People with Learning Disabilities: Employment

Tom Pursglove Excerpts
Monday 4th December 2023

(4 months, 3 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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Tom Pursglove Portrait The Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work (Tom Pursglove)
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I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson) for securing this important debate and for speaking with such great passion. He very much shares my determination to do better in this area to help and support more disabled people into work and unlock all that potential that we know exists.

In 2017, the Government set the goal of seeing a million more disabled people in employment between 2017 and 2027. I am proud to say that, by the first quarter of 2022, the number of disabled people in employment had increased by 1.3 million, which means that the goal was met after only five years. By the first quarter of 2023, disability employment had risen by 1.6 million in total since the goal was announced, but we are aware that this progress has not been even. Those early successes must be a catalyst for further change. We know that most learning-disabled people want to have a job, and evidence shows that they bring many positive benefits to their employers. That is something I hear time and again, as I go round the country meeting employers and meeting disabled people experiencing the benefits of work.

But we also know that less than three in 10 working-age people with severe and specific learning disabilities are currently in employment. That means that more than seven in 10 of this group are still unable to access the independence and sense of fulfilment that employment can bring, and that many employers are not benefiting from the enthusiasm, skills and commitment that they can bring to their workplaces. We are therefore working hard in Government, as an enabler and with others, to support learning- disabled people to secure, sustain and succeed in employment.

We are continuing to improve the general support available to learning-disabled claimants when they attend the jobcentre. Additional work coach support provides disabled people and those with health conditions with increased one-to-one personalised support from their work coach to help them move towards and into work. That support is already available in two thirds of jobcentres in England, Scotland, and Wales. It will be available nationally in 2024. We have strengthened our disability employment adviser role, delivering direct support to claimants who require additional work-related support and supporting all work coaches to deliver tailored, personalised support to claimants with a disability or health condition, including those with a learning disability.

As well as this general support, we are providing a range of special programmes that can help learning-disabled people to access employment. They will have priority access to the work and health programme in England and Wales. Intensive personalised employment support provision has also been available in England and Wales, providing highly personalised packages of specialist employment support for disabled people and people with health conditions to achieve sustained employment.

The local supported employment programme helps people with learning difficulties and/or autism to find and retain work through intensive one-to-one support and an evidence-based approach to supported employment. Local supported employment aims to develop a sustainable model by giving intensive one-to-one support to those faced with significant barriers to work. We have funded 23 lead local authorities to deliver local supported employment in 28 local authority areas in England and Wales from November 2022 until March 2025. Over that period, LSE will help about 12,000 people to move into and stay in work. An average of 90 participants in each of the 28 local authority areas are set to benefit from £7.4 million in grant funding and support which will include the assignment of job coaches who can carry out vocational profiling, engage employers and provide in-work support to enable this group to enter and maintain employment in the open labour market.

The spring Budget confirmed funding for a new employment programme called universal support, which will use the proven supported employment model to help inactive disabled people, people with health conditions and those facing additional barriers to employment into sustained work—doing more of what we know succeeds in securing meaningful outcomes for people. One of the aspects of the coverage of this issue that frustrates me the most is the failure to recognise that it is as important to focus on retention as it is to focus on job starts, and that both must be seen in tandem. That is precisely what universal support will help us to do. Eligible learning-disabled people will be able to opt into receiving up to 12 months of “place and train” support helping them to move quickly into suitable work, followed by wraparound support to help them to sustain that employment in the longer term. I am pleased to confirm that following the announcement in the latest autumn statement, we are expanding the universal support scheme to enable it to provide support for 100,000 people a year once it has been fully rolled out, an increase on the 50,000 places a year announced in the spring Budget.

We know that many learning-disabled people will require workplace adjustments to secure and retain employment, and the Access to Work scheme can undoubtedly help with the extra costs of working, beyond those involved in standard workplace adjustments. Access to Work contributes to the disability-related extra costs of working faced by disabled people and those with a health condition in the workplace that are beyond the costs of standard reasonable adjustments, and includes the provision of support workers, specialist aids and equipment, and help with travel to and from work. As part of the scheme, we are testing an “adjustments passport” in a variety of settings to establish whether it can reduce the need for assessments when the requirements remain the same and need to be “passported” around to help a person enter into a role and then make progress within it, as well as making conversations with employers easier.

We recently launched an Access to Work adjustments planner, which will be rolled out to all universities and higher education colleges. The planner collects key information about a student’s adjustment needs which can be easily shared with prospective employers. Trial results show that disabled students using the planner are more confident about entering employment. We are also testing Access to Work Plus, a new employer offer that can offer additional support to employers who are willing to think differently about their vacancies and consider whether they can adapt, shape or flex a job to enable a disabled person to retain, return to or move into employment. That is relevant to my hon. Friend’s point about the key support that needs to be available to aid people’s transition into work, and available at various points in their lives when they want to enter the workplace or increase their educational opportunities, and to maximise those life chances.

During their transition to employment, learning-disabled young people can benefit from supported internships, which are aimed at those with a learning disability or autism who have an education, health and care plan. Supported Internships usually last for 12 months, contributing to the long-term career goals of young people and matching their capabilities. Alongside their time with an employer, supported interns receive support from a specialist job coach and complete a personalised study programme delivered by the school or college, which includes the chance to study for relevant qualifications, if appropriate, and to receive English and maths tuition at an appropriate level. While the Department for Education leads on this in England, the Department for Work and Pensions provides support for Access to Work where needed and I would be happy to ask colleagues in the Department for Education to provide further details to my hon. Friend about the opportunities that supported internships can provide.

Separately, the autism employment review, led by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland), has been receiving evidence this year about the barriers preventing autistic people from starting, staying and succeeding in employment and how those barriers can be overcome. Although the review focuses specifically on autistic people, many of the adjustments and initiatives that will benefit them will also benefit a wider group of people including learning-disabled people and people with other disabilities. I am hugely grateful to him for all his efforts.

Robert Buckland Portrait Sir Robert Buckland
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I am grateful to the Minister and the departmental officials who are here for their close work on the independent review. I am glad that he has made the point that, although we focus on autism, the wider point about neurodiversity must not escape us. As the evidence has emerged, the concept of a more universal approach to the way in which employers interview people generally seems to be the real answer, when dealing not just with people who are diagnosed but with those who perhaps do not even realise they might have a condition or issue that has not been diagnosed or acknowledged.

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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My right hon. and learned Friend raises an important point and I look forward to receiving the final recommendations from the review, which will help to inform the forward decisions that we take as a Department. I would be keen to pick up with him on that specific point separately from this evening. I also want to thank every Disability Confident employer out there for the enormous contribution that they make and for their commitment to supporting the important goals that we have been debating this evening.

I am aware that my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield has a particular and very praiseworthy interest in helping people with Down’s syndrome to succeed in work and in life. He referred to Jossie, an inspirational young lady with Down’s syndrome in his constituency. He also referred to the great work being done by the Rumbles charity in his constituency, and it was an honour for me to visit Rumbles with him earlier in the year to see its magnificent work for myself and to meet Gina and Tamar and the energetic team at Rumbles who bring so much to that community and help to provide so much opportunity. I wish them every success in their work.

I am keen to help this group and I have been speaking to the Down’s Syndrome Association about its WorkFit programme. On Wednesday, I will visit its site to visit two of its WorkFit candidates who will share with me their experiences of the workplace and how they were supported to find and maintain their jobs. As my hon. Friend points out, the key to the success of the WorkFit programme is a bespoke person-centred approach for each candidate and bespoke advice, resources and training for each employer taking part.

As we develop and roll out our new programmes, we will be keeping this need for a personalised approach very much in mind, because—touching on the points made by the hon. Members for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—that provision is so helpful to people in beginning to provide those early opportunities, precisely as Rumbles does and as the Step and Stone Bakery in Bristol does, which I have also had the privilege of visiting. I met the inspirational women who run it, Jane Kippax and Jane Chong. I also visited Tapestry by Props Brewery in Bristol, run by the enthusiastic chief executive officer of that organisation, Colin Fletcher, and his team. And only last week, I visited the Fair Shot Café in Covent Garden, run by its founder and CEO, Bianca Tavella. These are amazing organisations providing early opportunities for people to develop their skills, and that is a model I want to look at to see what more we can do to help to support them. All those organisations and many others across the country can be enormously proud of the contribution they make to supporting employment opportunities.

My message to the Ashfield Independents who run the local authority in my hon. Friend’s area would be that they ought to look at this issue in the round. The support that services such as these can provide is an invaluable resource, not just for improving the life chances and opportunities of the individuals who work in those cafés but for doing right by the taxpayer and helping to minimise costs elsewhere in the round. I hope that they will find a common-sense solution to support that brilliant provision for the years to come. I just could not be clearer: these opportunities are life-changing. Work has such a positive benefit for people in so many respects, and those opportunities should be extended to all who wish to have them. That is our clear mission as a Government and I am grateful to Members across the House for their support in that endeavour.

Question put and agreed to.

Health and Disability White Paper

Tom Pursglove Excerpts
Monday 20th November 2023

(5 months ago)

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Tom Pursglove Portrait The Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work (Tom Pursglove)
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I would like to update the House on the progress of a number of tests and trials set out in “Transforming Support: The Health and Disability White Paper”, which was published in March this year.

Our ambitious White Paper plans are part of our next generation of welfare reforms and will transform the health and disability benefits system. This includes supporting more disabled people and people with health conditions to start, stay and succeed in work, and making improvements to the benefits system so that people have a better overall experience when applying for, and receiving, health and disability benefits.

Among the White Paper initiatives under way, six test new and innovative ways to deliver our goals, responding to views we heard through the Green Paper consultation.

First, the employment and health discussion is a voluntary service available to claimants with a disability and/or long-term health condition, and is a discussion with a claimant about their health situation, any barriers it presents in moving towards work, and how to overcome them. The EHD is not part of the assessment process and takes place before the work capability assessment. It began as a small-scale test in Leeds health model office in 2022, with employment and health practitioners seconded to the Department for Work and Pensions from Maximus, which operates the Centre for Health and Disability Assessments.

