Incapacity Benefit: Reassessments
Private Members’ Business
William Hay (DUP)
The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. One amendment has been selected and published on the Marshalled List. The proposer of the amendment will have 10 minutes to propose and five minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes.
Mickey Brady (Sinn Féin)
I beg to move
That this Assembly expresses concern that the reassessment process for people who are moving from incapacity benefit to employment and support allowance is resulting in many people being unfairly deemed “fit for work” and losing their benefit; and calls on the Minister for Social Development to review urgently the reassessment process to avoid both the undue distress it is causing and the additional burden it is placing on the public purse by triggering so many appeals.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I think that the motion is one that Members can support because it affects and will continue to affect all constituencies. Under welfare reform, 76,000 people here will migrate from incapacity benefit to employment and support allowance. The exercise will take approximately three years to complete, having started in February 2011 and running, if on time, to March 2014.
The North has a higher proportion of claimants on incapacity benefit than England or the other devolved Administrations: 8·6% of our working-age population receive incapacity benefit compared with 5·2% in Britain. Therefore, the migration of claimants to employment and support allowance, in particular, will have a greater impact.
The work capability assessment was introduced in October 2008 to assess entitlement to ESA, which has replaced incapacity benefit, and income support on incapacity grounds, for new claimants from 27 October 2008. The assessment is being used to determine limited capability for work and limited capability for work-related activity. In the transition from incapacity benefit to ESA, it is intended that the award of ESA will become the main route to disability-related support within universal credit, so access to employment and support allowance will be determined by the work capability assessment.
There is a high level of ill health and disability within disadvantaged communities. There is obviously an association between poverty and ill health and disability. Approximately one third of disabled people currently live in poverty. There is evidence to show that incapacity benefit and DLA have had a significant impact on reducing poverty. There is no doubt that impending changes will reverse that trend and increase poverty among the sick and disabled. Many people are currently entitled to incapacity benefit and DLA. The implementation of changes such as the work capability assessment currently deals with incapacity benefit, but a similar process will be introduced for DLA.
According to Advice NI, approximately 60% of incapacity benefit claimants are aged 50 or over. Some 9,000 live in Belfast and 4,000 in Derry, with the third largest concentration in Craigavon. Almost 50% suffer from mental and behavioural disorders such as drug and alcohol addiction. The Law Centre has also been concerned about the limited understanding of mental health problems in the assessment process and the limited weight given to supplementary evidence such as GPs’ and carers’ testimonies. It also states that 46∙6% of individuals in receipt of incapacity benefit here have mental or behavioural disorders. It states that mental health issues need to be more specifically focused on in addressing the migration process.
Figures from DSD indicate that, to date, 9,000 claimants have been reassessed, of which 24% were declared fit for work and lost their entitlement, 46% were deemed fit for work with support, and 30% were assessed as unfit to work and gained unconditional ESA entitlement. Advice NI estimates that more than 20,000 will have their entitlement downgraded to the support category, and that group will be subject to a loss of benefit sanctions in line with jobseeker’s allowance.
I will now deal with some of the specifics of the work capability assessment. It is carried out by Atos, which is a data processing company contracted here by the Minister’s predecessor to carry out reassessments in relation to incapacity benefit. Atos is paid by results, the result being the number of people processed rather than the accuracy of the reassessment. The work capability assessment is a tick-box exercise that relies on standard interrogation techniques to identify inconsistencies in a claimant’s account, which could result in no points being awarded — it is a points-based process. The claimant is not privy to the point-scoring during interview and has no opportunity to challenge any judgements by the Atos operative, which are often highly subjective judgements at the time.
I have spoken to some claimants who have had some ridiculous decisions given to them, and I will give some examples. Mental health was assessed by asking general knowledge questions, such as who is the British Prime Minister; and people have been asked to count backwards from 400 to 350. Someone not actively rocking in their chair is taken as an indication that they do not have a mental illness. That is one of the recommended criteria for Atos operatives to use as an evaluation. Declaring someone fit for work on the basis that they had been discharged from hospital, despite the fact that they had been discharged because they were too ill to undergo further treatment.
Medical evidence as well as the work capability assessment can be submitted to the decision-maker, a member of the Social Security Agency, but, currently, the work capability assessment has primacy in the decision-making process. The administrative downgrading of medical evidence in the primary process is why so many decisions are overturned on appeal. I know that an amendment has been tabled in relation to the provision of medical evidence. In my experience over many years of dealing with cases of incapacity, etc, and, indeed, appeals, good medical evidence is always a prerequisite and, if it is available, it will certainly help in the process. Indeed, in two of the examples I have given, where claimants received no points, they easily won their appeals and were awarded points well in excess of those required to win their appeal.
Recently, the chief executive of Mind, Paul Farmer, resigned from the British Government’s advisory group tasked with scrutinising the work capability assessment. He resigned in frustration at the Government’s refusal to listen to growing chorus of alarm over the reliability of the test.
Disability charity Scope backed MIND’s decision, saying that the huge number of successful appeals was a damning indictment of the test.
A CAB study into the accuracy of the test found that people with serious illnesses and disabilities who could not reasonably be expected to seek work have been found fit for work. It reported that 60% of successful appeals involved claimants who had originally been awarded no points by the work capability assessment (WCA). The work capability assessment has been fundamental, not marginal, yet despite evidence of the scale of WCA inaccuracies, the British Employment Minister, Chris Grayling, claimed the process required only tweaks.
I urge the Minister to take into account the following suggestions: the immediate review of the work capability assessment to ensure that the assessment process is fit for purpose; DSD could assume responsibility either for getting medical evidence on behalf of the claimant or for meeting the cost of medical reports to be assessed by the Social Security Agency’s decision-maker in relation to the awarding of employment and support allowance; GPs, consultants and other health professionals could consider waiving fees for providing medical evidence in support of ESA claims by their patients; the current Atos Healthcare payment-by-results regime should include a penalty for any inaccuracies or errors in its assessment if a case is overturned on appeal, or, where this may not be deliverable in relation to the current contract, it could be inserted into any subsequent or renewal contract.
In Britain, Atos Healthcare has netted over £1 billion to date and is running at a cost to the Department for Work and Pensions of £100 million a year. More and more appeals are being lodged because of the flaws in the work capability assessment. In 2011, an estimated £50 million of taxpayers’ money was poured into appeals against Atos Healthcare rulings. Four of every 10 appeals were successful. Professor Malcolm Harrington, who reviewed the work capability assessment, stated that he was “shocked” and “staggered” by the tremendous waste of public money tied up in the appeals process.
