Disability Benefits: Assessments Debate

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Department: Department for Work and Pensions

Disability Benefits: Assessments

Vicky Foxcroft Excerpts
Monday 4th September 2023

(8 months, 3 weeks ago)

Westminster Hall
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Vicky Foxcroft Portrait Vicky Foxcroft (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Gary. I am grateful for the opportunity to respond on behalf of the shadow Work and Pensions team. I thank the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for opening this afternoon’s debate. He is absolutely right: it is time for reform and change to restore trust in the PIP process. I also pay tribute to the countless disabled people, friends, families, advocates and disabled people’s organisations and charities that signed the petitions that triggered this debate, and which campaign tirelessly to promote disabled people’s rights.

This debate, in conjunction with the three petitions, has made one thing clear: disabled people are suffering as a result of a flawed testing regime that does not focus on the support they need in their daily lives. As the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) rightly pointed out, there is a disability price tag. Disabled people are already at greater risk of living in poverty than non-disabled people, and as a result of the additional costs associated with disability and ill health, and the barriers disabled people face getting into and staying in work, they are often reliant on benefits for all or part of their income.

Disabled people should have the security of knowing that the state will step in and support them when they need it. Instead, they face difficult, stressful and sometimes humiliating assessments, followed by weeks or months of uncertainty as they await the outcome. For many, that is followed by more stress and uncertainty as they are forced to appeal unfair decisions. Many of the disabled people I have spoken to during my time in this role have told me that they live in fear of the Government reducing or taking away their benefits. As my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) said, amplified by the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), we must do more to protect vulnerable claimants and ensure that they do not lose their support because of their vulnerabilities.

The petitions call for a full review and major reform of the PIP assessment process. The Government had a chance to do that with their health and disability White Paper, which came out earlier this year. It is undoubtedly a huge task, and Ministers have avoided it, focusing instead on scrapping the work capability assessment. Many have welcomed that, but there is growing concern that the PIP assessment will now also determine eligibility for financial support for those not well enough to work. That means that a flawed assessment process is becoming even more high-stakes. The Government also have yet to give a satisfactory answer to what will happen to the half a million people currently in the limited capability for work-related activity group, who do not qualify for PIP.

Many Members spoke about the large number of tribunals that are successful in overturning the original decision. My right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Sir Stephen Timms) rightly stressed the need for all assessments to be recorded by default as a way of tracking and learning what has gone wrong and ensuring that mistakes do not happen again. In recent weeks, it has also been reported that, in a bid to reduce the welfare bill, the Treasury may consider cutting or means-testing PIP. Unsurprisingly, that has caused further alarm among disabled people and those who work with and represent them. Citizens Advice also estimates that disabled people in England and Wales are missing out on £24 million a month because of the PIP review backlog. More than 430,000 are currently awaiting their review, and some are facing delays of up to two years. I hope all of us can agree that those delays are unacceptable.

My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols) and the hon. Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) spoke about fluctuating conditions such as MS, Crohn’s and colitis and how the system needs to recognise those conditions, support these people and treat them with dignity and respect.

If we are to restore trust in the DWP and create a system that is fit for purpose, we must work closely with disabled people. They are the ones who can tell us how it feels to have their ability to carry out tasks scrutinised by an assessor who may have no previous knowledge of their condition. They are the ones who can truly describe the amount of stress involved in taking the DWP to tribunal over an unfair decision. They can tell us what changes, big or small, could make the process easier and less humiliating for claimants. In other words, they are the experts by experience. If nothing else, I hope the Minister will agree with me on the importance of this co-production.

We must ensure that every stage of the social security system is supportive and accessible and that everyone is treated with the dignity and respect they deserve. Many Members have asked many important questions today. I will not repeat them all, but I do hope that the Minister will spend time ensuring he addresses and answers them in full.

--- Later in debate ---
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.