77%, with different scores according to different providers; again, I will go away and have a look at that. People being treated with dignity and satisfaction with how they are treated is extremely important to me. Indeed, this morning I raised the issue of disability services complaints. The number has decreased from 2,690 in 2021-22 to 2,330 in 2022-23. I am very mindful again that all of this is about individual experience.

Let me quickly try to canter through a couple of other questions before I close. The hon. Member for Slough talked about PIP clearance times. We have increased the number of case managers—health professional assessment providers—to deal with the increased demand and we have addressed the blend of phone, video and face-to-face meetings, to ensure that it is more centred on service users and is suitable. We have also empowered case managers, where they have robust evidence, to make decisions on award reviews, without referral to an assessment provider, so that decisions are quicker and we can avoid claims going out of payment. I am very much looking at that myself, and the end-to-end claim process for new claims has been reduced from 26 weeks in August 2021 to a current wait of 15 weeks. We are in a better position than we were before the pandemic. That is an achievement that I am proud of. Is there more to do? Absolutely, yes, but again I want those who are watching or listening to this debate to see that this is a big focus.

We are fully committed to delivering on the issues that matter to the British people. This is delivering for disabled people. It is an absolute mission for me in this role to make sure that the most vulnerable members of our society lead decent, fulfilling lives and I will use my time in this role to make sure that I can make the changes that everybody would wish to see.

There is not time—there is no time.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered personal independence payment and other disability benefits.

Sitting adjourned.