“My Department will continue to review WCA and to make changes where necessary to ensure that our high standards of support continue.”
He also said:
“We can however give an assurance that at the Department for Social Development we will continue to place the customer at the forefront of our priorities as we move forward”.
Michael Copeland (UUP)
I beg to move the following amendment: After “allowance”, insert
“, with no cognisance being taken of their medical records,”.
I thank Members for tabling what I consider to be an important motion and ask that they consider accepting our amendment, which highlights the role that medical evidence should play in arriving at these decisions. This may seem rather strange to some, but I also ask the Minister to accept comments from many of my constituents who have gone through the process that, in general, his staff in the Department for Social Development display a good deal of human kindness in guiding people through it.
If there is a failing in the process, it is in the so-called test itself, which involves, in a new form, the “big doctor”. I must confess that I was totally remote from the “big doctor” for the first 40 years of my life, but I know that, depending on community background, he rates very highly after the banshee and the bogeyman on a list to be avoided at all costs. The truth is that many of our people are being put through a process that tells them that they and their doctors are wrong. After pushing a number of questions or carrying out a number of tests, they are told that they are fit for work.
Ulstermen and Ulsterwomen, regardless of their background, are not silly. They know that 62,500 people are unemployed and, according to the statistics that I have, there are 5,417 vacancies. So being moved from a classification of being unfit for work through illness to the classification of being fit for work when there is none causes certain difficulties.
The test, as I understand it, is carried out by a private company, as has been said.
And this private company has, in my view, come up with a few things that are very hard even for me to accept. One of them, in several cases in my own constituency, defies Einstein’s theory of relativity and the space-time continuum. It lists or states an interview which, let us say, began at 9.00 am and was concluded at 9.25 am, lasting 25 minutes, but further on in that magnificent piece of paper, it indicates a number of events that took place during that 25-minute meeting. Even I, with my basic grasp of mathematics, have, on occasions, come up with 33 or 34 minutes’ worth of events in a meeting that lasted 25 minutes. In any court of law — or physics — such a thing is impossible. The fact that someone is paid to come up with that nonsense to go through an appeals service is an affront to every single person in the Chamber.
I have also seen documents produced wherein a man is described as a woman and a woman as a man. It is foolishness. There is something basically wrong with a test that indicates that so many people on appeal are successful on grounds of medical evidence when medical evidence has not been considered during the process. As I understand it, medical opinion is sought: a medical opinion from a GP. The GP, I am told, receives no financial remuneration for filling in the form and, consequently, some forms are filled in and some are not. So we have a process where someone is referred to as a “healthcare professional”. Those Members who sit on the Social Development Committee will remember a bit of squirming on behalf of a senior departmental official when I asked him what constituted the medical qualifications of a medical healthcare professional.
The outworkings, in human terms, of some of those decisions are heartbreaking. I know that the Minister is, in many ways, a victim, in that he has had legislation handed down to him. However, we may need to examine ways in which we can attune this particular piece of legislation, if possible, to suit our own particular circumstances.
We have come through 40 years of murder and mayhem. The people affected by that, in many cases, will have sustained injuries during that time. Many of them, in my constituency and perhaps elsewhere as well, are former members of the security services who have been through horrific and horrible events that, for ever and a day, have changed their lives from the point of occurrence. They find themselves being questioned about their injuries, many of which are invisible in terms of physical disfigurement but are nevertheless very real and present. Some of the cases are so distressing that it is not the first occasion on which I have been at an appeal where the chairman of the panel, or someone with medical experience on the panel, has suspended proceedings because of the effect that it is having on the constituent.
I will cite two out of many examples. A lady from the Lagan Village, whose stated condition was agoraphobia, had not been out of the house for four and a half or five years. It was not a dreamed-up condition; someone had to do her shopping. She was disallowed the benefit for not turning up at the assessment. Only intervention by me — when I learned of it, funnily enough, through Facebook — brought action. I must say that the departmental officials and those involved behaved very appropriately and rectified the situation as soon as was humanly possible. However, it would have been so much less onerous on my constituent had it not occurred in the first place.
The second example is even more distressing. It was a case assessed on the personal capability for work assessment test. Benefit was disallowed but subsequently reinstated when the mental health issues became apparent. The claimant was a female, one of four children abandoned by their mother when the claimant was less than six months old. The police gained entry to the property because neighbours had been alerted to the crying of a baby, which was her. She was entrusted into the care of a member of the family, as was common some years ago, and did not enjoy satisfactory treatment.
She was put up for adoption at seven years of age and returned as unmanageable at 13. She was entrusted to another family member and endured an existence in the attic of a house in Belfast that would test anyone’s view of human relationships. She is the mother of two children, both of whom have been taken into care because of her inability to cope. She cut herself; she abused alcohol, drugs and tablets; and then she became the mother of another child. Her life changed. She has, in so far as she is capable, dedicated herself to trying, in very trying circumstances, to provide for that child as best she can. The state’s answer was to tell her, after all that, that there was nothing really wrong with her and that she should be ready to return to work. It almost tipped her over the edge. The appeal part of the process was abandoned halfway through when it became evident that to continue would have constituted nothing other than mental cruelty.
There is nobody in the Chamber who does not recognise the need for reform of the welfare system, and there is nobody in the Chamber who is not aware that one person’s benefits are another person’s taxes. The truth is that the system that we apply must be applied fairly and justly. I do not believe, through no fault of the Minister, that that is the current case. We must tell people to bring appropriate medical evidence where they can get it. Medical evidence should be inculcated into the system if at all possible. The truth of it all is that, if we in the Chamber cannot talk about what we believe to be unfair on behalf of our constituents, we are failing. It is our duty to rail against unfairness where we see it. It is the Minister’s duty to do what he can on behalf of all of us, within what is very narrow ground, to protect the most vulnerable people in this society. I ask for the support of you all for the motion as amended.
Paula Bradley (DUP)
I thank the proposer of the motion for his very in-depth analysis. Like many other Members in the Chamber, I am inundated with calls from constituents on the subject.
In many cases, people are ill through no fault of their own. They do not ask to be ill, and the evidence often suggests that people end up claiming illness benefits as a last resort, when every other avenue is not appropriate. It is right and just that our illness benefits should evolve from a system that compartmentalises those who are not in full health as being permanently excluded from our workforce and writes them off. I am sure that everyone in the Chamber agrees that that needs to be looked at. Illness and disability does not affect everyone in the same manner. The activities that can be done can vary from person to person. The reassessment and the more flexible outcomes and support reflect that nature while still protecting those who are too ill to be in employment.
