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Disabled People: Government Support

Volume 615: debated on Monday 17 October 2016

On the day that the country is celebrating our Paralympic athletes, I am sure the whole House will want to join me in thanking them for a summer of thrilling and inspirational sport.

It is right that we continually review the way support is offered to and accessed by disabled people. That is why I was pleased to announce an end to stressful and bureaucratic employment and support allowance reassessments for people with the most severe lifetime conditions. We are also transforming the way disabled people access support through our new digital Access to Work platform and providing help to budding disabled entrepreneurs to set up their own business.

I am holding a round-table event on 31 October for those with disabilities, parents and employers, to try to remove the barriers to employment. Does the Secretary of State agree that for some the barriers are simply too high? Will he welcome the positive response from Disability Rights UK to his recent announcement that those with long-term and severe disabilities will not have to undergo regular repeat assessments of their condition?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the round table. He is right that there are too many barriers to work for disabled people, and this Government are determined to do everything possible to break down those barriers. Like him, I was pleased that a number of disability groups welcomed the announcement that I made on 1 October. I was particularly pleased to see the chief executive of the MS Society, Michelle Mitchell, say that it was a victory for common sense. She went on to say:

“We are therefore delighted that the Government has listened to our concerns and have agreed to stop reassessments”.

I am pleased that the sector was so pleased with the announcement.

I, too, welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement. Which conditions will the exemption cover, and when does he expect the change to be introduced?

It is not so much the conditions as the individuals. We apply the exemption on an individual basis, as there are clearly conditions where at some stages people will be able to work and at other stages they will not be able to work, so the exemption covers conditions that can only deteriorate as well as conditions that may stay the same. On timing, we will be consulting on a wide range of measures in the work and health Green Paper, which my predecessor promised would be with us by the end of the year, and I am happy to repeat that promise today.

I, too, welcome the announcement that people with severe lifelong conditions will no longer face repeated work capability assessments. My right hon. Friend has clearly recognised how stressful people find these assessments. Although mental health conditions can follow an unpredictable path, will he consider taking steps to reduce the stress and trauma experienced by people with long-term mental health conditions undergoing work capability assessments?

I am happy to try to reassure my hon. Friend about that because she is right. One of the things that has improved in the diagnosis field has been the number of people who have been correctly diagnosed with mental health conditions in recent years, and clearly this is a group who in some cases have particular difficulties in getting back to work. The stress and strain of constant reassessment may well contribute to that, so we are always looking at ways of improving the assessment that we do to make sure that they achieve what they are meant to achieve and do not just act as an increaser of strain on people.

Constituents who have been refused employment and support allowance tell me that they are experiencing barriers being put in their way when they apply for mandatory reconsideration of the decision. They tell me that they are being told to put the application in writing and to give reasons in advance, and then if the request is rejected they are not given reasons for the refusal. Will the Secretary of State take a look at this situation because it does seem that there is a deliberate attempt on the part of at least some officials to thwart people in having their cases reconsidered?

I am not at all aware of officials actively acting to thwart mandatory reconsideration. As the hon. Lady will know, the Social Security Advisory Committee supported the mandatory reconsideration, but there are a number of recommendations on the table that we are looking at and that will improve the process. With all these processes, there is a need for continuous improvement, and that is what we will seek to do.

My right hon. Friend’s announcement will be particularly welcome to a constituent of mine who is a long-term mental illness sufferer. He has been sectioned four times and is still required to have the work capability assessment. I very much hope that the process to which my right hon. Friend referred will be a quick one and that people such as my constituent will soon be able to benefit from this announcement.

Yes, I quite take the point my hon. Friend has made—certainly as he describes the constituency case he has taken up. Someone like that should not be reassessed while we are establishing the details of the appropriate guidance so that the new system can be put into effect.

I am glad the Government have said they are going to end the needless and distressing practice of reassessing work capability people with lifelong, progressive and incurable conditions. I hope the Secretary of State now accepts that his predecessors got this very badly wrong over recent years. Will he now take steps to overhaul the work capability assessment to ensure that all ESA claimants, including those with invisible and fluctuating conditions, are treated with dignity and respect?

I am grateful for the support for my announcement from those Benches, even though I sense it came through slightly gritted teeth. As I have said to previous questioners, we are constantly looking at ways of improving the work capability assessment, and of course that work will carry on.

I thought I was being quite restrained.

The other thing the Government have got badly wrong in recent times is the decision to cut financial support to ESA claimants in the work-related activity group—people assessed as currently unfit for work. At the time, that decision caused huge disquiet on both sides of the House, and deep anger and concern outside it. With those changes due to come into effect shortly, will the Secretary of State make representations to the Chancellor ahead of the autumn statement to reinstate that support, which sick and disabled people need so badly?

As I am sure the hon. Lady knows, no one who is already claiming ESA in that group will see a cash loss. What we are seeking to do is to make it as easy as possible for as many people as possible to get into work, because doing a job is, for most people, the best route out of poverty. The various changes announced by my predecessors were all aiming at that end, which is the best one for the vast majority of people receiving these benefits.

The Government’s climbdown regarding their discredited work capability assessment is welcome, but given that 60% of people who appeal against their WCA decision are successful, that academics estimate that between 2010 and 2013 an additional 590 suicides were associated with WCA and that the Government’s data show that the people who have been found fit for work are four times more likely to die than the general population, why will the Work and Pensions Secretary not scrap the WCA process immediately and completely?

Because the work capability assessment, which was, of course, introduced by a Labour Government, has been reviewed five times since 2010, and each time we have improved it. I am glad that the hon. Lady has welcomed the recent improvements that we have introduced. [Interruption.] I would be grateful if she waited for her next question before she asks it. One thing I would particularly take issue with her over is her implied link between suicides and the work capability assessment. I do think that that is an unhelpful use of what is always clearly a deeply tragic situation for political ends. I think she will have known that there is no direct evidence to support that, and I do not think it is a very constructive way to seek to improve the work capability assessment.

Just as a point of fact, these are academic estimates, and the Government’s data show that people have died.

Unlike with the work capability assessment, the Government plan continually to assess all disabled people for the personal independence payment, regardless of their disability or condition, regardless of the fact that 59% of PIP appeals are successful and regardless of the wholly inappropriate process. After the outcry over proposed cuts to PIP in the Budget, and having had to abandon proposals to restrict access to PIP by changing eligibility to the daily living component, the Government are looking for alternative ways to make cuts to PIP—this time by changing the guidance and making it harder for disabled people successfully to appeal PIP decisions. Are the Government not ashamed that they are putting disabled people in such dire circumstances?

I am not at all ashamed of the introduction of PIP or the fact that many more people are eligible to receive PIP than were eligible to receive disability living allowance. It is a better benefit, and most of the disability support groups recognise that it is a better benefit, so I simply do not recognise the hon. Lady’s characterisation of PIP.