Disability Benefits: Assessments Debate

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Department: Department for Work and Pensions

Disability Benefits: Assessments

Gary Streeter Excerpts
Monday 4th September 2023

(7 months, 3 weeks ago)

Westminster Hall
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Wendy Chamberlain Portrait Wendy Chamberlain (North East Fife) (LD)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I thank the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for introducing the debate, the petitioners who signed the petitions and the Petitions Committee for its work.

As other Members have said, as a constituency MP I find that DWP casework, particularly regarding PIP assessments, takes up a substantial part of my caseworkers’ time and often causes extreme distress to those who come to me as their MP. It is always nice as an MP to feel good when we have had a result and managed to overturn something, but frankly we should not need to be involved in the process at all.

I thank the right hon. Member for East Ham (Sir Stephen Timms), the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, for highlighting a number of the Committee’s recent report findings. I echo the thoughts of the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden): this is a cross-party issue. There are a number of areas on which we would be likely to find agreement in order to straighten out and improve some of the systems. That would not only help some of our most vulnerable constituents but, frankly, surely save the public purse some money, given the failures and inefficiencies in our system.

It is useful to reflect on why we have a disability benefits system in the first place: because we know that those with a disability often find that their ability to work is impaired or that they are unable to work at all. Our social security system accepts that such individuals need support to compensate them for their inability to work and to meet the additional costs that their disability involves.

It is important that we remember that work capability assessments are not strictly disability benefit assessments, but they predominantly impact on disabled people when they apply for benefits and need to be considered in this debate. The Government have said that work capability assessments are unlikely to be abolished until 2026-27 at the earliest, so there are some key questions that we need answered. We need to know what will be done to improve them in the meantime—we have already heard a number of points about that. How are we avoiding over-testing? What has been done to protect claimants’ mental health? It would be great if the Government could provide clarity on the timeframe involved.

Without work capability assessments, is there a blanket requirement to look for work? It is vital that we avoid unnecessarily extending sanctions to those who are not in a position to work because of their health. All the evidence suggests that sanctions are not effective in encouraging people to work, and they also penalise people with mental health difficulties. Surely we should all want to see a scheme based on incentives.

My party wants to see a separation of the administration of benefits from employment support. Being supported to access training, education or employment ought to be separate from social security. People are not motivated to do things because there is not a sanction; they are motivated to do things because everyone wants a life that is as fulfilling as possible.

I am conscious the fact that at this point in the debate, although we still have plenty of time left, I am touching on things that have already been covered by other Members. On the application process for PIP, the forms are long, difficult and stressful, particularly for applicants with cognitive difficulties, fatigue or mental health difficulties. I firmly echo the thoughts of the right hon. Member for East Ham in relation to the time limit to complete the forms. It is certainly my experience as a constituency MP that forms sometimes take up to a week to arrive, which leaves applicants with only two weeks to apply. That is simply unrealistic.

There is an option to call the DWP and ask for an extension, but frankly it is not well known about, and having to engage again with the DWP causes unnecessary stress. Surely we could look at increasing the time given for applicants to complete the form to two months, and perhaps even longer. We also need to review the form so that we properly take account of relapsing and remitting conditions. I refer to the remarks that I made in an Adjournment debate that I secured on long covid, in which we considered how to support people with that condition.

[SIR GARY STREETER in the Chair]

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Gary. On the PIP assessment process, we all have inboxes full of correspondence from unhappy constituents. I am aware that there will potentially be happy constituents out there who have not had any issues with PIP and therefore have not got in touch with us as MPs, but for those who do get in touch I suspect that the reality of their experience is that they feel the process was degrading and designed to trip them up. The Government can say all they want that that is not what is meant to happen, but it is the experience of the vast majority of people we talk to. One of the petitions we are debating suggests abolishing assessments entirely and focusing only on the medical evidence. We have heard comments from other Members as to why that might not be the best approach, but I agree that it is hard to find a system that is worse than the current one.

Delays in getting assessments is a real issue. According to Citizens Advice, in April this year some 720,000 people were waiting either for an appointment for a new claim or for a review—that is some backlog. We must see a shift in how assessments are offered, with a choice for claimants between them being in person or on the phone. One of the benefits of the pandemic was seeing how that might be possible.