This is a new avenue for us. Following the lead from the UK, we are attempting to ensure that we have in place the most fair and robust process, and least stressful, to ensure that evaluations are done in a way that reduces stress to those who are undergoing re-evaluation. We are attempting to ensure that that is done in a way that instils confidence in everyone involved and in a timely manner.
It is right that we continue to evaluate periodically the system that we have in place to ensure that those ideals are put in place. The current system has been in operation for some time. As of the end of February this year, 9,328 people had completed reassessment. Of those, 7,126 were moved on to one of the two ESA groups, while a small proportion — 30% — had their award disallowed, with only 237 not receiving any other form of assistance. That is less than 4% of the total number of people who were reassessed. Some 246 appeals have been heard by the independent tribunal, with only 97 — 39% — being successful.
The remaining 150 decisions were upheld. That means that, according to the independent tribunal, 60% of the decisions were correct. We must strive to ensure that we continue to work to reduce the amount of decisions that are made incorrectly. Sadly, for a variety of reasons, it will not be possible to ensure that 100% of decisions are correct, but I believe that, through periodic re-examination of the system and debate in this Chamber, we can ensure that we are promoting and encouraging best practice and accountability to some of the most vulnerable in our society.
We must work to ensure that the message that is given about the changes is the correct message. The process is not about forcing the ill to work and is not simply a number-reducing exercise; it is about empowering people to be active in our workforce and our communities to the best of their ability. It is about identifying the often multiple barriers that people face when they have health issues so that they can have the same opportunities and ambitions as people who do not have those health issues. It is also about ensuring that people with health issues are not forced to live in poverty but have the opportunity and support to be financially independent.
As mentioned in the amendment, I agree that medical evidence is paramount when decisions are being made. I know that, in many of the appeals that have been overturned, that decision has been due to the extra medical evidence. Studies show us time and again that employment has many beneficial qualities, including raising self-esteem, reducing social isolation and helping people to recover from illness.
Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I support the motion and Mr Copeland’s amendment.
There are many problems with the current work capability assessment. Indeed, those problems have, on previous occasions, been aired in the Chamber, in the Committee for Social Development and in the media. However, we do not need to listen to some of the heartbreaking accounts on ‘The Nolan Show’ or elsewhere to know the hardship and stress that this flawed process is causing for vulnerable people in our communities. We see it every week in our constituency offices, and Members who spoke previously gave specific, real-life examples of how it is affecting people on the ground. People with complex and serious debilitating conditions are being told that they are capable of work. Not only do those often erroneous decisions cause financial hardship but the stress and anxiety that they cause often compounds people’s conditions, particularly for those with mental illness.
The fact that the process is failing here should come as no great surprise to anyone. The Harrington review of the work capability assessment in the UK was quite damning in its identification of what could and should be done to make the process fairer and more effective. Professor Harrington flagged up problems such as the impersonal nature of interactions with Atos, the difficulties in assessing some conditions, and the fragmentation and communication between the different agencies and organisations that are involved.
The impact of the process in Northern Ireland, which has a higher proportion of claimants on incapacity benefit than the other regions, was always going to be harsh. While it was flailing in the UK, it is failing here. Like many other aspects of the welfare reform agenda, we believe that a special case can and should be made for Northern Ireland. Here, 8·6% of the working-age population gets incapacity, compared with 5·2% in England. Figures suggest that up to 17,500 claimants here will join the unemployment register over the next three years simply through the migration to ESA, and others with partners in work, or those who have been prudent enough to save, may drop out of the system altogether. Even those who are rightly deemed capable of work will hardly be capable of finding it, given the dearth of jobs here. So, what chance is there for those who are incapacitated?
As Mr Brady said, the current Atos assessment displays an extremely limited understanding of mental health problems, and it does not give enough weight to supplementary evidence from GPs or carers. Almost 46·6% of individuals who are in receipt of incapacity benefit here have mental or behavioural disorders, and there is clearly a need to focus more particularly on mental health issues and to address them in the migration process.
The same could be said of those who suffer from conditions with fluctuating degrees of severity, such as MS and Parkinson’s disease, which are proving to be extremely difficult to assess. Atos Healthcare’s ineptitude is plainly evident in the spiralling number of appeals and the rising success rate of appellants, which, anecdotally, according to those who work in advice services in our communities, is rising to around 50%. The high rate of appeals, and the long wait for them, comes at a significant financial and reputational cost to the Department. It also causes further anxiety and expense for claimants.
We are greatly concerned at the perceived lack of accountability of the healthcare professionals who carry out assessments. The reason why so many decisions are being overturned at appeal is often because of the presentation of medical notes at that stage. This is a ridiculous situation, especially where claimants often have to pay £50 to get those notes, sometimes from a GP who is actually sitting on the tribunal.
I have said previously in the Chamber that the SDLP supports a fairer benefits system. We are not naive enough to think that there are not people who abuse the system, but neither are we cynical enough to support a system that will abuse people. Recently, Scottish GPs voted that the Atos assessment was unsatisfactory, and GPs to whom I have spoken here share the view that it causes undue problems for vulnerable people.
Judith Cochrane (Alliance)
I, too, welcome the opportunity to speak on the motion and the amendment. I have also seen first-hand the stress and uncertainty brought on by the reassessment process for ESA. I believe that the idea behind ESA is positive, in that those who can work should work, provided that appropriate jobs are available. Personal support should be given to those who are unable to carry out certain tasks or who require assistance with retraining in a different field after recovering from an illness. The benefits of getting people back to work after an illness or a disability are clear, not only for their health and well-being, but economically. However, the underlying principle of the process must be to help and not to hound people.
Other Members have referred to the work of Professor Malcolm Harrington. His initial conclusions on the work capability assessment were that the process was too mechanistic and that there was not enough of the human touch: people did not know what was happening to them, and no one was telling them. Yet, this is the same system that is determining whether a claimant is fit for work.
Prior to February 2011, 66% of claims for ESA had been disallowed, with the success rate of appeals standing at 40%. This was disturbingly high, as it appeared that significant numbers of people were being found to be fit for work when they were, in fact, not. The available information suggested that the standard of decision-making by the staff of the Social Security Agency was satisfactory and that the problems with ESA were a result of the new computerised test.