I am pleased to update the House that from October this year, after a positive initial evaluation, we have expanded the test to 13 sites across England and Wales. With the support of Maximus, we have further grown our team of employment and health practitioners.

Secondly, the White Paper also set out our plans to test a severe disability group for claimants who have conditions that are severely disabling, lifelong, and with no realistic prospect of recovery. The SDG will provide these claimants with a simpler gateway to access benefits, identifying them at the start of the assessment process and removing the need to complete a detailed form or undertake a face-to-face, telephone or video assessment.

Our testing plans are progressing, following positive engagement with Blackpool Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. We will test the SDG and its criteria in several specialist clinical areas in secondary care at Blackpool Teaching Hospitals. The British Society of Physical and Rehabilitation Medicine has also agreed to work in partnership to test the SDG. We expect to start generating referrals in the coming months.

Thirdly, we have started a small-scale test, matching personal independence payment, universal credit and employment and support allowance claimants’ primary health conditions to an existing assessor with professional experience of supporting people with that condition. This is taking place in health transformation area sites in London and Birmingham.

We want to understand whether claimants view this different approach positively and if it improves their trust in the assessment process. This test is scheduled to run until January 2024, at which point we will review our learning from the test and consider possible next steps.

Fourthly, the enhanced support service provides bespoke personalised support for people who find it hardest to use the benefits system. It provides practical support to these claimants—for example, by helping them to fill in forms, submit medical evidence and attend health assessments—as well as signposting to appropriate wider support. Testing is ongoing in East Anglia, Kent, Blackpool and Birmingham.

Through our fifth test, we are exploring options to introduce a new way of gathering evidence of fluctuation in a person’s condition before their assessment.

Some stakeholders have advised that current assessments do not always fully capture the impact of fluctuating conditions and that it can be difficult for some people with fluctuating conditions to answer questions about how their condition impacts them for the majority of the time.

We are in the early stages of testing a health impact record as a structured way to present evidence that demonstrates the changing impact of applicants’ health conditions.

Finally, the health assessment channels trial is nearing completion. Following the introduction of phone and video assessments, we have been analysing whether there is a difference in award outcomes for assessments completed remotely, compared to face to face. We have also been conducting research to gain an understanding of claimant experience by different channels.

Evaluation is taking place across all tests and trials to develop our evidence base, inform wider implementation, assess value for money and determine next steps.

We will continue to discuss progress with the devolved Administrations.

We are also committed to continue listening to and working with disabled people and people with health conditions, organisations, charities, business and other experts, as we develop our plans and continue the tests and trials I have set out today.

We have made good progress since the publication of the White Paper. These improvements will ensure that disabled people, and people with health conditions, can access the right support at the right time, and lead independent and fulfilling lives.

[HCWS44]

Oral Answers to Questions

Tom Pursglove Excerpts
Monday 13th November 2023

(5 months, 1 week ago)

Commons Chamber
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Alistair Carmichael Portrait Mr Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD)
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5. If he will undertake a review of the Personal Independence Payment assessment process for people with multiple sclerosis.

Tom Pursglove Portrait The Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work (Tom Pursglove)
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The Department closely monitors all aspects of the assessment process, including how we assess fluctuating health conditions such as multiple sclerosis. Following the publication of the recent White Paper, we are looking at ways to further enhance the delivery of personal independence payments to all disabled people.

Alistair Carmichael Portrait Mr Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD)
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Orkney has the highest prevalence of multiple sclerosis anywhere in the world, so we have seen the problems caused by PIP assessments that do not cope properly with fluctuating conditions. We now have the adult disability payment in Scotland, but that still uses some of the same eligibility criteria. As the Minister carries out the review, will he speak to Scottish Ministers to make sure that we have a system that works for every MS sufferer, wherever they are in the United Kingdom?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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It is fair to say that I have a collaborative and strong working relationship with Ministers in the Scottish Government, and I would definitely be keen to talk them about the tests and trials that we are introducing, which I hope will help to better capture fluctuating conditions and help people to provide all of the right evidence as early as possible in the claim journey, so that we get people’s awards rights and make the right decisions. We should certainly look to work UK-wide where we can.

Justin Tomlinson Portrait Justin Tomlinson (North Swindon) (Con)
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Learning the lessons of our changes to special rules for the terminally ill and the principles of the severe conditions criteria should allow us to look at those who sadly have degenerative conditions such as MS and motor neurone disease. Will the Minister confirm that, as part of the testing and piloting, the Department is looking at the potential for automatic entitlement for those with degenerative conditions, which would lift around a quarter of a million people a year out of unnecessary assessments?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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My hon. Friend has been a strong advocate for the severe disability group work that we have been taking forward. I am pleased to be able to say that Blackpool Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and the British Society of Physical and Rehabilitation Medicine have agreed to work in partnership with the DWP to test the SDG. Reducing the assessment burden where it is inappropriate, and ensuring that people get the right support and help, is the right thing to do.

Nickie Aiken Portrait Nickie Aiken (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con)
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6. What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the hospitality sector-based work academy programme in Cities of London and Westminster constituency.

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Michael Shanks Portrait Michael Shanks (Rutherglen and Hamilton West) (Lab)
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7. What assessment his Department has made of the effectiveness of work capability assessments for people with neurological conditions. [R]

Tom Pursglove Portrait The Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work (Tom Pursglove)
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May I start by welcoming the hon. Gentleman to his place in this House? The work capability assessment is a functional assessment based on how a person’s condition affects them, not on the condition itself. Work capability assessors have training across a range of health conditions, including neurological conditions, and can access a range of resources that have been quality-assured by relevant external clinicians.

Michael Shanks Portrait Michael Shanks
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My entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests has not been published yet, but I am a trustee of an epilepsy charity. I thank the Minister for his welcome and for that answer, but for people with neurological conditions, particularly multiple sclerosis and epilepsy, the condition is not uniform. One week they might be affected in one way, and the next week in a different way. so the capability assessments have to match that so that they meet people’s capabilities as they are. The published consultation on reforming the assessments is still causing a lot of concern for people with those conditions, so what more can the Minister do to make it a holistic process that recognises people’s needs as they are?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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I am not in a position to set out the outcome of recent work capability assessment consultation, but a key principle underpinning the test and trials that I touched on earlier is to take better account of fluctuating conditions, helping people to provide high-quality evidence as early as possible in the claim journey. We are spending a lot of time working with stakeholders to develop that work, and I would be very willing to have a conversation with the hon. Gentleman about that.

Priti Patel Portrait Priti Patel (Witham) (Con)
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10. What steps his Department is taking to support people in Essex into employment.

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Mary Glindon Portrait Mary Glindon (North Tyneside) (Lab)
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13. What recent steps his Department has taken to help disabled people to find and remain in employment.

Tom Pursglove Portrait The Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work (Tom Pursglove)
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There are a range of initiatives for supporting disabled people to start, stay in and succeed in work. This includes disability employment advisers, the Work and Health programme, intensive personalised employment support, Access to Work, Disability Confident, the information and advice service, and support in partnership with the health system.

Mary Glindon Portrait Mary Glindon (North Tyneside) (Lab)
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Research by the charity Versus Arthritis has found that one in five people described as economically inactive have a musculoskeletal—MSK—condition. Arthritis and MSK conditions were the cause of over 23 million working days lost in 2021 alone. Will the Minister ask the Chancellor for additional support in the autumn statement, to help people with arthritis and MSK to find and remain in work, and will he meet me and Versus Arthritis to discuss this serious issue further?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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I am always happy to meet colleagues to discuss such issues. It is fair to say that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has put a real emphasis on this policy area in his previous spending announcements; no doubt he will have heard the hon. Lady’s comments in advance of the upcoming autumn statement. When we consider initiatives such as Work Well—our work in respect of occupational health and the consultations on that—we see that a lot of effort and energy have gone into recognising that retention is just as important as job starts.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the shadow Minister.

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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I think I will pass up on the invitation at the end of the hon. Lady’s question. The fact is that this Government are concentrating on working hard to support more disabled people into work. We are unlocking that potential with all the help and support around it. The hon. Lady specifically mentioned Access to Work; we now have more than 500 full-time staff members working on that, compared with 375 in March. We are focused on prioritising job starts and streamlining things to make it easier for claims to be processed and for people to get support quicker, as well as that staffing increase. We have a comprehensive plan; the hon. Lady’s plan is hidden somewhere—I am sure we would all love to hear it.

John McNally Portrait John Mc Nally (Falkirk) (SNP)
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14. What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of Government support for pensioners in the context of rises in the cost of living.

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Alan Brown Portrait Alan Brown (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) (SNP)
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15. Whether he has made an assessment of the potential impact of proposed reforms to work capability assessments on the (a) financial and (b) mental wellbeing of people with Parkinson’s disease.

Tom Pursglove Portrait The Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work (Tom Pursglove)
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The Department has developed estimates of the number of claimants impacted by options considered in the work capability assessment consultation. Estimates are not based on specific conditions, because the work capability assessment is based on how a person’s condition affects them, not the condition itself.

Alan Brown Portrait Alan Brown
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The proposed changes to the work capability assessment could actually see half a million people forced to look for work they are not cut out for and then at risk of sanctions. The proposed changes on continence, mobility and social engagement are putting thousands of Parkinson’s sufferers at risk of being denied the benefits they need, causing needless stress and financial pressures. Will the Secretary of State meet me and Parkinson’s UK to discuss the impacts on those suffering from Parkinson’s? Hopefully the Government will then change their mind on these cruel proposals.

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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What I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that no decisions have been made. It is right and proper that the consultation responses are properly considered in the normal way. I would be happy to meet with Parkinson’s UK again; I met it previously, and it is an important stakeholder for the Department. We do think it is right that we look at the work capability assessment and review it periodically, not least because of the changes we have seen in homeworking and flexible working in recent years.

Greg Smith Portrait Greg Smith (Buckingham) (Con)
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16. What steps his Department is taking to support more parents into work.

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Marion Fellows Portrait Marion Fellows (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP)
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The proposals in the work capability assessment activities and descriptors consultation will mean some claimants will lose £390 a month if they are reassessed, pushing them even further into poverty. Will the Minister or the Secretary of State please explain this huge financial impact on low-income people with disabilities or a serious health condition?

