Disability Benefits: Assessments

Elliot Colburn Excerpts
Monday 4th September 2023

(5 months, 2 weeks ago)

Westminster Hall
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Elliot Colburn Portrait Elliot Colburn (Carshalton and Wallington) (Con)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered e-petitions 593296, 619481 and 620962 relating to assessments for disability benefits.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. Let me begin by reading out the prayers of the petitions. Petition 593296 reads:

“People with a lifelong illness should not be subject to regular reviews for eligibility for the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) or Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). People suffering lifelong conditions should not have to prove they are still ill every couple of years.”

The petition received just over 29,000 signatures, including 68 from Carshalton and Wallington.

Petition 619481 reads:

“The Government should remove the requirement for people claiming disability benefits, such as the Personal Independence Payment (PIP), to have to go through an assessment process. Claims should be based solely on evidence from medical professionals, such as a letter from a GP or consultant.”

This petition also received just over 29,000 signatures, including 46 from Carshalton and Wallington.

Finally, petition 620962 reads:

“We want the Government to conduct a full review of the PIP process. This should look at DWP policy and the performance of ATOS and Capita, which conduct the health assessments for applicants. We believe the current process is inherently unethical and biased, and needs a complete overhaul.”

This petition received around 16,500 signatures, including 18 from Carshalton and Wallington.

I thank the amazing staff of the Petitions Committee for all the engagement work they did in advance of the debate, and the petition creators for meeting me. I thank the numerous charities, campaigners and organisations that briefed the colleagues we will hear from later, particularly those that shared particularly harrowing stories. They were brave enough to come forward and share those stories so that we can share them. It was clear from my conversations with the petition creators, charities and other stakeholders that it is absolutely time for reform and change. I hope that change will go some way towards restoring trust in the PIP process, which is shown by the conversations I have had to be severely lacking. We owe it to the claimants, who see the system as confrontational and judgmental, to change.

After all, applicants should not be made to feel as if the system is against them even before they have begun to engage with it. They should not feel like an assessor is trying to catch them out, and they should definitely not feel that gaining PIP support is not worth what many describe as the emotional, mental and physical costs of the application and assessment process. I look forward to hearing from the Minister what plans the Department for Work and Pensions has to build on its existing reforms.

I want to point out a few scenarios, some given to me by the petition creators and some from my own constituency MP postbag. I am pleased to see how well attended the debate is for a petitions debate, and I am sure we will hear from colleagues what has come through in their constituency casework. My first example is of a PIP assessment in which the applicant was applying on the basis of a mobility-based disability, yet the assessor who was overlooking the case, and who ultimately decided that they should not be entitled to PIP in the first instance, was a dental hygienist. I do not think many people would accept that a dental hygienist is a suitable assessor of someone with a mobility-based impairment, even if the hygienist has undergone some basic general training. It is probably no surprise that, from the word go, the applicant felt neither confident nor assured in their PIP assessment.

I have heard about that issue not once but a number of times in my constituency casework, and many charities and organisations raised it with me in advance of today’s debate. Claimants are being assessed by medical professionals whose field of expertise is either at complete odds with or outside the medical condition being assessed. I would appreciate it if the Minister could comment on that, and explain what the Department may be able to do formally to ensure that the medical expertise of assessors at least correlates with the condition forming the basis of the PIP application.

However, the problems seem to go deeper than that. Indeed, the medical awareness of assessors, and the wider issues of what is taken into account as part of an assessment, lead to my next point: the role of those medical professionals who best know a PIP applicant’s situation, illness or disability and how it affects their day-to-day life. In most cases, that will be their GP. It became clear from conversations—and from the appeal process, which I will come to shortly—that GPs and their understanding of the claimant should play a more central role in the initial application stage for PIP applicants.

Claimants I have spoken to do not believe that their applications and assessments are as strong as they could be if GPs took more of a role in the process, giving greater input and putting their weight behind it. They argue that the current situation, where GP insight is requested only when it is thought to be needed, gives only a partial glimpse of their situation. That is especially the case given the importance of on-the-day assessments, as a number of effects of illnesses and disabilities are more acute on some days than on others.

There is also the mental health aspect. Many applicants talk about the toll of the preparation needed for an assessment, whether mental, physical or emotional, depending on the individual and their circumstances on the day. It is only exacerbated if they find that the person assessing their application does not have any expertise in their condition.

There have been many calls from those I have met for greater involvement—known involvement—of a GP or specialist who is more familiar with the claimant within the process. That will enhance their readiness to engage with the system, as well as give any conclusions greater grounding and create an environment where claimants feel listened to, believed and empowered.

Gill Furniss Portrait Gill Furniss (Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough) (Lab)
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The hon. Member has made some fantastic points. Figures show that only 11% of applicants are successful in challenging the PIP award as part of the mandatory consideration process. Applicants who take their appeal to tribunals, where a judge makes a decision, are awarded their enhancement nearly 80% of the time. Does that not say that judges are becoming the doctors? Surely that is the wrong way round.

Elliot Colburn Portrait Elliot Colburn
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I am grateful to the hon. Lady; she makes a good point. She has glimpsed a bit further into my speech, but if she is happy to bear with me I will certainly cover that point.

Without adding too much to the list of asks for the Minister, what does he think about giving a greater role to specialists who are more known to the claimant?