Because of this process, vulnerable people have had essential payments cut and there have been numerous cases of individuals with debilitating medical conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease, MS, rheumatoid arthritis or mental health issues, being wrongly deemed fit to work. People with medical conditions such as those have good days and bad days, and assessing them over the phone on a good day creates a wholly inaccurate picture of their illness or disability. With such a generic and impersonal test, it is unsurprising how many claims have been successful at appeal. Realistically, it is the first opportunity that a claimant has to have their individual circumstances and medical history looked at and discussed in detail on a face-to-face basis.
Although some adjustments have been made to the work capability assessment, considerable criticism continues from those in the advice and voluntary sector, as 27% of those who have migrated from incapacity benefit to ESA have been disallowed altogether. There is a widespread view that access to the support group is also extremely limited. With no input from a claimant’s GP or health worker, and limited knowledge of the claimant’s medical history, we cannot realistically expect a tick-box exercise carried out over the phone to adequately assess whether an individual is or is not fit to work.
A one-size-fits-all approach does not work, and we must focus our efforts on fixing a flawed assessment process. The benefits system should be reformed to make work pay and encourage those who are, in fact, fit for work into paid work. However, with so many decisions in the current assessment process being challenged, significant finances are being directed into the appeals process.
As Mark Durkan said, Scottish GPs called for an end to the work capability assessments at their annual British Medical Association conference in March. They commented that the computer-based assessments are inadequate and give little regard to the nature or complexity of the needs of long-term sick and disabled persons. We, too, need to consider a better assessment process to ensure that the most vulnerable are given the support that they need. I support the motion and call on the Minister to review the process urgently.
Alex Easton (DUP)
The welfare system that we have today was born of our society’s concern about how it treats its poorest and most vulnerable. It was seen that the state should protect the most vulnerable when they need it the most. One of the things that make people most vulnerable is poor health that leaves them unable to work.
Welfare reform, which requires people to move from incapacity, DLA or income support on the grounds of incapacity, is a reform that we have to ensure that we get right. The current process, which is the work capability assessment, has three main outcomes for those on long-term illness benefits. It is another reform that has been imposed on us through the issue of parity with the rest of the UK. However, we must be sensitive to the fact that, as a region in the UK, Northern Ireland is unique as regards these types of benefits. A higher percentage of the population in Northern Ireland is on incapacity benefits than in any other region in the UK. A great number of recipients suffer from severe mental health issues, having come through the conflict that we experienced over 30 years. The capability assessment process seems to be failing some of them. The process has left those with mental health issues, particularly the most vulnerable, many of whom are long-term claimants with multiple barriers to employment, feeling let down.
Some 75% of 300 respondents to a survey on the Mind website stated that the WCA had made their mental health worse, and 51% admitted that they had had suicidal thoughts as a result of worry about the WCA. Suicide is still much stigmatised in our community, and it is an issue that is often hidden. That statistic and honesty gives me real concern that many more people are feeling similarly and that some might act on these acts purely as a result of their reassessment and the possibility of an appeal process. A staggering 95% of respondents indicated that they were fearful that they would not be believed in this process. That is a worrying statistic, and the evidence appears to suggest that we are placing this very vulnerable group under more pressure than necessary. The process also appears to have a lack of empathy with and understanding of illness in the mental health arena.
Northern Ireland is also unique compared to the rest of the UK when it comes to employing people with disabilities, regardless of hidden or covert disabilities. That needs to be addressed. People who are forced off incapacity benefit must have a reasonable expectation that a job exists that they can be reasonably be expected to do.
We must address the prejudices that exist in our employment arena and that stop people who want to be productive members of our community from fulfilling their potential. In my experience, people do not want to be ill long term or to be written off. The premise of this reform is that no one will be written off. However, we must ensure that we empower individuals to come off this benefit when their health allows them. The rate of successful appeals suggests that we have not got the equation quite right. Feedback from those suffering from mental health issues and other disabilities suggests that we have not got the equation right, and it is with that in mind that I support the motion.
Christopher Hazzard (Sinn F??in)
Go raibh maith agat, a Phriomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I rise to speak on the motion brought before the Chamber by my party colleagues. It is no coincidence that I have chosen this topic for my maiden speech. The reassessment of those in receipt of incapacity benefit, while well under way in Britain, has only begun here in the North, but it is already having a serious detrimental impact on many of my constituents. To date, around 9,000 people here have had their claims reassessed. Within the next two years, 57,000 more people are scheduled to undertake a test, the design and implementation of which has already provoked a great deal of criticism. Citizens Advice is just one amongst a number of groups and experts that have described the current fit-for-work test as not fit for purpose. They have good reason.
Let me just take a moment to describe the test to Members. Many people understandably expect that a person deemed eligible for benefit on the basis of a medical assessment in the past would be reassessed on the basis of a medical re-examination, but that is not the case. The test, designed by a British occupational therapist and conducted by a private company, is not a medical reassessment but a capability test. The work capability assessment is not designed to determine how chronically ill a person is. It is not designed to determine whether their condition has worsened or improved. It only decides, regardless of your health and physical condition, whether you could carry out some sort of work. It applies to any kind of imagined work, not a specified job or a real job in the real labour market, but the projected possibility of a job. It does not assess your employability or match your capability with jobs that are available. It does not take account of the likelihood of any employer being prepared to accommodate your illness. The only decision that the test is designed to make is whether you can be ill and work at the same time.
At its most ridiculous, British Ministers argue that those with fluctuating conditions such as MS and bipolar will be able to move in and out of work — three months at their desks, six months away on sick leave, six months back at their desks, three months on sick leave, and so on. Can you imagine any business knowingly employing many people on that basis and still being successful? The current British Government see themselves as pro-business and as market realists, but have you ever heard anything so absurd? Who will suffer the consequences of that absurdity? It certainly will not be the British Minister or the British Treasury, who are driving a cuts agenda that targets the poorest and most vulnerable in our society rather than facing up to the difficulties of taxing the rich and powerful.
I have no doubt that most Members are already dealing with the outworkings of this in their constituency offices. I am dealing with them in mine. Like Members, I have heard the media talk of scroungers and accusations of people swinging the lead, but that is not the reality that we are being faced with in our constituencies. We are being met with the plight of seriously ill people who, on the basis of a poorly thought out test that was carried out by an outside international company with no interest in the impact on our communities, could lose benefits, sometimes all their benefits.