Tom Pursglove Portrait The Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work (Tom Pursglove)
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No final decisions have been made. We have had the consultation and we will respond appropriately in the normal way.

Julian Lewis Portrait Sir Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con)
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May we have specific detail on the help that jobcentres are giving to armed forces veterans, who must live with the consequences of decisions made by Governments?

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Hannah Bardell Portrait Hannah Bardell (Livingston) (SNP)
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For those who suffer from endometriosis, Crohn’s disease and colitis, incontinence is a daily challenge. For the purpose of the Government’s proposed changes in the incontinence descriptor, what capability assessment has been done, and was there any consultation with those sufferers?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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I hear the point that the hon. Lady has raised. We have, of course, had the consultation, and many views were expressed. We will now consider those views very carefully, and come forward as appropriate in the normal way.

Julian Lewis Portrait Sir Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con)
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On a point of order, Mr Speaker. May I take advantage of a rather quiet news day to ask if there is any way in which I can place on record the appreciation of right hon. and hon. Members for the wise advice, quiet efficiency and unfailing courtesy of Mr Peter Barratt, who recently left the service of this House after more than 30 years?

Personal Independence Payment

Tom Pursglove Excerpts
Thursday 26th October 2023

(6 months ago)

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Tom Pursglove Portrait The Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work (Tom Pursglove)
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I would like to update the House on the Department’s progress in making backdated payments to personal independence payment claimants who are benefiting from the Supreme Court’s MM judgment.

The MM judgment concerns the definition of “social support” when engaging with other people face to face (and when “prompting” should be considered “social support”) in the PIP assessment, and how far in advance that social support can be provided.

On 20 September 2021, the Department started an administrative exercise, looking at PIP claims since 6 April 2016 to check whether claimants may be eligible for more support under PIP. This is a complex exercise. We have identified around 326,000 unique cases that we need to review.

Given the complexity of the exercise, we started at a relatively small scale, prioritising terminally ill and recently deceased claimants, testing our processes and communications with claimants, to ensure that they are effective before ramping up.

The Department has today published an ad hoc release of management information on the administrative exercise. As at 31 August 2023, we have reviewed around 79,000 cases against the MM judgment. This includes cases where claimants have previously been assessed as needing “prompting.” All reviews have been carried out by a case manager within the Department.

Around 14,000 arrears payments, totalling around £74 million, have been made. No one should have seen their PIP reduced because of this exercise.

We are monitoring closely the numbers of, and reasons for, revised awards and making regular quality checks to ensure that our decision making is accurate and fair.

We have listened to feedback and engaged with disability organisations to develop our processes and communications, being sensitive to claimants who need help to provide any further information we need to decide if they are affected.

Confident that reviews are achieving the right outcomes for claimants, we have completed upskilling additional staff available for this exercise and expect to complete the review of all cases available to the exercise by the end of 2025.

We are committed to making backdated payments to all claimants affected by this judgment as quickly as possible. So, as well as continuing to review claims affected by the definition of “social support”, we are also testing a more proportionate approach for claimants who might be affected by the timing element only.

We will be inviting around 284,000 claimants in this group to contact the Department, if they think their claim is affected by this judgment and they were not previously identified as needing help to engage with other people face to face because any help they received was in advance.

I believe that prioritising cases where claimants are more likely to be entitled to more support is the correct approach.

Further information on how the administrative exercise is being undertaken is set out in a “frequently asked questions” document. I will deposit a copy of this document in the Library.

The Department plans to publish a further update next year.

[HCWS1093]

British Sign Language

Tom Pursglove Excerpts
Tuesday 17th October 2023

(6 months, 1 week ago)

Westminster Hall
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Tom Pursglove Portrait The Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work (Tom Pursglove)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I start by thanking my right hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) for securing this debate; for her ongoing passion and leadership on this issue; and for her determination to deliver this landmark legislation, working with Rosie Cooper. She takes a close interest in the Government’s performance on this issue, and in wider issues affecting the deaf community. She wants us to take further steps to ensure that BSL is used more widely in society, and that more people can communicate through it.

Interestingly, one of the key assurances that my right hon. Friend gave during the passage of the legislation was to the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), Chair of the APPG. She assured her, in Committee, that the Government would be open to scrutiny of the BSL Act, and that the first BSL report would be published on 31 July this year. That has happened, and today’s debate flows from that. I was heartened to hear that BSL will be a subject of interest to my right hon. Friend beyond her time in the House, and is something that she will campaign on passionately. Her advocacy on this issue, and that of Members from across the House—not just those who are here—is something of which Parliament can be proud. All of us, cross party, want to do our best to ensure accessible communication for everybody in society. It is to the Government’s credit that they got behind the Bill, and worked intensively with Rosie Cooper and the coalition, as was touched on, to shape and craft the legislation and ensure that we got it right.

The British Sign Language Act 2022 was the first private Member’s Bill drawn 20th in the ballot to become law in more than 20 years; that was a bit of parliamentary trivia for everybody this afternoon. That is not an insignificant achievement. It speaks to the cross-party support for the Act. Everybody came together from across the House to support that legislation, here as well as in the other place.

Many good, pertinent questions were raised in the debate, and I want to touch on them. As I say, the British Sign Language Act 2022 was warmly welcomed by the deaf community, and particularly by the BSL Act Now! campaign. Its members worked so hard, and in such a determined way, to put the issue firmly on the agenda. Arguably, that passion was reflected at BSL Fest in Guildford at the weekend. I was delighted to hear that my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Angela Richardson) was in attendance, was part of the celebrations and part of that important community in her area. We see those celebrations reflected in community initiatives up and down the country, which is heartening. They give ever greater prominence to the issue. All of us parliamentarians, and those of us in government, should place real emphasis on working in partnership with communities, charities and representative bodies to continue to evolve our work on this issue, and make sure that we live up to the ambition out there in our society for BSL.

It is a privilege to report today on the progress that we are making on the BSL Act, and to discuss the findings of the first BSL report, but candidly, there is more to do. The first BSL report is an important baseline to help us understand how the Government communicate vital information to a group of people with specific, distinct communication needs, and to encourage us to go further.

There are a couple of points that I want to touch on early in my remarks. One is the judicial review of BSL interpretation of the covid briefings during the pandemic. The judicial review found that the Government were meeting their obligations under the Equality Act 2010 with regard to BSL interpretation during the covid 19 briefings, and were compliant with the public sector equality duty. The court ruled that our policy of using on-screen British Sign Language interpreters during the pandemic was lawful. The judge ruled that it is not a legal requirement to provide an in-person BSL interpreter. There had been over 175 covid briefings by the date of the judgment, and in only two instances were they found to be unlawful because BSL was not provided on screen. Our priority has always been to reach the largest possible audience with important public information, and we will continue to ensure that BSL interpretation is made available where appropriate.

On No. 10, the BSL Act places a duty on the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to collate and publish a report on BSL use in the ministerial Departments listed in the schedule to the Act. The intention behind the five-year plans mentioned in the BSL report is to build on the work already being done across the Departments that are placed under that reporting duty. No. 10 and the parliamentary estate are not ministerial Departments, and there is no statutory requirement on them to report on their use of BSL. However, guidance was recently published by the Government Communication Service that covers all of Government. I am assured that it will help communicators across Government to determine what public information should be produced in BSL, so that we meet the obligations set out in the public sector equality duty and the Equality Act 2010. I am very happy to explore that area further.

As for the parliamentary estate, I would be delighted to work cross-party with colleagues on engaging with the House authorities to see what they might be able to do. It is welcome that there is BSL interpretation of our proceedings this afternoon, but we should always strive to go further. I am very willing to engage constructively with others to achieve that.

Vicky Foxcroft Portrait Vicky Foxcroft
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I welcome that offer, and will most certainly take the Minister up on it. As shadow Minister for Disabled People, I have struggled with the question of where funding for BSL interpretation should come from, including as regards the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. The Minister is absolutely right: we should be leading on this issue. On No. 10 and interpreters at covid briefings, we should always strive to do better, and I do not think we did well enough at the time. We should keep the ambition to continually do better, instead of saying, “We weren’t done by the courts, apart from in two areas.”

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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On the first part of the hon. Lady’s intervention, I am delighted to work with her to try to take that forward. At the start of my remarks, I said consistently that I recognise that we have further to travel, and I am certainly not complacent when it comes to performance across the whole of Government. As has been touched on, some of the performance around my Department—the Department for Work and Pensions —is at the top of the charts, which shows the emphasis that my ministerial colleagues in the Department and I place on this issue. I am trying to lead by example by ensuring that I demonstrate a real commitment and willingness to set a standard that I want Ministers and Departments across the board to follow. It is in that spirit that we move forward with this work.

To delve further into the issue of communications across Government, I could not be clearer that people who use BSL as their native language should be able to access the same information as native English speakers, whether that information is about their rights and responsibilities, their ability to access support or the opportunity to have their say on Government policy development by participating in a consultation. In the last year alone, the Government have ensured that BSL communications have been available for deaf BSL users across diverse subjects: providing timely updates about cost of living payments, sharing important information about the Home Office’s tackling domestic abuse plan and ensuring that BSL users could join in the celebrations for the coronation of our new King.

Individual Departments have focused their BSL communications on areas of greatest importance to deaf BSL users: the Department for Education published its “Special Educational Needs and Disabilities and Alternative Provision Improvement Plan” with BSL interpretation, the Ministry of Justice published advice in BSL for victims of rape and sexual assault, and the Department for Transport included BSL interpretation in its “it’s everyone’s journey” campaign.

I want to provide updates on two specific areas that have been raised in relation to cross-Government work and different parts of Government communicating those messages. The first is around the use of BSL in health services. The Department of Health and Social Care is committed to supporting the use of BSL and has used it in communications, such as to support the Down Syndrome Act 2022 call for evidence. The Department continues to look for further ways to promote the requirements of the BSL Act, including by sharing lessons learned from the production of the DSA call for evidence BSL videos with a view to improving BSL usage, monitoring and reporting across the Department.

