To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking in response to the First Tier Tribunal overturning 70 per cent of the decisions of the Department for Work and Pensions in respect of Personal Independence Payments assessments between April and June.
My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and declare that I receive a disability benefit.
My Lords, in the majority of PIP cases, there is no appeal. From April 2013 to March 2021, 4.4 million initial decisions following a PIP assessment were made. By June 2021, 9% have been appealed and only 5% overturned at appeal. We have recently made improvements to our decision-making processes to ensure that more disabled people and people with health conditions get the support they are entitled to as quickly as possible.
My Lords, I thank the Minister and welcome that reply—as far as it went. However, is it not high time that assessments right now are improved, which would make most of these PIP appeals unnecessary? If assessors need reports from GPs or other healthcare professionals, they should ask for them at the mandatory reconsideration stage. Does the Minister also agree that there is no point in reassessing those with a progressive condition?
I agree with the noble Baroness’s second point, and that is what we are doing. If a person has long-term health needs, they are not being reassessed as they were. We are changing the way we do things. Since 2019, we have had a holistic approach to decision-making, particularly in the mandatory reconsideration stage after the first assessment. That gives time for people to talk to the claimant and get further evidence to support their claim. This means that fewer people are now going to appeal.
My Lords, I welcome the improvements my noble friend has referred to in getting the decision right first time. However, she will be aware that there have been delays in the hearing of appeals, which have of course been aggravated by the pandemic. What steps is my noble friend’s department taking to ensure that the appeal time is brought forward in view of the stress that delays can cause to some applicants?
My Lords, the timings for appeal are difficult, because everybody wants time to get evidence in, allow assessors to talk to people and build a case. We are doing everything we can to make sure that we are making the right decisions, and in a timely manner.
My Lords, personal independence payments provide essential support for those who cannot meet their most basic needs. For every case where the department has been overruled by the tribunal, there is a desperate story of the person in need not receiving the support Parliament judged necessary. That this happens in so many cases speaks of a system that seeks to avoid providing support wherever possible, not one intent on ensuring it reaches those for whom it is meant. Can the Minister assure us that every effort will be made to make such tribunal decisions the exception rather than the rule?
As I have said, we are doing everything we possibly can, first, by having mandatory reconsiderations in-house with a separate team, but also by providing holistic decision-making support so that we can make sure we are working with people and that as few as possible cases go to tribunal.
Why, according to the latest official statistics, were there 36,000 social security and child support cases outstanding at the end of June this year and why did it take, as has already been mentioned, a mean average of 39 weeks—a figure that is going up—to dispose of them at tribunal? Does the Minister understand that the removal of legal aid for welfare benefits advice has led to fewer cases being sorted out and resolved well before they reach tribunal? Will she advise her colleagues at the Ministry of Justice to do something immediately to restore some modest legal aid in this area?
My Lords, legal aid was not available for representation before the First-tier Tribunal ahead of its reform, anyway; it was only available for advice and preparation. Tribunal proceedings are designed to be straightforward and accessible to all. They are inquisitory, not adversarial and the tribunal panel is trained and experienced in dealing with a wide range of applicants with individual needs. The DWP is supporting people—there is no need for legal aid in these tribunals.
My Lords, more generally, what are the Government doing to help disabled people coming out of the pandemic, and what steps are they taking to operationalise every element of the national disability strategy?
I thank my noble friend for that question. The national disability strategy, which was launched this year, is exactly intended to help the disabled, and the Government want to support completely everything that is in it. At the moment, it is a bit early for operational outcomes, but we are working across government to make sure that disability is well understood by all departments, which is important. The needs and experiences of disabled people are central to policy-making and always taken into account by frontline staff.
My Lords, to return to the Question, before you are allowed to appeal, you have to undergo mandatory reconsideration by DWP. That takes two months, so the cases we are talking about were turned down by DWP, reviewed, turned down again by DWP and then went to tribunal, which upheld 70% of them. That is a long process, which is emotionally and financially stressful for sick and disabled claimants. In fact, more than 1,000 died while the process was still under way. Does the department accept that this process is still not working as it should?
The department accepts that there is more that it can do; there is always more it can do. The disability Green Paper means that we will talk to people—we have already gone out to consultation—particularly claimants and disabled people, and find out what more we can do. But the situation is not getting worse, it is getting better.
My Lords, many people with mental health problems have a particular difficulty in negotiating the system and getting the benefits they need. Can my noble friend tell me what help the Government are giving this group of people?
I thank my noble friend for that question. The consultation period for the health and disability Green Paper, to which I referred, has now run out and we are looking at the results. Through that, the department conducted extensive stakeholder engagement and talked to people with mental health problems and their carers about how we could do more to help them when they were being assessed, particularly for PIP. Interestingly, people with mental health problems are the largest group of people who now receive PIP.
Does the Minister not find it embarrassing, treating some of the most disadvantaged people in society in such a penny-pinching, niggling way when consultants are paid over £1,000 a day for work on a test and trace scheme which is not even working?
No, my Lords, those are two separate things. What we should be doing is looking after disabled people in the best way we can. We are looking after more disabled people and getting more disabled people into work, which is where they would like to be, supported by the Government. We are doing the best we can, but we will never be complacent and will continue to do more.
My Lords, what steps are the Government taking to ensure that terminally ill people get the support they so much need?
My Lords, under the special rules for terminal illness, people nearing the end of their lives—as I would rather call them—have their claims fast tracked. The average time from registration to decision for a claimant under this new scheme is three working days. I am sure noble Lords will think that is reasonable for this group of people.