According to recent figures released by the DSD, only 30% of those reassessed in the Six Counties retained their original entitlement. Just under half, or 46%, had their entitlement downgraded to fit for work with support, which carries obligations to prepare for work and undertake rehabilitation. Almost one quarter, or 24%, were declared fit for work and lost their entitlement. All those in receipt of employment and support allowance, with a few exceptions, are obliged to undertake a reassessment test every year. That means that the 46% who fall into the fit for work with support category are particularly vulnerable to losing their entitlement at a subsequent assessment.
The process is fundamentally flawed, and that is clearly evident if we consider the high numbers of successful appeals and the profile of those appeals. Of those who were refused benefit, 40% were successfully reinstated on appeal. When the claimant was accompanied by CAB, the success rate increased to around 60%. A high proportion of those who were successful on appeal had been allocated no points during the work capability test. That in itself signals serious problems with the reassessment process.
Let me remind the House that, although Atos is funded by the British Government, appeals are paid out of the block grant. Measures to increase the accuracy of the reassessments and reduce the number of appeals are particularly significant to the Executive here. I also want to point out that many of those who have successfully appealed still face an annual Atos test.
In Britain, where the process is well under way, many have found that, a few months after a successful appeal, they are again declared fit for work by Atos, and that the whole appeal process has to start over again. That has resulted in a revolving system, where benefits are removed, reinstated, removed again, and so on. That is no way to treat sick and vulnerable members of our community.
Christopher Hazzard (Sinn F??in)
All welfare systems are a balance between ensuring incentives to work and preventing the defenceless falling into abject penury. We must not allow the balance to tip the wrong way. I call on Members to support the motion.
Lord Morrow (DUP)
There is a task here for the Minister to examine the criteria that is used to determine whether a person who was formerly in receipt of incapacity benefit and who is being reassessed for employment and support allowance is fit for work. We are aware that social security benefit is a non-devolved matter and that what we are discussing involves a directive from Westminster, and we should keep that in mind during the debate.
However, I want to stress that some people should be deemed fit for work, or at least some form of work. Some people are grateful for that.
There is also a role for the Department for Employment and Learning, as the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 must be robustly enforced for a number of disabled people who are being moved to jobseeker’s allowance. Likewise, employers must understand that they cannot simply make use of disabled persons for free in work placements. I have heard several examples of disabled persons working for free for some considerable time, but they were invariably overlooked when paid posts became available. That is totally wrong. I am pursuing that matter with OFMDFM; I have submitted a number of questions for written answer on that matter, and I look forward to receiving replies.
Numerous constituents who had been in receipt of incapacity benefit have come to my office in a distressed state after being reassessed as being fit for work. Fortunately, we have been able to assist with appeals, and, so far, all but one has been successful. Therefore, there is clearly something fundamentally wrong with the assessment process, whereby a person is examined by an assessor and deemed fit for work.
I want to detail a number of reports that have come through my office and were subsequently overturned. One report suggested that a claimant was not distressed, as they were not rocking back and forth in their chair. I find that to be an intolerable remark. Another report concluded that a claimant had no sight defect, despite being blind in one eye and awaiting a corneal transplant for the other eye and receiving treatment twice weekly in Belfast, for which he had to be driven all the way from County Tyrone. In another report, a claimant with significant learning difficulties was deemed to be fit for work, as they could operate complex devices like a dishwasher. To put it mildly, I find those remarks to be insulting.
Following the successful appeals achieved by my constituents, I submitted a question for written answer to the Minister to query the number of allowed appeals over the past three years. The reason why I chose the past three years was to cross over the period of the change in Government at Westminster and the sweeping reforms that followed. The Minister’s response showed that between April 2009 and March 2010 there were 354 successful appeals, between April 2010 and March 2010 the figure had jumped to 1,410, but, startlingly, after the renaming of benefits and welfare reform, the figure between April 2011 and March 2012 was 2,065. When we break that down, that shows that the vast percentage of appeals was allowed in the past year.
It costs a serious amount of money to pay appeal panels, which, at a minimum, are made up of a legally qualified member and a medically qualified member. The emotional cost to appellants is also significant and cannot be overlooked. I have real concerns about the benchmark that has been set to deem people as being fit for work and about those who are carrying out the examinations. To put it mildly, a lack of common sense is being applied.
Robin Swann (UUP)
It was Benjamin Franklin who said: “Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.”
In the past, the Minister has said that the fact that 40% of cases are appealed successfully is a sign that the system works. Minister, I must say that my interpretation of those figures is somewhat different, and I feel that you are wrong. How can a system that heaps mental anguish on the weakest in society, and in which at least 40% of cases are unnecessary in the first place, be considered successful? I think that it was the Member for North Down who said that it shows that 60% of the decisions were correct. However, it also shows that 40% of the decisions were wrong in the first place.
From my constituency work, I know the impact that the process has had on people’s health, especially on those with significant mental health issues. For the purposes of social justice, I want to focus on the outcome of the current tribunal appeals process. As I said, 40% of appeals are successful. However, behind that figure the outcome is significantly different for those who have independent representation — such as that from Citizens Advice, Advice NI or, indeed, from Members here and their staff — and those who try to represent themselves. Where someone is represented, they have a 70% to 80% chance of winning their appeal; where they are not represented, that figure drops to 20%. Even allowing for advice services taking forward the most winnable cases, the differential is still massive. The Minister, who is also responsible for advice provision, should also know that the advice agencies do not have the resources to meet the current demand. In a situation where the decision-maker relies on the examining medical practitioner’s word — based on only a 30-minute or 40-minute interview — being sacrosanct, the individual is left at a serious disadvantage.
Our amendment would ensure that the decision-maker has access to the individual’s extensive medical history and is able to take a balanced view, based on the comments of the professional about the 30-minute assessment, knowledge of the client and detailed, established notes taken over many years by another professional. Our purpose is clear: to reduce the number of wrong decisions being taken in the Atos assessment and, in doing so, reduce the mental anguish that is being caused unnecessarily to so many individuals.
When will we know the system works? We will know when every decision taken by the Minister’s staff is the right decision, first time. Social justice demands it, and the Ulster Unionist Party asks for it.
Go raibh maith agat, a Phriomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank those who tabled the motion. At the outset, let me state that the SDLP does not oppose the idea of simplifying the social security system. We do not oppose the principle of getting people back to work when or if they are able to. We do not oppose welfare reform. However, we do oppose unfair reform. The concern that is expressed in the motion is that many people are being unfairly deemed to be fit for work and are losing their benefit as a result. Colleagues have shared their constituency experiences, as we see the transition — smooth is the last thing that it could be called — from incapacity benefit to ESA. We see the outworkings of that change as people are being cut off.