Under the Equality Act 2010, health and social care organisations must make reasonable adjustments to ensure that disabled people are not disadvantaged when it comes to interpreters for GP and medical appointments. NHS organisations and publicly funded social care providers must comply with the accessible information standard to meet the communication needs of patients and carers with a disability, an impairment or sensory loss. NHS England has completed the review of the AIS, and the updates are now in the publication approval process.

Following Royal Assent for the British Sign Language Act and the legal recognition of British Sign Language as a language of England, Wales and Scotland, the Government Communication Service will promote and facilitate the use of British Sign Language in communication with the public where appropriate. Colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care keep those matters under review. Again, I want Departments to set a standard that we then ask our public services, communities and society as a whole to follow.

The other area that I want to provide a brief update on is the BSL GCSE, for which there is huge appetite in this House and beyond. The public consultation on it has now closed. The Government are analysing the results of the consultation and working up the course content, and we will publish that as soon as we can. I recognise that there is a real demand for that BSL qualification, not least because of all the opportunities it will provide. Educating the next generation to have such skills at an early stage will have knock-on benefits: more people in our society will communicate with BSL and then, we hope, go on to have successful careers, promote the language, encourage others to adopt those skills, and participate in our communities and society in that way. I know that we all want to see that, and that is welcome.

The variety of case studies in the first BSL report show pockets of good practice across the Departments named in the schedule to the BSL Act. Around half of policy Departments produced communications in BSL during the reporting period. But we know that we can go further, and produce more and better BSL content. It is important to note that different Departments will communicate with the public, whether in BSL or otherwise, in different ways, because of the fact that they have different responsibilities, different remits, different areas of interest and different communications, related to their specific areas of Government.

The Departments listed in the schedule to the BSL Act range from large operational Departments—like my own, the Department for Work and Pensions, which produces a large number of public communications every year—to much smaller Departments and offices that may not have had occasion to produce many public communications during the reporting period. Not all Departments are the same—one size does not fit all—but we know that there is room to improve and we have committed to doing so. With that in mind, there are four specific commitments that are recognised within the need to improve, which I will describe, because the Secretary of State has been clear about our determination to take greater action to drive forward progress, with four separate commitments to help us make progress.

First, although the BSL Act only requires for a BSL report to be published once every three years, I am pleased to confirm that the Secretary of State has made a commitment to publish a BSL report every year for at least the next five years. Again, that goes to the very point about transparency, and arguably is a tool to aid our conversations within Government around individual departmental performance, allowing us to continue to drive improvement, highlight successes, learn from the case studies in the first BSL report and remain accountable to the deaf community.

Secondly, we are committed to discussing the findings of the report at the next meeting of the ministerial disability champions, who are Ministers appointed by the Prime Minister to provide a personal lead in championing accessibility and opportunity for disabled people within their Departments. We have already done that, and the ministerial disability champions will work with their Departments to increase the use of BSL in their communications. The ministerial disability champions are specifically appointed to lead the inclusion agenda within their Departments, but I want to explore what more we can do to drive greater accountability and ownership of those actions, making sure that this inclusion agenda is right at the forefront of our thinking—and that we are doing these things up front, rather than their happening as an afterthought—when it comes to policy development, legislative change or any other announcements that we might make.

Lilian Greenwood Portrait Lilian Greenwood
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I was reflecting on the Minister’s comments just a few moments ago about the differences between Departments, and the way in which the information in the report is set out under different headings, such as “Public announcements about policy or changes to the law in BSL” and “Publications (plans, strategies…). That information is presented as a number, but it might be more useful if it the proportions were presented. For example, if we knew how many public announcements the Department had made and how many were also produced in BSL, we would have a better gauge of whether the Department was doing well or not so well, because I would hope that when a Department is making important announcements, it would automatically produce them in BSL as well as in English. Is that something that the Minister might consider in future reporting?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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I am of course very happy to consider suggestions as to how we can try to provide greater transparency around this performance and better itemise the output that Departments are making around communications, because I genuinely want this process to be a success. Getting it right is an important barometer of the inclusion agenda. Anything we can do to give people confidence that we are getting this right can only be a good thing, and I am willing to explore anything that aids transparency, so I will gladly take away the hon. Lady’s suggestion in the spirit with which it was made.

I return to the four commitments. Thirdly, building on these ongoing discussions, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will ask each ministerial Department to produce a five-year BSL plan, setting out how it plans to improve its use of BSL. These plans will be included in the next published BSL report.

Fourthly, the Government Communication Service has published internal guidance for Departments that covers how to plan and deliver British Sign Language content where it is needed, to meet the needs of deaf BSL users. It has been written with the help of professionals and those with lived experience of British Sign Language.

In addition to those measures, I am pleased to confirm that officials will be working with the BSL Advisory Board to formulate the guidance specified in section 3 of the 2022 Act. That section places a duty on the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to issue guidance promoting the facilitation and use of BSL. It is important to recognise both that all members of the advisory board have lived experience of BSL, and that we went through a thorough and proper process in making appointments to the board. Their work will include advice for relevant Departments on best practice to support BSL users in accordance with the Equality Act 2010, the public sector equality duty and the British Sign Language Act 2022. It will also contain broader advice on best practice for communicating with BSL users, including case studies to illustrate the value of providing BSL interpretation in communications with the public both in our central communications and in frontline services.

During the debates on the British Sign Language Act 2022, we heard Members recount the everyday experiences of their constituents in accessing public services. Again, let me be clear that it is not good enough to ask the hearing child of a deaf parent to relay an intimate health diagnosis or to deal with financial issues on behalf of their family. There should be a professional BSL interpreter in those circumstances to ensure dignity and respect to the deaf adult and their family members.

Angela Richardson Portrait Angela Richardson
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

On the incredibly important point the Minister is making, although this issue is not necessarily for his Department, people fleeing domestic abuse need very specialist support, and often the person who would act as interpreter is the person perpetrating the abuse. There are instances where Departments need to step up the support for the interpretation needs of those fleeing domestic abuse.

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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My hon. Friend raises a point that all of us will want to give due care, attention and thought to. We all want to ensure that the very best support is available for victims of domestic abuse to ensure they get the care and support they need, and that such matters are handled with the utmost sensitivity. The right support must be in place to allow them to be cared for and supported, and to have the recovery that we all want them to. If my hon. Friend provides me with more detail about whether there is a specific underpinning to that question, it is something I would be willing to ask the ministerial disability champion in the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice to look into. That would mean they are aware of those experiences as part of their policy development when taking that important agenda forward.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
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I want to cast the Minister’s mind back to when the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman), referred to the GCSE and the need for sign language to do that course. I mentioned that my oldest grandchildren had done some rudimentary sign language at school, which enables them to have a compassion for, and an understanding of, those who use it. When it comes to schools, as we all know, we do rudimentary first aid; it is elementary, but it does provide some understanding of the subject matter. It is not the Minister’s responsibility, but can I ask that he engages with Education Ministers on that?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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I am very willing to obtain an update for the hon. Gentleman on the work that we are doing to try to drive forward the uptake, availability and usage of BSL in our schools. I touched on the opportunity of the BSL GCSE, which is something that is welcome and an important part of that jigsaw. I will go and get him an update from the Department for Education. He also raised in his remarks—I scribbled down in my notes—whether there were steps we could take to engage with the Department for Communities in Northern Ireland on this agenda more broadly. Again, I am very willing to take that away and ask my officials to reach out to Department for Communities colleagues and counterparts to see what we can do to ensure that across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland we are approaching these matters in an inclusive and joined-up way, and that where we can collaborate we do so in order to take this important agenda forward.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
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Before the Minister moves on from the guidance, will he confirm that he will lay the statutory instrument that enables part 3 to happen?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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My right hon. Friend the former Minister is trying to draw me out early on this point—I will get there imminently.

More needs to be done to enforce the obligations outlined in the Equality Act 2010, and Departments must strive to ensure that BSL signers have appropriate access to their services. A point was raised on the availability of data and the join-up between services to ensure that we understand needs. Specifically, the question was about the number of responses to the disability action plan. We received approximately 1,350 responses to the disability action plan. We are working through those responses and will come forward with a final version of that plan, having given proper consideration to all the feedback.

My right hon. Friend will know that one of the areas we consulted on was data. We want to take forward commitments in a joined-up way. Of course, we are now in a different place in relation to the national disability strategy, where commitments were also made around data. I want there to be proper joined-up, collective working across those two pieces to ensure the maximum impact when it comes to better understanding disability and people’s needs, and identifying which interventions best support people. We will come forward with that work in the near future, and I hope that there will be some opportunity to set out the steps we will take to improve that understanding and the quality of data that we have as a Government, working in partnership with others. Colleagues across the House were right to ask those questions.

The BSL Advisory Board will advise the Government on the guidance detailed in the BSL Act and on its implementation to best represent the deaf community. This external guidance will be published by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions during the next BSL reporting period—summer 2024—with support from the Cabinet Office Disability Unit.

I am hugely appreciative of the interest shown this afternoon by colleagues from across the House. I am determined that we as a Government must set the standard by which we ask others in our society and our communities to follow, ensuring that we deliver on this important agenda in the spirit of partnership, driving inclusion and broadening opportunity. A lot of questions and points were raised during the debate. I will go away and look at Hansard, and I will gladly place an update in the Library if there are any areas that I have not had the opportunity to touch on this afternoon.

Health and Disability Benefits: Functional Assessment Service Contracts

Tom Pursglove Excerpts
Monday 16th October 2023

(6 months, 1 week ago)

Written Statements
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Tom Pursglove Portrait The Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work (Tom Pursglove)
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I would like to update the House on the outcome of the procurement of new health and disability benefit assessment contracts—the functional assessment service contracts—for the period 2024 to 2029. These important new contracts have been subject to a rigorous and competitive process in line with public contract regulations.



The health transformation programme is modernising health and disability benefit services and will create a more efficient service and a vastly improved claimant experience, reducing journey times and improving trust in our services and decisions. It is developing a new customer-focused health assessment service and transforming the entire personal independence payment service, over the longer term. It will play a crucial role in implementing the reforms set out in the health and disability White Paper published in March 2023. The functional assessment service contracts will play a key part in delivering the service transformation being driven by the health transformation programme.