I want to move on to talk about the assessment process and the wider system. Often, claimants, faced with something with which they have previously had little or no contact, will talk about a sense of interrogation or mistrust between them and the assessor—I have heard those words from claimants many times. As I say, almost every conversation I have had with a constituent or one of the petition creators has been prefaced with a line about nervousness, stress or other emotions in the lead-up to the assessment, alongside any physical or mental difficulties that a claimant may have. All too often, perhaps unintentionally or unwittingly, they are left feeling like they are a case number rather than a person.

Let me bring up another example, which is also about a PIP claimant with mobility-based problems. They turned up for their assessment and the lift in the assessment centre was broken. Despite their mobility issues and fearing that if they were not able to attend there might be consequences, they attempted to climb the stairs. After a significant amount of time, they managed to arrive for their assessment, but it had caused them a great deal of pain and a lot of stress, and the fact that they were able to get up the stairs was then used against them in the report.

Charlotte Nichols Portrait Charlotte Nichols (Warrington North) (Lab)
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I concur with the point that the hon. Member made about the sense of interrogation that many of our constituents feel when going through a process that can be very degrading. In the case of one of my constituents the assessor dropped a pen, and when my constituent bent down, picked it up and handed it to the assessor, that was used against them in their assessment. Such stories are not uncommon. We need urgent and radical reform to make sure that people are not treated like criminals for trying to seek help with their living costs.

Elliot Colburn Portrait Elliot Colburn
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I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that intervention. Her point about her constituent is well made and chimes with what we have heard from the creators of the petitions.

To return to my example, the lift was broken and the PIP claimant had no option but to attempt the stairs. That case is echoed elsewhere, as the hon. Member for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols) has just described. The strongest arguments made by the petition creators, whom I met before today’s debate, were about how the assessments are conducted, the time taken to conduct them, where they are conducted and who they are conducted by. In a report on the PIP assessment process, Mind, the mental health charity, found that people felt the process tries to catch them out. I am sure the Minister will agree that if that is the perception, that needs to change; we need to listen to the claimants to figure out why that is.

We have seen some alternatives offered, which I am sure we will hear more about from colleagues from Scotland. I will not steal anything from their speeches, so I will move on.

Hannah Bardell Portrait Hannah Bardell (Livingston) (SNP)
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I am delighted that the hon. Member is willing to give way. I will be making a substantive speech, but on the point about Scotland and the system that we have built, it is based on fairness, dignity and respect for claimants. I spoke to a sufferer of Crohn’s disease earlier today. She told me that her experience of trying to get PIP, very like what he has described, was traumatic and the person she spoke to had no understanding. Conversely, when she engaged with the Scottish system, the person came out and spent time with her in her home to see how she was living her life. Perhaps that is something that the UK system should do more of.

Elliot Colburn Portrait Elliot Colburn
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I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that intervention. I received a lot of information from my colleague and former Minister in this space, my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson); I am sure he will have more to say when he gets up to speak, but I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising the issue.

I know that the DWP has been looking into the issue for some time, so I would appreciate an update from the Minister on where the Department is. For many, the PIP assessment is not the end. It is just the start of a very long process—unless they give up completely after finding it so difficult.

My last point is about appeal tribunals. My hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon, a former Minister in this space, might be able to correct me on these statistics, but from October to December 2022, 69% of PIP applications that went to tribunal were overturned in favour of the applicant. In 59% of the appeals won by the claimant, the tribunal had reached its conclusions based solely on evidence already provided to the DWP and not on anything new. The numbers are concerning and chime with the concerns that many of us have. I know that the Government are looking at the sheer volume of education, health and care plan assessments that are overturned at tribunal; I hope that the Minister can shed some light on why the Department thinks that this is the case for appeals, what is fuelling their sheer scale and how the matter is being looked into.

As I am sure we will hear from plenty of colleagues who recount their constituents’ stories, reassessments and appeals can be incredibly draining and stressful experiences, especially if a person’s initial contact and assessment was less than satisfactory. Such apprehension leaves many feeling that there is no point in making any further appeals or requesting reconsiderations, so we simply do not know the true number of people affected. I see in his place the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, the right hon. Member for East Ham (Sir Stephen Timms), and I am sure we will hear from him later. That Committee’s “Health assessments for benefits” report, published earlier this year, noted that some claimants

“live in fear of reassessments, particularly where they previously had to go through the appeal process.”

I look forward to hearing from the Minister what steps the Department is taking to try to tackle the issue. If we can have a comprehensive and efficient system that has the trust of claimants, I am sure we can turn the situation around.

--- Later in debate ---
Elliot Colburn Portrait Elliot Colburn
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It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair at the end of this debate, Sir Gary. I also thank the Minister for his extensive response to today’s debate. I thank the petition creators and the Petitions Committee for all their excellent work in putting this debate on today, and I thank colleagues for turning up to support this petitions debate. It is always important to demonstrate the effectiveness of the petitions system in bringing MPs to this House to discuss the matters that our constituents care about the most, so it is great to see a busy Chamber for this debate.

There is a lot to chew over and a lot to think about. It is clear that a lot of live discussions are going on, so I am sure that we will be back talking about these issues. The Minister had a grilling earlier as well, so I am sure that this is only the beginning of many conversations. I hope that the lived experiences of our constituents have been heard loud and clear, and I thank those who were willing to share their stories with us so that we could bring them to Parliament today.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered e-petitions 593296, 619481 and 620962 relating to assessments for disability benefits.