That is happening as a result of the deliberate narrowing of the criteria under which claims are assessed. In other words, the definition of “fit for work” has been changed. The ongoing reassessment of an estimated 76,000 incapacity benefit recipients began on 28 February 2011. By 29 February this year, 9,328 individuals had completed reassessments. Of those, 2,202 had their incapacity benefit award disallowed following a work-capability assessment. That represents 24% of those who were reassessed. To put this in perspective, let us look at the figures in Britain — in England, Scotland and Wales. According to a summary from the Department for Work and Pensions in March 2012, in the reassessment of incapacity benefit claimants for employment and support allowance, 37% of claims were disallowed. I grant that more people have been reassessed there over a slightly longer period. Whether the figures here will rise as the process nears completion remains to be seen. There are then those who are awarded ESA but placed in the work-related category. Such claimants may receive the benefit for up to 12 months, after which their household income becomes a determining factor. That will have severe repercussions for a lot of people.
Beneath these figures lie harrowing examples of people who have been regularly assessed as unfit over a long time — I have dealt, as have colleagues, with cases going back 5, 10 or even 15 years — but, suddenly, the individuals concerned are told otherwise. They are being told that they are, after all, fit for work and that they had better find some quick. In Britain, a quarter of those who have been told for more than 15 years that they were not fit for work have, on reassessment of their claims, been told that they are fully fit for work. A further 40% of the same group are being told that they will be able to work at some point with help. If numbers here break down in similar percentages, there will be a huge impact on the welfare system. Long-term claimants tend to get sicker and may lose their sense of purpose. These people will need a great deal of help and support to rejoin the labour market, and that is if suitable jobs are available for them. That problem is magnified when they have been unfit for work for a considerable period of time and are nearing retirement age, as, in some cases, they are. The Minister will need to ensure that resources are made available to provide the necessary help and support to all of these people.
Inevitably, there are concerns about the training and qualifications of the assessors. I know that complaints have been made about the treatment of some people with disabilities during the reassessment of their claims. Assessors have, at times, shown little or no understanding of the disability being assessed. That the assessors are contracted to a private company and are unaccountable to the Department is another area of concern.
To date, more than half of the claimants who have been disallowed have appealed and are currently going through that process, which can be costly. As the motion indicates, this is a sign of the undue distress being caused to claimants and will take up more and more resources as the process continues. Regardless of the high-minded rhetoric used to justify the reassessment process, the perception is one of a process designed to cut the costs of the welfare system, where Tories have paid to bail out the banks by targeting the most vulnerable. The people who are paying are those who most need our help. I support the motion and I call on the Minister for Social Development to urgently review the reassessment process.
Steven Agnew (Green)
I will not repeat much of what has been said already. In the debate, many of the main points have been raised on the figures of appeals and the concern that we should all have about the substantial number of people who are being deemed fit to work having been originally deemed unfit to work. I question what the agenda is. Perhaps it is to prevent unfair remuneration, through an incapacity benefit system and employment and support allowance, to people who are fit to work in order to protect those who cannot work and need support. It may be to save the public purse from money that is being spent on people who could potentially be earning themselves. However, one of the unintended consequences has clearly been an unfair system whereby people who are clearly unfit to work are having the genuineness of their claims questioned. In some cases, they have been denied benefits in the first instance, and, later, having shown their cases to have been right, that decision has been overturned. They go through significant and considerable stress and hardship. Indeed, the cost to the public purse of dealing with appeals cases is significant and considerable. We have to judge the quality of the system based on the original agenda. If it is to tackle unfairness and waste of public money, it is failing in a significant number of cases.
I welcome the amendment, and I speak in favour of the motion and the amendment. Not only is the reliability of claimant submissions being questioned, but, by excluding GPs from the initial process, we are, to some extent, questioning the ability and honesty of GPs in assessing the patients they have worked with, in many cases, over a number of years. This information is key. As has been pointed out, a short assessment cannot assess many of the disabilities and illnesses that it is required to judge. Not exclusively, but particularly with mental health, how can any kind of judgement in a very short space of time be made by someone who has never met the claimant, does not know the claimant and is not fully au fait with the claimant’s condition, or, indeed, is an expert in how that condition may affect the person?
In my previous role in the Simon Community, I worked with a number of individuals who had mental ill health. I saw those people on good days when they were able to use their skills to cope with daily living, but I also saw them on the days when they could not cope and needed support. A number of those people could be deemed to be fit for work under this assessment, but anybody who knows them intimately and has known them over a period of time would know that they could not be fit for work on a sustained basis.
We have to question the system, given the failure rate and that 40% of rejections are successfully appealed. However, it was mentioned that the statistic for that is actually 60% for those who have Citizens Advice accompaniment to their appeals. That suggests that we have to query a number of the assessments and try to get things right at the front end rather than waiting until the appeals process.
We have to be honest: no system will ever be perfect, and there will always be some margin for error. However, I contend that the system is fundamentally flawed.
David McClarty (Independent)
Like others, I am very concerned at the process for reassessing people who claim incapacity benefit.
Given previous contributions, it is clear that I am not alone when I say that I have been inundated by calls from anxious constituents who are fearful that their limited income will suddenly stop. The Minister will, of course, argue that the reassessment will not stop welfare support but that it will facilitate a more appropriate entitlement that will help people back into work. The sentiment is there, but the reality is not. Reassessment is stopping benefit for some people, namely those whose partners work, however limited that working income.
Furthermore, many of my constituents have been hit with a letter that rejects their claim for incapacity benefit and deems them to be fit for work. Yet, those same people genuinely struggle with their ailments to the extent that getting through the day is a challenge. That leads me to question the process and the training of the professionals who are carrying out the assessments.
There are many issues here, many of which other Members raised. However, I will reiterate some of them to highlight to the Minister how serious the matter is and how deeply flawed the process is.
The process is too ambitious. In Northern Ireland, 76,000 claimants will be subject to the reassessment process over a three-year period. Approximately 500 claimants a week will be assessed. I repeat: 500 people a week. I can only begin to imagine the severe pressure that assessors are under to make quick decisions. That pressure will undoubtedly lead to mistakes. It has led to mistakes. The escalating number of successful appeals proves that. It is essential that we note that those mistakes are not minor: they are negatively life changing and contribute stress and anxiety to those who are already suffering from illness and certainly do not need that extra burden.