The functional assessment service contracts will bring together all functional health assessment services within a geographic area under a single provider. They will provide the foundation for the new health assessment service, which will eventually replace the different services we and our assessment providers use to undertake health assessments across all benefits, including new IT and processes. The new health assessment service will be fully integrated with other systems, including the transformed PIP service, with the aim of creating a much-improved experience for people who apply for support. The new service is being developed on a small scale initially. The new contracts will provide the flexibility to gradually introduce the new health assessment service once fully developed, before it is rolled out nationally from 2029.



On 25 May 2023, I notified the House that the Department had informed successful bidders in geographic lots 1, 2, 4 and 5. We have now concluded the procurement in lot 3—south-west England—and I am pleased to be able to announce today that the successful bidder is Serco Ltd.



We will now work with providers to ensure the transition to the new contracts is as smooth as possible. To ensure adequate time to safely transition, the functional assessment service contracts will begin in September 2024 and we have extended current contracts to this point to ensure service continuity.



We will also work with the functional assessment service providers to deliver structural reform, removing the work capability assessment via a phased approach over the lifetime of the contracts, as announced in the health and disability White Paper in March 2023.

[HCWS1056]

Work and Pensions

Tom Pursglove Excerpts
Monday 16th October 2023

(6 months, 1 week ago)

Ministerial Corrections
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Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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I of course recognise that food prices are a challenge not just here in the UK, but abroad, too. For example, I am aware that food inflation here is 19%, but within the EU it is 19% and in the euro area it is 18%. People are experiencing these significant challenges not just here, but abroad.

[Official Report, 20 June 2023, Vol. 734, c. 709.]

Letter of correction from the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, the hon. Member for Corby (Tom Pursglove):

An error has been identified in my response to the hon. Member for West Ham (Ms Brown) in the statement on Cost of Living Support. The correct response should have been:

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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I of course recognise that food prices are a challenge not just here in the UK, but abroad, too. For example, I am aware that food inflation in March this year was 19% here, but within the EU it was 19% and in the euro area it was 18%. People are experiencing these significant challenges not just here, but abroad.

National Disability Strategy

Tom Pursglove Excerpts
Monday 18th September 2023

(7 months, 1 week ago)

Written Statements
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Tom Pursglove Portrait The Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work (Tom Pursglove)
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In my written statement of 12 July, I informed the House of the judgment handed down by the Court of Appeal on 11 July 2023 regarding the national disability strategy judicial review. In that ministerial statement, I was pleased to inform the House that the Court of Appeal found in favour of the Government. This meant that both the UK disability survey and the national disability strategy have now been found to be lawful by the Court of Appeal, and we are able to continue with the important work of implementing this long-term strategy to transform disabled people’s everyday lives for the better.

I further committed to providing the House with an update in September on how this Government will take forward work on the strategy now that it has been found to be lawful.

The Government’s intention has always been to create more opportunities for disabled people to participate and thrive; to protect and promote the rights of disabled people; and to tackle the barriers that prevent disabled people from fully benefiting from, and contributing fully to, every aspect of our society.

The vast majority of departmental commitments outlined in the national disability strategy 2021 were not impacted by the High Court’s initial judgment. The Government have progressed well on delivering these and other commitments, as can be seen by all the Government’s achievements, as set out in my letter placed in the Library of the House in July.

I will place a note in the Library of the House to provide an update:

on how the Government now propose to take this the 14 commitments that were paused to comply with the High Court’s declaration; and

on all departmental commitments in the national disability strategy. This includes details as to whether the individual commitments have been delivered or are in progress. There are 47 commitments that have been “completed”, 54 commitments “in progress”, one that is currently “paused”, and two that are no longer being taken forward.

In parallel with taking forward the commitments in the national disability strategy, the Government are also pressing ahead with our disability action plan, focused on concrete actions to improve disabled people’s lives in 2023 and 2024.

I am pleased to confirm that on 18 July 2023 we published the disability action plan consultation. The disability action plan consultation is open for 12 weeks and responses can be submitted until 6 October. The consultation document sets out a number of proposals and consultation questions—informed by the experiences of disabled people, research and the current policy landscape—as an initial step to make sure policy development direction is correct. The findings of this consultation will inform the final published disability action plan.

Taken together, the national disability strategy and the disability action plan set out a complementary, ambitious programme of work across Government to improve disabled people’s lives in the short, medium and long term. I will continue to work with my ministerial disability champion colleagues across Government to drive progress against these commitments and to make the greatest possible positive impact for disabled people.

[HCWS1038]

Oral Answers to Questions

Tom Pursglove Excerpts
Monday 4th September 2023

(7 months, 3 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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Sarah Green Portrait Sarah Green (Chesham and Amersham) (LD)
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9. What assessment he has made of the adequacy of the assessment process for personal independence payments.

Tom Pursglove Portrait The Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work (Tom Pursglove)
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Assessments play an important part in ensuring people get the right entitlement. It is the claimant’s chance to give all the information needed to help make the right decision. The assessment, which measures the impact of a health condition on a person’s ability to live independently, is kept under review; I am sure the hon. Lady is familiar with the tests and trials set out in the White Paper.

Sarah Green Portrait Sarah Green (Chesham and Amersham) (LD)
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The Minister will know that one challenge with PIP is how to accurately assess fluctuating conditions. More than half a million people in the UK are living with Crohn’s disease or colitis, but fewer than 3% are in receipt of PIP. Past applicants have said that while fatigue is the most disabling symptom, they feel that that is the least represented symptom in their assessments. [Interruption.] Would the Minister consider introducing a fatigue rating scale to PIP assessments to more effectively capture what is, for many, the most debilitating component of their condition?

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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Minister, the reason I was coughing was that the question was rather long.

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her interest in this issue. Through the White Paper reforms, we have advocated for a number of tests and trials, including one that focuses specifically on better capturing fluctuating conditions. I would be keen to have conversations with her about that. The Government are committed to working with charities and those that are interested, including disabled people, to ensure we get those reforms right.

Nigel Mills Portrait Nigel Mills (Amber Valley) (Con)
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I agree with the importance of having a timely assessment. Last week, a constituent raised her case with me: she filled in her renewal form nine months ago, but has been given less than two weeks’ notice for an assessment next week. Surely we need to have assessments when the form is fresh and accurate, not nine months later?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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The waiting time for PIP decisions has come down considerably in recent times, but I am not complacent about that, as we want to go further in seeing those waits reduced. For example, being able to apply online is an important part of that journey, as well as improving interfaces and making sure people provide all the right information up front. If we can provide better support for that, it will help us make decisions sooner, which can only be welcome.

Chris Bryant Portrait Sir Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab)
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I urge the Minister to look specifically at how PIP is assessed for those with brain injuries. It is well known that the effect of a brain injury may vary over time—people go up and down, and many who have had a brain injury want to give a very positive impression of how they are, which gives a false impression when it comes to assessing whether they need PIP.

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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I am very sympathetic to the hon. Gentleman’s point—he has been a passionate and tireless campaigner on the issue of brain injury for a long time. These are exactly the sorts of issues that we want to look at as we take this reform forward. I mentioned our changes around fluctuating conditions, but we also want to look at issues such as expert assessors and having specialists working with individuals to carry out the assessment to ensure a proper understanding and, hopefully, build confidence around decision making.

Justin Tomlinson Portrait Justin Tomlinson (North Swindon) (Con)
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Our excellent, proactive Minister is no doubt testing out concepts ahead of the forthcoming White Paper. Does that include extending the severe conditions criteria so that people with conditions such as motor neurone disease can automatically access support without the need of an assessment?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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I am fortunate that my hon. Friend was one of my predecessors as Minister for Disabled People, as he is a tireless campaigner on these issues and has done much to take the agenda forward. On the severe disability group, we remain committed to this work. We have worked with an expert group of specialist health professionals to draw up a set of draft criteria. We have started initial testing at small scale, and we are looking to scale that up as we move forward, because we want to get this right and we think that this is a significant change.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner (Cambridge) (Lab)
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11. What steps his Department is taking to help reduce waiting times for Access to Work assessments.

Neil Coyle Portrait Neil Coyle (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (Lab)
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16. Whether his Department plans to take steps to reduce the time taken by the decision-making process for applications to the Access to Work scheme.

Tom Pursglove Portrait The Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work (Tom Pursglove)
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Access to Work has received a significant increase in applications over the past year and has recruited new staff to meet the increased demand and reduce the time it takes to make decisions. We are also transforming the Access to Work service through increased digitalisation that will make the service more efficient and the application process easier, and improve the time taken from application through to decision.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I think the Minister knows that the waiting times are too long for all applicants, but may I draw his attention to an event in Cambridge that I hosted earlier this year with the local jobcentre where we highlighted job opportunities for the neurodivergent community? Will he tell us what impact these long waits have on people who are neurodivergent?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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I am sure the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that, last week, 88% of claims were paid within 10 days and that we are taking steps to drive further improvement. The online application capacity that came on stream in June is a significant part of that, but we are also putting additional staff on to processing claims. We are streamlining various processes to ensure that people get access to that support sooner. Anecdotally, officials are saying that that is beginning to bear fruit. What we are not doing is speeding up that process at the cost of getting the right decision and the right outcome. We will continue to move this forward, and we are already making progress.

Neil Coyle Portrait Neil Coyle
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A decade ago, the Government’s Sayce review recommended supporting 100,000 disabled people through specialist employment programmes, but, last year, Access to Work helped just 38,000, and Versus Arthritis and other organisations that support people navigate this difficult system saw a tripling in the delays. When will the Department meet the 100,000 target and end the delays hitting disabled people, employers and the UK economy?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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Like the hon. Gentleman, I am passionate about the positive difference that Access to Work makes in terms of opening up employment opportunities for people. He will be aware of the passports that we have introduced to help better understand people’s needs and passporting that between jobs and between, for example, education and employment. I refer him back to the steps that we have taken to see improvement in the journey times, but we will continue to work tirelessly to make sure that people get the Access to Work help as quickly as possible.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the shadow Minister.

