Disability Benefits: Assessments

Debbie Abrahams Excerpts
Monday 4th September 2023

(7 months, 3 weeks ago)

Westminster Hall
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts

Westminster Hall is an alternative Chamber for MPs to hold debates, named after the adjoining Westminster Hall.

Each debate is chaired by an MP from the Panel of Chairs, rather than the Speaker or Deputy Speaker. A Government Minister will give the final speech, and no votes may be called on the debate topic.

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

Stephen Timms Portrait Sir Stephen Timms
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The hon. Member is right: these are often difficult judgments, but I would like to know what discussions the Minister has had with Ministers in Scotland about how things have worked in practice there. I would also like to know what progress the Department has made on plans for 16 to 18-year-olds in work in the severe disability group. I take the point that there are often quite fine judgments to be made, but the unanimous view of the Work and Pensions Committee was that it would be right to move to a system where applicants were not required to move on to PIP until the age of 18.

The Minister will know of concerns that were raised over the summer about pre-application screening questions in the new online PIP application form, which is being developed at the moment, and of the fears being expressed that people will be wrongly put off claiming by those questions, which have not been a feature of the application process before. In winding up, will he say something about those concerns and update us on progress with the online claims system for PIP, which, in principle, is something I very much welcome.

At the moment, claimants have 20 days to return ESA and universal credit forms and a month for PIP forms, and of course they have to send all the supporting evidence in at the same time. Each of those forms runs to tens of pages. The Association of Disabled Professionals told us that this deadline is very difficult to comply with. The deadline starts from the date on the letter, not the date the letter was received. The Association said:

“it is extremely rare for a letter to reach the claimant within five to seven working days of the letter being sent.”

In the pandemic, claimants had three months in which to return the forms. I think there were considerable advantages to that. Mind told us that extending the deadline could

“reduce the need for Mandatory Reconsiderations or Appeals”

by ensuring that the right decision was made first time around. So we recommended a compromise whereby claimants would have two months in which to return forms. Unfortunately, in its response, the Department said no. However, I wonder whether the Minister recognises that the time to return forms is being reduced by delays in getting those forms out to people. We have been hearing that, typically, at least a week—seven of the 20 days—is disappearing before the claimant receives the request.

As we have heard, one of the e-petitions is about considering disability benefit claims on medical advice alone. I am sure the Minister will point out—he will be right to do so—that, as the Work and Pensions Committee heard, GPs and other medical professionals may not know exactly what is needed for a functional assessment. We certainly heard repeatedly that the British Medical Association is absolutely clear that doctors do not want to take on this additional job.

However, the Committee wanted better use of another kind of evidence, which is evidence from family and carers. We heard that the way in which their input is received “is incredibly patchy”, as is whether their input is welcomed or not. The PIP guidance for assessors is explicit that evidence from carers and family should be considered but, anecdotally, it appears quite often that it is not. So we called on the Government to review the guidance, and I am pleased to say that, on this occasion, the Government did respond positively to our recommendation. Will the Minister update us on progress with that review and say when it will be completed?

Debbie Abrahams Portrait Debbie Abrahams (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab)
- Hansard - -

Is my right hon. Friend as concerned as I am about the safeguarding of our most vulnerable claimants when they apply for PIP or have a work capability assessment and about their inability in some cases to complete that process? As a consequence, we are seeing an increasing number of prevention of future death reports from coroners that are directly related to work capability assessment or the PIP assessment process?

Stephen Timms Portrait Sir Stephen Timms
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and she has done a great deal of extremely valuable and important work on this subject, both on our Select Committee and in the Chamber. I do share her concerns and, as she knows, because it was substantially at her instigation, we are undertaking an inquiry specifically on the safeguarding of vulnerable claimants to look at these issues. I do share her concerns, and they are reflected in our report. The point about the time people have to send the forms back is important for people who are struggling, for the kind of reasons she sets out, to complete the forms within the very tight deadline that is set at the moment.

Shortly before we published our report, the Department published its long-awaited health and disability White Paper. The Minister knows, because he has kindly given me the opportunity to tell him about it, of my concern that people may miss out on support under the new system because they will not meet the eligibility criteria, although they do under the current system. Quite how that will be resolved is not yet clear, but can the Minister provide reassurance today that claimants and groups representing them will be involved in developing the new system?

There is much more I could say based on our report, but it is absolutely clear—it is already clear from this debate—that these assessments are not working well. We need significant changes to make them work better in the future, and I hope that, before too long, more of the recommendations in our report will be accepted than have been as yet.