The formal part of the assessment, as Members know, involves reviewing the claimant’s functional abilities against a range of descriptors. Evidence gathered by organisations such as Scope shows overwhelmingly that the descriptors do not allow claimants to properly explain their needs and what they might have difficulty with. Let us take, for example, the question on food preparation: the ability of someone to feed themselves is not as simple as whether they can cook a meal unaided. So many aspects of that are not covered by that simple statement. Perhaps someone can prepare a meal if their pain is not too bad, but they need someone to reach for the items on the top or bottom shelves of a cupboard. Perhaps someone asks the question based on whether the claimant has had help cooking in the past day or week. The answer might be no not because they do not need help, but because they simply have not had the opportunity or support, so they have been eating food like cereal or a ready meal to compensate.

The descriptors are even more problematic for people with relapsing and remitting conditions. At the moment, a 50% rule is applied, so someone has to experience a symptom and have a resulting difficulty for half a given time period for that difficulty to count. That means that if they are in pain so severe that they cannot wash, dress or go to the shops, but only for 14 days in a month, they would not qualify for any support. The criteria also fail to take into account the impact of performing the activities being assessed. “Can you walk more than 20 metres or 50 metres?” Perhaps they can, but slowly and with difficulty, and they are then in so much pain that they cannot do anything for the rest of the day. A mere yes or no does not consider the better test of whether someone can do something safely, repeatedly, competently and in a timely manner.

Other Members have touched on this, but informal observations are a real concern. Particularly given the use of non-specialist assessors, it seems deliberately careless to ask someone to make a judgment on another’s abilities without any deep understanding of that person’s experience. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols) for highlighting MS in that regard. In any case, the mere fact that people know they are being watched makes them feel that they are being distrusted, which speaks to the point that the hon. Member for Glasgow East made. In fact, that is why we are all here today: because the people who are meant to be supported through benefits like PIP have so little trust in the system that they want it to be completely overhauled. That is why they signed the petition. We absolutely need to restore that trust, and the first thing the Government could do very simply is to review the use of informal assessments.

I agree with the right hon. Member for East Ham that all assessments must be recorded by default, with the option to opt out if the applicant wants. I do not understand why the Government have not accepted that recommendation from the Select Committee. All reports simply ought to be shared so that claimants can see how and why a decision has been made. That seems reasonable, particularly if we are then moving on to reassessments.

It is important to think about reassessments, and I hope the Minister will explain why it continues to be DWP policy to over-review claimants who have no chance of improving. If something gets worse for a claimant and they think they should be entitled to a higher level of support, they are entitled to start that review process themselves. There is absolutely no need to call people back year in, year out for a stressful process that uses up taxpayer money and just creates more and more backlogs. The backlog will soon be well above a million if we continue in that way.

Worse than that, all the stats for mandatory reconsiderations and appeals show that incorrect decisions at first assessment are commonplace. That means that when someone is called back for an unnecessary assessment, the chances are that they might have had their benefits wrongly stopped. We know that families with at least one disabled person are far more likely to be in poverty than those without—42% compared with 18%, according to the Social Market Foundation—so stopping those benefits, even for a short period, can have devastating effects.

The process halts any chance of someone improving and being able to enjoy a more active and fulfilling life that might include employment, with frequent reassessments linked to stress and further deterioration. That has been the experience of one of my constituents. She does not want to be named, but she wants me to share this with the Minister. She suffered a spinal cord injury in the early 2000s. She was initially assessed in 2016, then reassessed in 2017 and 2019. She has had multiple incorrect assessments. She finds dealing with the DWP incredibly traumatic. Despite being told by her doctor that her condition will never improve—something the DWP eventually accepted—she is still being told that she needs reassessments every two years. That will not fix her spine. All it does is risk her losing the little she receives while causing immense distress. Her needs might worsen over time, but she should be able to exercise her own autonomy about requesting a review rather than being stuck in an endless cycle. What are the Minister’s thoughts about what I can go back and say to my constituent to show that he understands and cares about her and others in that position?

In conclusion, it is clear that the assessments need to be reformed from top to bottom. None of us knows what will happen to us or our loved ones, and our social security system should be a safety net. Its purpose should be to reduce poverty and, where possible, increase employment. I hope the Minister will take on board the comments made by Members today.

Gary Streeter Portrait Sir Gary Streeter (in the Chair)
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We now turn to our Front-Bench speeches. I call Marion Fellows.

--- Later in debate ---
Gary Streeter Portrait Sir Gary Streeter (in the Chair)
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Thank you very much indeed, Minister, for that very thorough response. Now we have a few moments for Elliot Colburn to have the final say.