Vicky Foxcroft Portrait Vicky Foxcroft (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab)
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In January, it was found that the Access to Work backlog had trebled since February 2020, rising to more than 25,000. In June, the Minister claimed additional resource was being put into Access to Work. Will he inform the House exactly how many additional staff are working to clear the backlog and when he expects it to return to pre-pandemic levels? His Government say that they want to get more people into work, yet disabled people are missing out on jobs because of unacceptable delays at the DWP.

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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For the House’s benefit, let me provide the full-time equivalent staffing levels in the Access to Work team a full six months ago and once the staff at Bradford have moved to Access to Work. The figure stood at 375.22 full-time equivalents in March 2023, and at 462.84 on 4 September 2023. That figure is expected to stand at 530.41 full-time equivalents by the end of October 2023 with the additional staff moving to the Access to Work team in Bradford. I direct the hon. Lady’s attention again to the figure from last week that 88% of claims were paid within 10 days. This is a priority for me as the Minister for Disabled People and for the Department as a whole.

Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson (Gordon) (SNP)
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12. What assessment his Department has made of the potential impact of the two-child limit on trends in the level of child poverty.

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Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab)
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17. What estimate his Department has made of the number and proportion of unsuccessful benefit decisions that were overturned on appeal in the last 12 months.

Tom Pursglove Portrait The Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work (Tom Pursglove)
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Our aim is to make the right decision as early as possible in a claim. In 2022-23, there were 80,000 social security and child support appeal tribunal hearings, with 50,000 overturned. We recognise that the overturn rate at appeal is high. However, the numbers must be seen in the context of overall decisions. The majority of appeal tribunal hearings relate to PIP. Since PIP was introduced, 8% of initial decisions have been appealed and 4% overturned at a hearing.

Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy
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The Minister is being very selective in his use of statistics. The most recent tribunal stats show that an increasing number of cases, the vast majority, are being overturned—something that is certainly borne out by my constituents contacting me. Why are we not getting it right first time? Surely it is a huge waste of resources to be taking so many cases to tribunal?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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There is no advantage to anybody in the right outcome not being achieved at the very earliest point. The hon. Lady asks why we often see tribunals reach different decisions. There are a number of reasons, for example, drawing different conclusions on the same evidence, cogent evidence being presented orally within those tribunals, or even perhaps written evidence being provided at the hearing that has not previously been shared. We are taking steps, including having presenting officers feed back to the Department, to ensure that more decisions are got right at the first opportunity.

David Evennett Portrait Sir David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con)
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18. What steps his Department is taking to improve social mobility among young people.

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Theresa Villiers Portrait Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con)
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T5. What action are the Government taking to deal with the difficulties that many disabled people face with accessing the support they need? In particular, has there been a move back to making face-to-face contacts part of the assessments and decisions in the benefit system?

Tom Pursglove Portrait The Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work (Tom Pursglove)
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We have made available a diversity of assessment channels to people, but the key point is that anybody who wants to have a face-to-face appointment is able to have one. They can request one and that will be facilitated, and I think that is important. Jobcentres will be at the leading edge of delivering on our new supported employment programme—universal support—and we have WorkWell coming on stream as well. We do not want to write anybody off. Where people want to work or to try to work, we should be supporting that wherever we can, and that is precisely what we are all about.

Dan Carden Portrait Dan Carden (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab)
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T6. A constituent of mine has cerebral palsy, a lifelong condition for which there is no prospect of improvement and which affects her mobility and balance. Despite this, she has faced repeated unnecessary and inaccurate reassessments for the personal independence payment, and she lost her PIP mobility after the most recent assessment. The DWP justifies its decision by saying that it was advised that her last fall was over three months prior to the consultation. What kind of system demands that people with lifelong conditions regularly have to hurt themselves to receive the support they are entitled to?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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I would obviously want to see the details of the case in question before commenting on it, so perhaps the hon. Member could kindly share those details with me. One of the things we are focused on is getting to a place where people with conditions or disabilities that are unlikely to improve or are only likely to deteriorate are not having to go through repeat assessments. That is the objective we are working towards through the White Paper reforms. [Interruption.] I hear a lot of chuntering from the Opposition. I would be absolutely delighted if they would get on and support our reforms so we can make those improvements.

John Penrose Portrait John Penrose (Weston-super-Mare) (Con)
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T8. Universal credit has been hugely effective in making sure it always pays to work, but for jobseekers with no savings who used to be paid daily or weekly the five-week wait for their first payment can plunge them into debt, whether it is a DWP advance or other loans. Will Ministers consider the proposals in “Poverty Trapped” for initial payments to be made at the same daily or weekly frequency as a jobseeker was previously paid, so they can focus on finding a job rather than juggling their debts?

Alex Davies-Jones Portrait Alex Davies-Jones (Pontypridd) (Lab)
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T7. A constituent battling multiple sclerosis recently came to one of my surgeries after his PIP application was refused without ever receiving a face-to-face assessment—and he did request one. The automated letter dismissing his appeal used incredibly insulting and derogatory language. Without ever meeting him, the Minister’s Department declared my constituent fit and able despite this clearly not being the case. I am doing whatever I can to support my constituent, but surely the Minister will agree that PIP applicants deserve face-to-face assessments rather than this dismissive, humiliating letter language.

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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If people wish to have a face-to-face assessment, they ought to be able to have one—that is the position. There are claimants for whom a different form of assessment—a telephone assessment or a virtual assessment—is more appropriate and is perhaps what they want, but that choice should be available to people, and providers should be facilitating that. Again, if the hon. Member would kindly share the details of that case with me, I will look at it as a matter of urgency.

Simon Jupp Portrait Simon Jupp (East Devon) (Con)
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I warmly welcome the considerable progress this Conservative Government have made in supporting pensioners. The triple lock and targeted support with the cost of living are welcome in my part of Devon. Will my hon. Friend outline how this Conservative Government will ensure that this great progress continues?

Debbie Abrahams Portrait Debbie  Abrahams  (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab)
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T9.   In 2016 the United Nations committee responsible for monitoring the UN convention on the rights of disabled people published a damning report that found that the Government had systematically discriminated against disabled people, in breach of their rights. Last week the UN committee reviewed evidence describing the further deterioration of disabled people’s circumstances and rights since 2016, but the Government refused to attend. Isn’t this just another kick in the face for disabled people?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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I do not accept the hon. Lady’s characterisation of the situation. We have followed all of the committee’s procedures; we are engaging with this process in good faith and will present our progress at the session in March 2024. [Interruption.] It is rather frustrating that the hon. Lady often gives the impression that this country is not a world leader on disability issues. The Equality Act 2010, for example, is the cornerstone of ensuring equalities legislation, and we also have the British Sign Language Act 2022 and the Down Syndrome Act 2022. We have also taken other steps forward, and we should be supporting that.

James Sunderland Portrait James Sunderland (Bracknell) (Con)
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I am fortunate to represent a part of the country that is blessed with near-full employment. However, businesses in Bracknell and beyond struggle to recruit enough staff. Can the Secretary of State reassure me that his Department will leave no stone unturned in getting as many people as possible back into the workplace?

Mike Amesbury Portrait Mike Amesbury (Weaver Vale) (Lab)
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Last week I met the citizens advice bureau in Cheshire west and Chester, which informed me that 75% of those who appeal their PIP assessments win. Why does the Minister not get it right in the first place, and what is he doing, at pace, to address that?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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I am very appreciative of citizens advice bureaux around the country for all the work they do in supporting constituents in each of our constituencies. In the interests of time, I will just refer the hon. Gentleman back to the points I made earlier about the steps we are taking.

Aaron Bell Portrait Aaron Bell (Newcastle-under-Lyme) (Con)
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The recent changes to access to means-tested benefits for those in receipt of vaccine damage payments are very welcome, and I thank the Minister for his engagement. Will he join me in paying tribute to those who campaigned for that change in the law, including my constituent Sheila Ward?

Disability Benefits: Assessments

Tom Pursglove Excerpts
Monday 4th September 2023

(7 months, 3 weeks ago)

Westminster Hall
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Tom Pursglove Portrait The Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work (Tom Pursglove)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I thank colleagues across the House for their contributions to the debate, and I particularly thank the Petitions Committee and my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for facilitating it. I thank the petitioners who have gone about collecting signatures to get a debate in Parliament; I am very grateful to them for their interest and efforts.

It is important that we come together regularly to debate these matters, and that there is proper scrutiny of the Government’s work in this area. This debate follows on from what I would argue was quite extensive questioning during Work and Pensions questions in the House today. There is no doubt that issues including reforming assessment processes, the role of medical evidence in decision making and other such aspects of the system are vital to the Government and to people across our society, including disabled people and people with long-term health conditions. I am pleased to be able to say something about the current situation, the steps the Government are taking to improve matters, and our quite extensive reform plans, some of which we touched on at DWP questions. I would argue that significant work is already under way.

First, I want to put the assessments in context, because when we debate these matters it is vital to set out why the Government think assessments are important. We use functional assessments to help to determine entitlement to disability benefits. Each benefit has its own assessment criteria to ensure that people receive the right level of support. All our assessments are currently carried out by healthcare professionals with clinical experience. We recognise that assessments can be a difficult experience, so we are committed to improving our assessments and acting on feedback from claimants and stakeholders. We want to make the journey time and the overall experience as good as it can be. Why would any Government not want to ensure that? Where paper-based assessments can be carried out, because there is the required evidence, that should and does happen.

Diversifying the assessment channels is an important step that has been taken in recent years. There is the opportunity for people to have a face-to-face assessment, if that is right for them and if that is what they wish to have, but there are other people who would like a telephone or virtual assessment. It is right that those routes be available to people, so that they have some involvement and choice, but of course it is important that there should be the backstop that if somebody wants a face-to-face assessment, they can have one. That came up a lot in the debate. The changes that I have outlined have come about in recent times, but they are certainly not the end of the journey; that is why we have an ambitious reform agenda, with long-term transformation at its heart, to go alongside the positive steps that we are taking now to help us reach our goals.

