Disability Benefits: Assessments

David Linden Excerpts
Monday 4th September 2023

(7 months, 3 weeks ago)

Westminster Hall
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David Linden Portrait David Linden (Glasgow East) (SNP)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) who opened the debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee. Elements of his speech felt like groundhog day, because the first Westminster Hall debate that I led, in 2017, was on the issue of work capability assessments. It is worrying that six years on we are still here debating the very same issues. All Members, regardless of party, know that those issues cause undue stress and misery to people across our four nations.

The British Government’s approach to disability benefit assessments is not just ineffective—the theme that has been developed today—but inhumane. Under the current regime, the application process removes the reality of people’s lived experience as the very foundation on which the system has been defined. It favours evidence provided by the assessor rather than the claimant. The system also operates on the presumption of scepticism. It is not a system that empowers its users. Instead it perpetuates a cycle of despair and frustration. That “one size fits all” approach to disability assessment is in my view not only short-sighted, but it completely disregards the reality of living with a disability or a chronic illness. Charities such as Scope have raised concerns about the process time and again, but their calls appear to be continually ignored—at huge expense to those living with a disability.

The impact of disability assessments has, unfortunately, featured significantly in my caseload since I became MP for Glasgow East in 2017. I will be honest: I am no stranger to hearing about dehumanising experiences that my constituents have endured as a result of this system. I sit week in, week out at surgeries across the east end of Glasgow in places like Baillieston, Parkhead and Easterhouse, hearing the same harrowing and sometimes traumatic experiences that people have had to endure at the hands of the disability benefits assessment process.

In most cases, and worryingly, people’s mental and physical health are only worsened by the assessment process. That leads to many further problems for the NHS through health problems, whether physical or mental, so it is counter-productive. My hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) referred to the finding by Scope: from January to March this year, 68% of PIP appeal outcomes were changed in favour of the claimant. If such a proportion of wrong outcomes were found in any other Department, Ministers would ask serious questions. I respect the Minister, who I know takes a strong interest in this issue, but I ask him to look again at the figure of nearly 70% of appeal outcomes being overturned. That suggests that the system is fundamentally flawed.

As people continue to face the disability price tag, disabled people are also having to juggle the restricted funds available to them along with soaring food and energy prices. According to the Trussell Trust’s analysis, three quarters of people referred to its food banks reported that they or a member of their household were disabled. As disabled people are hit disproportionately by the cost of living crisis, to the tune of some £945 a month extra, it is vital that all financial support to which they are entitled is awarded. However, under the current system, that is not always the case; in many cases, it feels as if people are actively held back from the support they so desperately need.

The hon. Member for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols) highlighted the recommendations in the Work and Pensions Committee report about the use of informal observations—a point also made by the MS Society in its briefing for the debate. Far too often, PIP assessors make inaccurate decisions based on those informal observations. Watching how someone looks or behaves during their assessment or observing someone walking from their car to the assessment centre are now used as tests of mobility. That is completely wrong and such things should not be taken into account. The Work and Pensions Committee, on which I am privileged to serve with the right hon. Member for East Ham (Sir Stephen Timms), has heard that, more often than not, those informal observations are given greater weight than medical evidence.

As others have outlined, when it comes to people with conditions such as multiple sclerosis or Parkinson’s, which fluctuate day to day and have many hidden symptoms, it is completely arbitrary for informal observations to be used to inform the assessor’s decision. The assessor’s limited understanding of complex fluctuating conditions such as MS, combined with the use of informal observations as a way of gathering evidence, results in greater emphasis being placed on the evidence provided by the assessor, rather than the lived experience of the disabled claimant. It therefore strikes me that the only purpose of asking a claimant to come for an assessment is to watch them literally walk from their car to the front door of the assessment centre, which seems utterly absurd.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston made clear, when we look north of the border—this brings me to the substantive point from the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson)—we can see the difference that devolution has made to how the policy has been implemented. It seems clear, not just to SNP Members but to those who work in the disability sphere, that the Scottish Government—on a cross-party basis, in fairness—are moving away from the regressive approach and becoming more committed to a process that has been designed around the lived experience of people with a disability.

