Disability Benefits: Assessments

Marion Fellows Excerpts
Monday 4th September 2023

(7 months, 3 weeks ago)

Westminster Hall
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Marion Fellows Portrait Marion Fellows (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I thank the Petitions Committee, its able representative the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn), and the petitioners who brought this really important debate to Westminster Hall. I have rewritten my speech about 12 times since I sat down for the debate, so I will be juggling papers, but that is because I have been listening very carefully to what my colleagues have said about their constituents’ stories and their views on what should happen to try to find a way forward.

I have already thanked the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington, and I thank the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, the right hon. Member for East Ham (Sir Stephen Timms), for all his work to challenge the Government on how the DWP conducts its business—in this case, specifically on PIP. I thank the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), an old ally or enemy of mine who I worked frequently with when he was the disabilities Minister. Although we might not agree on everything, we agree that things should be better.

My hon. Friend Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) talked about colitis and Crohn’s, along with her co-chair, the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Sarah Green). The hon. Member for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols) talked about MS and my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (David Linden)—my part boss—talked quite volubly about what the Scottish Government are doing and about the system’s failings. I find it hard to disagree with him—an unusual occasion for both of us.

The hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) talked about us as colleagues counting wins from the DWP. How appalling is it that we feel really happy to secure for our constituents something that they should have got in the first place? She also talked about WCAs and the application process and gave us a harrowing story about one of her constituents.

Green Papers, White Papers, disability action plans—the Government are always saying that things will change, but nothing much has changed since I was elected to this place in 2015. There is a trail of aspirations and only worsening conditions in some areas, where disability organisations have to take the Government to court to try to obtain justice for some of the most vulnerable members of society.

What is PIP for? I thought it was to help with the additional cost of being disabled. The horror stories that we have listened to this afternoon—and others—have often reduced me to tears of pure frustration and anger, especially during this cost of living crisis. At a time when the most vulnerable disabled people really needed help, the £150 just did not cover it.

I will very quickly refer to one constituency case. I know the constituent personally, and my whole team were absolutely appalled. She phoned me in tears to say that she had had to go for a PIP reassessment. She was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer approximately five years ago. She has two young children. She has tried every trial, every drug—everything to try to stay alive for her children. She was forced to use some of her precious time to be reassessed. One of the things that most appalled her, and me, was that an assessor actually asked her, “How long do you expect to live?” I think the Minister is aware of the case. I tried very hard to get my constituent switched to the Scottish system, but no, it comes in turns; I could not do it. She did get the PIP—she did get the money—but what she was put through in the process just defies belief.

As we have heard, the Scottish Government are firmly committed to doing things differently, whether or not we agree that they just want to do things for the sake of being different; I gently disagree with the hon. Member for North Swindon on that point. They have introduced a new, simplified, empathetic system for assessments that works for disabled people in Scotland.

The adult disability payment has been designed in partnership with the people who will receive it. The input of disabled people has been crucial to designing an improved service that is very different from the DWP’s system. The Scottish Government listened to disabled people’s experiences during the design of the new system and are doing things differently. They have abolished the type of DWP assessment that is still being undertaken with some of my constituents. Instead, and only where required, they will hold person-centred consultations between the person and a Social Security Scotland health or social care practitioner, starting from a position of trust. In other words, we think people are applying because they need it, not because they are trying to con somebody in the system.

In contrast to the DWP’s system, the Scottish Government removed the burden from individuals to provide supporting information, so the onus will instead be on Social Security Scotland to collect the information it requires. The Scottish Government have put an end to the anxiety of undignified physical and mental assessments, to private sector involvement and to the stressful cycle of unnecessary reassessments. The Scottish Government have introduced indefinite awards for people on the highest level of ADP who have needs that are highly unlikely to change. That avoids unnecessary reviews, promotes people’s dignity, is proportionate to their needs and provides the security of long-term financial support. Anyone with a terminal illness will be fast-tracked, and access to that support will not be tied to a time-limited life expectancy; the judgment of clinicians will be followed.

The Scottish Government’s priority is getting decisions right the first time, so that people are paid their benefits without having to be put through a time-consuming appeal process. Another key difference is that Social Security Scotland often collects information to support people’s applications on their behalf.

It is different. I have talked to constituents and to people who attend my Poverty Action Network, who have told me that moving from working with the DWP to working with the Scottish social security system has changed their lives. They feel so much better. There may be nothing written in stone, on paper or in guidance for people who work for the DWP, but there is a culture that has changed completely with SSS. It is not perfect; I do not stand here and claim that that is so, but I do say that the Scottish Government are trying to make it easier, better and simpler for people who need these types of payment to actually get what they need to enhance their life.

I, too, received lots of briefings, but the one that I want to quickly concentrate on is from the Royal National Institute of Blind People. It gave me a number of suggested questions for the Minister, so I am going to ask them and, in some cases, say why it wants to know, because it also gave me examples.

Will the Minister change the DWP’s practice with respect to medical evidence, so that assessments make best use of pre-existing evidence from experts such as healthcare professionals? This is particularly the case in relation to claimants who already have certificates confirming severe sight loss.

Secondly, will the Minister ensure that all benefits assessors receive sensory impairment training as part of wider disability awareness training? One theme that others have asked about is informal observations. Will the Minister take steps to ensure that informal observations are credible, discussed with the claimant and substantiated before they form part of the decision-making process? RNIB gave the example of a woman with severe sight loss who was said to have made eye contact. I know many people with sight loss, and they look in the direction of the sound. She was looking at the assessor. She was asked to produce documents, so she went into her handbag and took out documents, which the assessor took to mean that her sight loss was not quite what she appeared to be suggesting. She pulled out the papers, which were in a brightly coloured envelope, which was the only thing in her handbag, but their casual, informal observation was “It’s okay, she can go into her handbag and take things out, so she can’t possibly have that much sight loss.”

A very important question for the Minister that has not been touched on this afternoon is what changes the DWP is making to its procedures, following the High Court ruling that found the Department in breach of equality laws for failing to provide accessible information about benefits to blind and partially sighted people. I visited Deafblind Scotland a few months ago and listened to a tale from a woman who was known to require accessible information, including by the DWP, but was not getting it. Dr Yusuf Ali Osman got a judicial review on this, because he received 21 pieces of information from the DWP over a three-year period that he just could not access. He could not read it.

This is really important, and a recent example is the closure of ticket offices, whereby rail groups are putting notices in stations, which people with sight loss cannot read, to say that they are closing the ticket office and there is a consultation. I have written to the Minister on that and I know it has been changed, but the DWP really has to look at this unthinking process that assumes that everybody is the same and fits into a box. What steps will the Minister take to ensure that all benefit advisers have a stronger understanding of the reasonable adjustments available and the legal duty on the Department to make those adjustments?

I have meetings with the Minister and we agree on many things. I know he wants to improve things for disabled people, but I go back to what I said: what is PIP for? I thought it was to help people with disabilities. It should be easily proven by medical experts, and whether it is a mental health or physical issue, we should not have to put disabled people through the trauma of PIP assessments in their current form.