There has been quite a bit of debate about informal observations, which were raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington, by the hon. Members for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols) and for Chesham and Amersham (Sarah Green), and by other colleagues, so let me address the issue directly. Informal observations are important to the consultation, as they can reveal abilities and limitations that are not mentioned in the claimant questionnaire, in the supporting evidence, or in the history taking in the consultation. They may also show discrepancies between a claimant’s reported and actual needs. Health professionals are trained to treat claimants fairly and with respect. They are professional clinicians who use their skills in history taking, informal observation and examination to provide the DWP with an impartial, independent and factual assessment.

Of course, we want every report to reflect a high-quality, functional assessment that the Department can use to make benefit-entitlement decisions, and we do not want reports to be of an unacceptable standard. We have set for providers a threshold for unacceptable reports, above which there are performance guarantees. The DWP audits a statistically valid sample of assessment reports to ensure that the standards that the Department expects are met. Let me be clear: healthcare professionals should be clear and open about that when they assess people. If colleagues have examples where they do not believe that that has been the case, I am keen to hear them so that my officials and I can look at them carefully.

Earlier this year, we published the health and disability White Paper, which set out how we will transform the disability benefits system over the coming years. Our reforms will help more disabled people to start, stay and succeed in work without worrying about being reassessed and losing their benefits—that jeopardy that is most definitely out there. I regularly have conversations with people who want to try work, and have perhaps even identified an opportunity that they might like to have a go at, but they fear it not working out, losing their benefit entitlement, and then having to go back through reapplication and reassessment in the hope of re-establishing their benefit entitlement. That cannot be right. That is why it is crucial that the Government take forward the legislative reform that we are determined to make happen.

More widely, we intend to achieve our ambitious aims by improving the benefits system, so that it focuses far more on what people can do, rather than cannot do; by stepping up our employment support for disabled people and people with health conditions; and by ensuring that people can access the right support at the right time, and have a better overall experience when they apply for and then receive health and disability benefits. Fundamentally, it is not right that people should be written off, but of course in any civilised society there must be a safety net, whereby support is available for people when work is just not a realistic prospect or appropriate for them. It is with that principle in mind that we move forward with our reforms.

We developed the proposals through extensive engagement with disabled people, disabled people’s organisations, charities, GPs and healthcare professionals, businesses and other experts. As our work progresses, we will keep those voices at the heart of how we deliver our reforms. In fact, that engagement is ongoing, and we are beginning to progress the various work streams in the reform model. To pick up on a point made earlier, I reassure the House that people’s lived experience will be heard in that work, which will have stakeholder input, because fundamentally we want to get this right. I want the process to be inclusive, to make sure that we unlock people’s potential, to ensure that they are not written off, and to provide employment support to help people into work when that is right and appropriate for them. We want to unlock the ambition and aspiration that we know is out there among many disabled people and people with health conditions.

Ultimately, our aims will go a significant way towards reducing unnecessary reassessments and the duplication of information provided to the DWP, which is a change that I think we can all welcome. We will achieve that by legislating to remove the work capability assessment, so that there is only one health and disability assessment: the PIP assessment. That will mean that there will be no need to be found unable to work, or to be found to have limited capability for work and work-related activities, to get additional income-related support for a disability or health condition, and there will not be any of the negative connotations around people having to prove that they are unfit for work.

Stephen Timms Portrait Sir Stephen Timms
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On a point that was raised by me, and by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft), what will happen to people who are too unwell to work but not disabled, and therefore not eligible for PIP? The Minister’s proposal seems to be that they will not get any help at all, but I cannot imagine that that is what he intends.

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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The right hon. Member will be aware that the Government have set out that there will be transitional cash protection. There was the statistical release that we undertook to make available, which has now been published. We are carefully working through what the reform model means, and how individuals can best be supported to ensure that we unlock the potential to work where that is right and appropriate for people. As I say, it is important that the transitional protection be in place as we move to the new system.

There was a question about timescales for reform. We will seek to legislate for the reform in the next Parliament; we will then roll it out in a safe, stable way, and bring about the change incrementally and gradually, area by area, to ensure that we get this right. These are live discussions as we workshop and work through specific aspects of the reforms.

I am conscious that the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee raised quite a lot of questions; I will answer as many of them as I can. If there is anything that I miss, I will gladly follow up with the Committee.

Charlotte Nichols Portrait Charlotte Nichols
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The Minister speaks about reforms and live, ongoing discussions. Can he confirm that he is having conversations with Treasury colleagues about not just the eligibility criteria for the reforms and support, but their adequacy? To use MS as an example again, the average cost of having MS is an additional £337 a month. Can the Minister confirm that the issue is not just eligibility, but the adequacy of the support to meet the additional costs faced by disabled people with various conditions?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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There is ongoing work to review the cost of living payments that the Government have made available in the current climate. I anticipate that the results will come forward over the autumn and inform future decisions that we make. We continue to have conversations with the Treasury about the support that we provide. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will take his annual uprating decisions over the coming months as well, so we should be able to provide assurance in due course on where we go from here on the uprating or otherwise of benefits, taking into account the circumstances, as appropriate, in a thorough-going fashion.

The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft), touched on means-testing for the personal independence payment, or changes to eligibility for PIP. I can confirm that there are no plans for that. I want to be very clear about that.

I will finish on a point that I made earlier. The UC health top-up will be passported via eligibility for any element of PIP. That reduces the number of assessments that people need to undergo and streamlines the process for claimants entitled to both benefits. I recognise that the work capability assessment is quite a point of difference between our Front Benchers. I was not a Member of this House when it was introduced, but I well remember debates on the work capability assessment in years gone by; we have moved on considerably since. There has been a lot of positive reform and improvement to the work capability assessment, but we think it is right to scrap it; we do not think it is right that people should have to prove that they are unfit for work to access the support that they seek.

Vicky Foxcroft Portrait Vicky Foxcroft
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The point that I was making was about things that disabled people have said to me. If they lose one benefit, but maintain another, they still have some kind of safety net. If the assessment is all in one, however—the point being that assessments are flawed at times—they could end up with nothing to survive on. That is the point that disabled people make to me, and that is why I talk about the need for co-production, and working with disabled people to ensure that we get this right.

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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Absolutely; that engagement is ongoing. We must move forward reform of the work capability assessment in a careful and measured way. We think that is the right approach to take, because it truly de-risks work.

I note that the Opposition policy related to the “into work” guarantee, for which the former shadow Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth)—of whom I am rather fond, by the way—argued passionately. I do not know whether it will be reviewed following the appointment today of his neighbour, the hon. Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall), whom I welcome to her place as the new shadow Secretary of State, but the reforms that we are advocating for are the result of listening carefully to the responses to the Green Paper reforms.

I am keen to see the Opposition’s workings on the “into work” guarantee, but certainly from what officials have said to me, it seems that they do not think that it will have the effect on outcomes that the Opposition might think. I hope, however, that as we move forward with the reforms, we will see greater collaboration on a united basis. These are the right reforms to support more disabled people into work, following the abolition of the work capability assessment, which, in years gone by, I recognise as was controversial. Strong opinions have been expressed about it.

Hannah Bardell Portrait Hannah Bardell
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I appreciate what the Minister is saying about the reforms, but perhaps he will reflect on the lived experiences that we have shared—the appalling treatment of our constituents and those on whose behalf we have spoken. Also, we have nearly £19 billion in unclaimed benefits every year, and 70% of appeals are overturned. If we add in the cost of the time, effort and trauma, we see there is clearly a long way still to go. Does he agree?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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I always make the point—I have done in the House on a number of occasions, as well as more widely in interviews and other engagements—that if people think that they are entitled to support, they absolutely should apply for it. I want that message to go out from Westminster Hall today. That is why the support is there; we want people to access the support to which they are entitled.

That leads nicely into a further point that I want to make about the White Paper reforms. As part of our reform package, we are testing new initiatives to make it easier to apply for and receive health and disability benefits. That speaks to the benefits journey that the hon. Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) touched on. For example, we are testing a new severe disability group. People who are eligible will benefit from a simplified process, and will not need to complete a detailed application form or go through a face-to-face assessment.

To add a little more clarity to the response I gave to my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) in Question Time, the policy will be tested on a small scale across a range of health conditions. The criteria used for the severe disability group will be based on the impact of a disability or health condition; we are looking at those that are lifelong, have a significant effect on day-to-day life and are unlikely to improve.

As I said, the Department has made progress with its plans to test the severe disability group. We worked with an expert group of specialist health professionals to draw up a set of draft criteria, which focus on claimants who have conditions that are severely disabling, lifelong and with no realistic prospect of recovery. The criteria were shared with several charities, whose feedback was used to develop the criteria further. We started initial testing at small scale across a range of health conditions last year, and we plan to augment our testing approach in the coming months to develop our insight and evidence. That is a welcome development, which responds to the clear feedback in the Green Paper: people wanted to reduce the assessment burden on those with lifelong conditions that are unlikely to improve. This is an important step on that journey. We will continue to move forward in a collaborative way, particularly as we build our understanding and evidence base to scale the policy.

We are also improving the experience of assessments by testing matching people’s primary health condition to a specialist assessor. As one part of that test, our assessors will take part in training to specialise in the functional impacts of specific health conditions, so that they can better understand claimants’ needs. I hope that will help to build confidence in decisions, and respond to feedback that we have received. Again, that speaks to the change that colleagues from across the House have said today that they want. We are also committed to exploring ways to create a personalised welfare system. For example, we are testing employment and health discussions, which are led by a healthcare professional and focus on how we can help people overcome barriers to work. The pilot at Leeds Health Model Office is helping us to evaluate findings and possible next steps for expansion.

On the theme of tests and trials, I want to respond to the point made by the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, the right hon. Member for East Ham (Sir Stephen Timms), on the recording of assessments. The Government are advocating for an opt-in approach. We think that strikes the balance. That way, if people wish to opt into having their assessment recorded, they are able to do so. We are mindful that there is a balance to be struck. We would not want people to feel uncomfortable talking candidly about their condition or disability, and its functional impacts.

However, the health transformation programme is looking at how we can create greater awareness of the ability to record the assessment. We may see more people accepting the opportunity to record their assessment on the back of that. I will gladly update the Committee on that awareness work as we move it forward. I recognise that this issue has come up in many debates, and I recognise the right hon. Gentleman’s strong feeling on the subject, but that is the current position. We are exploring ways to generate greater awareness of that opportunity, should that be something that people wish to do.