Indeed, the adult disability payment from the Scottish Government is delivering an entirely new, simplified and—I would argue—far more compassionate experience for disabled people. It is a system that has been designed with the claimant, rather than against them; that is the key point that comes back when we speak to stakeholders north of the border. Putting compassion and people at the heart of the system must be the priority for any Government, regardless of their colour, so I am proud that we have taken that approach. Indeed, I am proud that Conservative Members on the Work and Pensions Committee unanimously approved its report praising the Scottish Government’s approach.

Wendy Chamberlain Portrait Wendy Chamberlain
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I am a member of the Scottish Affairs Committee, which did an inquiry into welfare in Scotland, and I certainly agree that what came through strongly from stakeholders was the need for a compassionate approach. As always, however, the processes have to be properly administered. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that at the moment the reality is that waiting times for the ADP in Scotland are longer than those for PIP assessments? Does he, like me, have casework in which there have been incorrect decisions? The approach might be different, but we need to see better outcomes.

David Linden Portrait David Linden
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Absolutely. I totally understand the hon. Lady’s point, and I am sure she will understand that a lot of the civil servants who were working on the design of the Social Security Scotland system were rightly deployed towards the covid pandemic. Ministers in the Scottish Government have acknowledged that the situation with the ADP waiting list is less than helpful. But I come back to the fundamental point on which I challenge the hon. Member for North Swindon, which is that our systems are about taking the view that the claimant is not on the make. That is the nub of the issue. With the UK Government’s system, there is a scepticism about whether the person sitting at the other end of the table is on the make or on the take, so it is about trying to find a way to catch them out. That is why there is an overturn rate of 68%, for example.

Justin Tomlinson Portrait Justin Tomlinson
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indicated dissent.

David Linden Portrait David Linden
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The hon. Gentleman is shaking his head. I am sure he has something to say, so I am happy to give way.

Justin Tomlinson Portrait Justin Tomlinson
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There is absolutely zilcho in the assessor’s contract to try to lower the success rate of a claimant. That is part of the driver behind our spending an extra £10 billion a year—a record amount. I wish the Scottish Government the very best of luck if they can identify changes; if they do, I encourage the British Government to adopt them. My point was that we should not be different for the sake of being different. We should always put the claimant first.

David Linden Portrait David Linden
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With the greatest respect to the hon. Gentleman, he has missed the point. The reality is that this contract is being delivered by the private sector—something to which I have a moral and political objection —with a clear brief to try to find people somehow on the make or on the take. If so, why on earth are the Government giving out a contract where the overturn rate is 68%?

Justin Tomlinson Portrait Justin Tomlinson
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The only thing within a contract that changes what an assessor is paid per assessment is that where there is poor quality, there is in effect a fine on the contract. Under the DLA, the success rate for the highest rate of support was 16%. Under PIP, with the assessors, it is 32% to 33%, hence why we are spending £10 billion a year more.

David Linden Portrait David Linden
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The hon. Gentleman is saying what would happen if a contract were found somehow not to be working, but I rather suspect that the Minister will look at the fact that the overturn rate is 68%. I am not the Minister, but that would suggest to me, and to officials, that something is clearly going wrong with the assessment process.

Under the Scottish Government’s approach of abolishing the disability health assessments, person-centred consultations are held only when required. That is all in stark contrast to the frankly draconian measures that are being put in place and pursued by the British Government. I am sure that many people across the House share the view that the job of Government is to support vulnerable people, not to subject them to further hardship and scrutiny. However, there is an overall unwillingness, among both the Labour party and the Conservative party, to invest in social security. As it persists, disabled people continue to experience stress as a result of undergoing health assessments.

I can only hope that a leaf is taken out of the Scottish Government’s book for the sake of disabled people who are at the mercy of the British Government’s austerity agenda. As the Scottish Government use their devolved powers to mitigate against such draconian welfare policies, I am sure they will always ensure that the most vulnerable in our society and communities receive the support that they are entitled to while being treated with the dignity, fairness and respect that they deserve. That is the fundamental point of this debate, because that fairness, dignity and respect are not there, and that needs to change.