Elliot Colburn (Carshalton and Wallington) (Con)
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.