Employment is central to our plans. Alongside the ambitious programme of work for the future, the Government recognise that good-quality employment is an important determinant of good health. We have a range of initiatives to support disabled people and people with health conditions in starting, staying and succeeding in work, including initiatives in partnership between DWP and the health system. We have schemes such as the employment advisers in the NHS talking therapies service. We are moving towards 100% coverage in talking therapies services, and the testimony from people who have had the benefit of that is powerful; I welcome it. That is a significant improvement in the services available. The individual placement and support in primary care initiative is also impactful. It is about identifying people’s abilities and needs, helping them to find a role that is right for them, and supporting them in starting and retaining it. We are also taking forward schemes announced in the spring Budget. IPSPC is the pioneer for universal support. We are also piloting the WorkWell partnerships programme, which aims to close the disability employment gap.

We have made good progress in recent years. In 2017, the Government set a goal to see 1 million more disabled people in employment by 2027. Last year, we surpassed that goal five years early. That is not just the Government’s achievement. It is the achievement of disabled people most importantly, as well as of businesses buying into it, and of charities and representative bodies working with people to support that important agenda and unlock potential. Again, an active policy discussion in the Department relates to where we go from here in terms of future employment goals.

I also want to touch on sanctions, which came up a number of times. Work coaches will consider individual circumstances when working with claimants as part of our new personalised approach. If someone has a mental health condition, the work coach can use their discretion to switch off voluntary or mandatory requirements if they deem that appropriate. We will focus on what people can do rather than what they cannot, but we will also ensure that, when people are unable to work, we continue to support and assist them to live independent lives. All requirements will be agreed between the claimant and their work coach. As happens now, claimants will only ever be sanctioned where, without good reason, they have failed to meet the requirements. All claimants will retain the right to mandatory reconsideration or to appeal a decision should they disagree.

Specifically on the health transformation programme, we know that demand for disability benefits is increasing and we need to modernise our systems and processes to deliver better value for money for the taxpayer and a better experience for claimants. The health transformation programme is doing just that, transforming the entire PIP service—from finding out about benefits through to decisions, eligibility and payments. It will create a more efficient service and a vastly improved claimant experience, including speedier management of claims and improved trust in our services and decisions.

The programme is introducing an online PIP application service, giving the option to apply online 24/7 and to upload medical evidence digitally. I am pleased to say that claimants in selected postcodes are already able to apply for PIP entirely online, and we plan to make that available across England, Wales and Northern Ireland in 2024. Again, during the summer recess we announced some additional postcodes in which the new application service is now live.

I want to provide a bit of reassurance about a couple of comments made about the online service during the debate. The online service is optional; it is a voluntary alternative to the existing method for claiming PIP. Claimants who are unable to use an online service, or do not want to, will still be able to make a claim through existing routes. Claimants can receive third party assistance to support them in using the online service as long as the claimant is the one making the claim. Claimants who require formal support, such as an appointee, are not included in this current testing phase. However, making the service available to this group of claimants is a priority for us as we safely and gradually expand the service. We aim to make the online service available across England, Wales and Northern Ireland in 2024 for those who choose to use it. A point was made about being able to more readily reuse evidence: this system should be able to help people to do that.

We are also improving the way health assessments are delivered. We currently use a range of providers, depending on the benefit in question. Once new arrangements begin in 2024, one provider will deliver health assessments in a given area. Claimants will need to interact only with their local health assessment provider, regardless of which benefit they are applying for. That provides a stepping stone to our longer-term aim to create, from 2029, a single new health assessment service for all benefits that use a health assessment. That will transform the delivery of health assessments to provide an improved, clearer and more joined-up experience for claimants. The new service is being gradually developed in a safe environment known as the health transformation area. The approach will allow us continually to improve the new service in a controlled way, before expanding and ultimately rolling the service out nationally. We could not carry out this enormous endeavour alone.

We have also had regular engagement with stakeholders and will continue to listen and build on our successes as we move forward. Drawing on advice from across Government, on 25 May we published our evaluation strategy. That provides an overview of our plans to robustly evaluate the programme.

The hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) mentioned safeguarding. I should say that I am meeting representatives of Mind tomorrow, along with a family; that will be of interest to colleagues across the House who campaigned for that meeting to happen. We had a very productive meeting with Mind a few weeks ago. It is important that Ministers should have those direct and perhaps even difficult conversations to make sure that at the Department any and all learning takes place and that all our processes are conducive to being responsive to claimants’ needs and are the best they can be, building on work that I have previously set out. I will not repeat those comments today as we will no doubt revisit these matters in future.

I care passionately about that individual focused support and supporting claimants appropriately through the benefits journey, and want to ensure that all the reform we are taking forward has that support very much at the forefront, building on initiatives such as the advanced customer support senior leaders and the various upskilling work that has gone on within the Department to support staff to best support the most vulnerable claimants.

As well as the ambitious visions of the White Paper and the health transformation programme, we are continually listening to and acting on feedback on the current PIP system to make significant positive improvements. Reducing customer journey times for PIP claimants is a priority for the Department. We are seeing an improvement in average clearance times for new PIP claims, with the latest statistics showing that the end-to-end journey has reduced from 26 weeks in August 2021 to 13 weeks in April 2023. We also recognise that assessments can be a difficult experience, so we now undertake most by telephone to alleviate some of the stress associated with travelling to and attending observational assessments, but I reiterate that if people want to have face-to-face assessments, that should happen; there is the optionality for claimants to seek a face-to-face appointment if that is right for them and they wish it to happen.

More generally, the PIP assessment criteria were developed in collaboration with independent specialists in health, social care and disability, and they focus on needs arising from a range of impairments—including physical, sensory, cognitive and mental health impairments —rather than the condition itself, to ensure that the greatest level of support goes to those who are least able to carry out the activities. PIP and its descriptors are kept under continued review to ensure that they meet the needs of claimants and help the Department to reach an accurate assessment of an individual’s entitlement, but I take on board the points raised during the debate and will raise them with officials back at the Department in future conversations and decisions around PIP and its descriptors.

Let me turn to assessments and medical evidence. We are committed to improving how our decision-making processes work. Medical evidence from GPs and other healthcare professionals play an important part in decision making. We ask claimants to provide relevant evidence at the outset of their claim, and we take that fully into account. However, although this is a valued part of the decision-making process, we recognise that doctors do not want to be the guardians of the benefits system, which is why we do not use it as the sole gateway. I note the testimony and evidence from the BMA mentioned by the Chair of the Select Committee, the right hon. Member for East Ham. Additionally, for PIP and the WCA, awards are not condition-based, as individuals may be impacted by their health condition in different ways. Medical evidence may not describe the functional impact of a disability or health condition on the individual and therefore may not be sufficient on its own to determine entitlement to the benefit. Where it is possible to assess a claim based on the paper evidence alone without an assessment, we will do so.

We are committed to ensuring that claimants receive high-quality, objective and accurate assessments to inform the right decision. Consequently, our assessors are all health professionals with specialist training in assessing the impact of a disability. We recognise that assessments and reviews are not suitable for our claimants with lifelong conditions and disabilities specifically. Although we still have the work capability assessment, we do not routinely reassess people with the most severe health conditions and disabilities with no prospect of improvement, and instead the severe conditions criteria apply. In PIP, our claimants on the highest level of support with long-term conditions receive an ongoing award with a light-touch review at the 10-year point that involves a short form to check whether anything has changed and to confirm that we hold updated information. In most cases, an assessment with a health professional is not required. Our severe disability group test is also part of our focus to reduce unnecessary applications and assessments.

A number of Members posed a very legitimate question about what we are doing to improve the quality of decision making. We have made improvements to the decision-making process, both at the first decision and the MR stage, giving decision makers additional time to contact proactively claimants if they think additional evidence may support the claim. That tailored, more bespoke approach, making sure that decision makers can follow up with claimants to try to ensure that their entitlement is delivered as quickly as possible, ought to complete the jigsaw of the claim and get support out to people.

We are also continuing to learn from decisions overturned at appeal, with our presenting officers going out to hear those tribunals and then sharing that feedback with the Department to help improve our processes. We also work closely with providers on the quality of assessments, with the quality assurance that all of us would want to see, to help ensure that there are high-quality reports that then lead to more correct decisions. To set that in context, since PIP was introduced 5.1 million initial decisions following an assessment were made to the end of December 2022, with 8% appealed and 4% overturned at tribunal. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon highlighted, a significant proportion of those decisions are overturned as a result of new evidence presented at the tribunal. It is important to take that into account, but we are not complacent, and we want more decisions got right first time, hence the efforts to try and achieve that.

Finally, for people nearing the end of life we have the special benefit rules. They allow faster and easier access to certain benefits without needing to attend a medical assessment or serve waiting periods. Eligibility has recently been extended from six months or less to live to 12 months or less, and individuals are now able to claim PIP, DLA, attendance allowance, ESA and UC under the special rules, and that is administered in a pragmatic, flexible, clinician-led way. The hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) raised that point, so I want to provide reassurance about the clinician-led approach. I have done this before, but I want to thank all those colleagues across Parliament who campaigned for the changes to the special end of life rules that we have brought about, as well as the stakeholders and the charities who were instrumental in delivering that change. I know that extending that benefit entitlement to people at an earlier stage and for longer is a lifeline to many people across this country.

In conclusion, we are committed to ongoing action to improve people’s journeys through the benefit system both today and by advancing the longer-term reform that I have set out, which I hope all of us will feel able to get around in the coming years with that proper input from disabled people, from stakeholders, and from the representative groups to help us get this right. This is arguably the biggest welfare reform for over a decade, and it is crucial that we hear that lived experience in shaping it and that we work carefully through that change to ensure that it is the best that it can be. We must ensure that we do not write people off, and that where work is appropriate for someone, they are able to access that if it is something that they want to do, recognising the benefit of the health and work join up. All of us, I think, want to see people reach their potential, supported by a benefit system that not only is fit for the future, but has that vital safety net in place that all of us in a civil society expect to see.