The ambitious figures are also resulting in delays, particularly as appeals are emerging thick and fast. That is just not acceptable. We should not expect people to sit and wait, wondering whether they can afford to feed themselves while the Department gets its act together. Again, we must consider that those most affected by all this are, foremost, struggling to deal with the cost of illness, financial and otherwise. I believe that, since the process began last year, the enormous challenge has proven to be severely underestimated.
The working capability assessments here are based on the UK standard and are not Northern Ireland specific. Northern Ireland needs to write its own rule book on illness and capability to work. We are a post-conflict society. A huge proportion of our population is suffering from the effects of that conflict. Of course, we have come a long way, but scars are still being borne. The prevalence of mental illness here, for example, is one of the highest in the UK. We need to understand mental health and other illnesses better before assuming that people are simply fit for work.
There is a much bigger picture. There will always be people who take advantage, and I agree that we have a responsibility to address that. We must remember that we are living in very difficult times and people are, quite simply, desperate. It is not simply a case of benefit-scrounging; in a lot of cases, it is survival. Getting a job is not simple, particularly in Northern Ireland, where unemployment is at its highest. My constituency of East Londonderry is potentially facing over 400 further job losses if the Justice Minister gets his way. I am far from saying that incapacity benefit should address that shortfall, but I do not agree that this migration of benefits is to help people get back into work. There is no work for them.
Many serious issued were raised concerning work capability assessments. I am therefore led to believe that the reassessment process is deeply flawed, and I appeal to the Minister to immediately review it to avoid further fear and anxiety among the public and to limit the ridiculous cost to the public purse from appeals. Therefore, I support the motion and the amendment.
Nelson McCausland (DUP)
I thank all who contributed to the debate, and I welcome the opportunity to respond to the motion, which calls on me to review urgently the reassessment process owing to the distress that it is causing people on incapacity benefit and the cost to the public purse of the volume of appeals.
It may be useful if I provide some background on reassessment. Employment and support allowance was introduced in October 2008 to replace incapacity benefit as part of the Welfare Reform Act (Northern Ireland) 2007. The legislation was passed by the Northern Ireland Assembly on 25 June 2007, almost five years ago. That was in the term of the previous Assembly, and a previous SDLP Minister put the Bill through the Assembly.
The 2007 Act made provision to allow for the migration of existing incapacity benefit customers to employment and support allowance. In Northern Ireland, approximately 76,000 incapacity benefit customers will go through reassessment, which commenced in February 2011 and is due to be completed by April 2014. I am pleased to be able to advise that the Social Security Agency is on target to meet the deadline.
The work capability assessment is a key component of reassessment, as the medical opinion and factual reports are used, along with the information provided by the customer and any independent medical evidence, by the Social Security Agency’s decision-makers to establish entitlement to employment and support allowance. Customers undergoing reassessment are required to take part in a work capability assessment, which focuses on the functional effects of an individual’s condition rather than the condition itself. It is used to determine a person’s ability to engage in work or work-related activity. That ensures that all who are able to work are given assistance to help them back into employment.
The outcome of the work capability assessment does not mean that everyone is ready to take up work immediately. It is recognised that the incapacity benefit caseload will include customers with very different needs, given the broad range of medical conditions. Those customers who are considered to have no limited capability for work and who move on to jobseeker’s allowance receive support from an employment services adviser from the Department for Employment and Learning. The advisers also provide support and assistance to those entitled to employment and support allowance who are placed in the work-related activity group. Customers with the most severe conditions move into the support group in employment and support allowance and are not required to participate in work-focused activity.
The debate has focused on the work capability assessment and the medical aspects of the customer journey. Members have related the experiences of individual constituents. I recognise that the work capability assessment can and, indeed, has been improved.
No doubt, Members are aware that there already exists a requirement under section 10 of the Welfare Reform (Northern Ireland) Act 2007 for yearly independent reviews of the work capability assessment. Professor Malcolm Harrington, an occupational health specialist, was appointed to undertake those reviews in Northern Ireland and Great Britain. In his first review, Professor Harrington found that the system was not broken, but he set out recommendations to improve the process and the way in which we treat customers. In his second review, Professor Harrington found that significant strides to change and improve the process had been taken since his first review. Members will recall that his first report was laid before the Assembly in September 2011, followed by a second report in November 2011. His third review is already under way, and the report is expected in November or December.
The Social Security Agency is working with Professor Harrington and has made very good progress in taking forward the recommendations from his reviews. Professor Harrington has recognised the excellent standard of decision-making that he found in Northern Ireland. In his first two reports, Professor Harrington did not recommend a radical redesign of the customer journey or the work capability assessment. Of the 22 recommendations contained in his first report, 14 were specific to the Department and, of those, 13 have been implemented. Those included improvements to the customer journey and the provision of mental health champions to provide advice and support to healthcare professionals and decision-makers when dealing with customers with mental health issues. Work is ongoing to implement the remaining recommendation. Note the emphasis that has been placed on mental health issues. I think that all of us are aware of the particular challenges that are faced by people with mental health problems not only as they go through the customer journey, but any of the challenges that many of them face in life. Those can be particularly traumatic.
Work has also begun to implement his year 2 report and includes the recent informal consultation on proposals for making the work capability assessment process better for cancer patients. The two areas that have been picked up on particularly are mental health and cancer.
The motion suggests that there is a disproportionately high level of appeals generated by the reassessment process and that the outcomes indicate that there is a serious problem with the decisions being made. As of 31 March, 2,828 customers had been notified that their benefit was being disallowed. Of those, 1,662 customers had exercised their right to appeal the decision that they had a limited capability for work. The overall appeal rate for reassessed cases is 63% against an original planning assumption of 66%. It is worth noting that the appeal rate for incapacity benefit customers against the personal capability assessment was 49% in 2007, which was the last full year of the benefit.
Members have voiced concerns about the number of appeals that customers win and stated that that indicates that staff are getting too many decisions wrong. The main reason why decisions are being overturned by a tribunal remains that additional evidence was provided to the panel that was not available to the decision-maker. The most recent report from the president of appeals tribunals indicates that the level of incorrectness for employment and support allowance was 0·7%. That represented two incorrect decisions from the 281 cases monitored.
The outcome of appeals for reassessed customers at 31 March was that 35·8% had their appeal allowed. That compares favourably with the allowed rate for incapacity benefit appeals in 2007, when 36·6% of appeals were allowed. So the figure is very much the same as it was with incapacity benefit.
It is important to restate that the reassessment of incapacity benefit customers is not about disallowing benefit. It is about ensuring that customers are receiving the right benefit and the right level of support to meet their individual circumstances.
The importance of continuing to support customers who have their incapacity benefit disallowed was paramount in the planning for reassessment. The introduction of the specially trained customer advice and support team ensures that customers receive immediate support and financial advice on their entitlement to other benefits. Assistance is provided to customers who decide to claim another benefit or want to appeal.
Prior to the start of the reassessment, a major concern was that too many people would not understand the process, and they would be lost to the benefit system and end up with no support. The customer advice and support team ensures that every disallowed case where there has been no contact with the customer is tracked as an additional safeguard measure, and there are currently only eight customers being tracked to ensure that they receive some assistance.
I should add that the customer advice and support team intervention that we have in Northern Ireland is not in operation elsewhere. There is a different arrangement elsewhere. It was introduced in Northern Ireland to cater for our customers and to ensure that we make their journey as suitable as possible. It is something that the Department thereby provides.
The reassessment customer journey recognises that this is a difficult time for those going through it and ensures that ongoing support and advice is readily available at each key point in the process. Customer reaction to the way in which Social Security Agency staff have helped them through the reassessment journey has been very positive. I note that at least one Member commented on that point, and I thank Mr Copeland for that.
Following extensive consultation with the voluntary and community sector, the decision by the Social Security Agency to make regular telephone contact a key feature of the reassessment process has proved to be very successful. Customer feedback has been extremely positive, and the effectiveness of the current approach can be quantified by the low number of incapacity benefit customers who have had their benefits disallowed because they have not returned their medical questionnaires. As of 31 March, that figure stands at 35.
There have been excellent results from customer satisfaction surveys. By the end of March, over 23,000 customers had undergone reassessment, yet the Social Security Agency has received only 34 complaints. I should add that there are seven points along the customer journey where there is contact with the customer. That regular intervention and contact with the customer is a key element in how the process operates.
The principle behind employment and support allowance is that appropriate work helps to improve a person’s self-esteem and is good for most people’s physical and mental health and well-being, as well as for their finances. Any significant changes to the reassessment process would be constrained by the long-standing policy of parity in social security matters. Any changes to the existing regulations could result in a disjoint with the regulations in Great Britain. A breaking of parity could have serious financial implications.
The Social Security Agency uses the Department for Work and Pensions IT systems to process and pay benefits. That ensures that the taxpayer is not asked to pay twice for the implementation of systems in Northern Ireland which are common across the rest of the United Kingdom. The arrangement means that the Social Security Agency does not pay for IT development costs, but it pays for IT running costs based on a pro rata usage basis.
One final consideration is the potential impact that a different approach to reassessment could have on systems that are being developed nationally to administer universal credit from October 2013. The debate has explored fully the concerns of Members, and I share many of the concerns that have been expressed about the impact on individuals. However, I assure the Assembly that arrangements are in place to ensure that the work capability assessment continues to be reviewed and improved.
My time is limited, but I want to pick up on a few points. It is often said that Atos is paid by results. That is incorrect. There are 10 physical indicators and seven mental health indicators. The point should be made that rocking in a chair is only one of a number of indicators. It is not a yes or no thing and that you are in or out depending on that. It is simply one of the factors to be considered and taken into account during the work capability assessment.
The Harrington review is ongoing: it is over a five-year period. As I said already, he did not recommend a radical redesign of the customer journey. I intend to supply MLAs with a diagram setting out the customer journey very clearly. I have found it very helpful in keeping an oversight of the programme, and others would benefit from that because it makes the details of the process clear. A few MLAs’ comments were inaccurate, and it is clear that there is some misunderstanding. For example, the input from a medical adviser, a psychiatrist or whoever should be in at the start of the process. It has to be in early as it is considered at a very early stage and, if it is there, it may well be that you do not have to go for a work capability assessment.
Special arrangements are in place in Northern Ireland to support customers with mental health issues. Mental health champions are in place, people have support from the customer and advice support (CAS) team, and healthcare professionals receive comprehensive training in relation to mental health. Their work is audited by Atos —
Nelson McCausland (DUP)
— and by the Social Security Agency’s health assessment adviser. It would be helpful if we could spend some time looking at this more fully as it is a complex system and there may be some misunderstandings.
Michael McGimpsey (UUP)
I support the motion as amended. I am grateful to Members who have taken part in the debate. I am particularly grateful to the Members who tabled the motion. Clearly, there is consensus in the House, and I will not exhaust us by going through all the points made.
It is important to reflect that this is not a devolved matter per se: it is firmly within the remit of Westminster. However, as a firm part of the Kingdom, our citizens are perfectly entitled to the benefits of the process as it comes through, not least because Northern Ireland could not afford this type of resource on its own.
It is important to reflect that the process, as administered in Northern Ireland, is a matter for the Department and the House to consider. When you look at the numbers who are being reassessed, as people are moved from incapacity benefit to employment and support allowance, it is clear that very large numbers are involved. It is generally recognised that there is a problem in the system and that is best encapsulated by the point made by many Members, which is that around 40% of appeals were allowed: 40% of those who appealed against a decision were successful, and it is a staggering indictment of any process to have, in effect, a 40% failure rate. It would not be accepted in any other area, and I am glad that the sentiments here are that it is not acceptable for us.
Of course, the surreal side to this is the logic of declaring people who are unfit for work as fit for work and moving them from incapacity benefit to employment and support allowance, bearing in mind that the number of people who are unemployed is 62,000 and rising and the opportunities for those folks to find employment are very limited. Nevertheless, it is important that we do the job and that we do it properly. As Members have said, and as I am well aware, we have health issues in Northern Ireland that are particular and different to those in the rest of the United Kingdom. For example, our mental health need is 25% greater than that in the rest of the UK and our spend is around 25% less. There are issues around intellectual and cognitive capacity that are not being picked up in the system. The recommendations in the Harrington review are coming through, and we are looking at the recommendations made in the review of the rest of Great Britain. It seems that those that are being acted on and carried forward will do a great deal to help. It is quite clear that the Minister and the Department recognise that there is a problem and that steps need to be taken. They are in the process of taking those steps, and I wish them well in doing so to ensure that we make the system fair so that everyone in the process is treated fairly and properly and given the benefits that all citizens are entitled to by right.
Clearly, there is a problem with Atos and the assessment process. I am not familiar with the organisation, but I am aware that it is not part of government. I think that there is a question mark over private organisations playing such an important role in dealing with mental and physical incapacity issues and that there is a serious problem with Atos, not least because it is hitting a 40% failure rate in the appeal process.
I support the motion as amended. It has been a very useful debate. There is clear consensus in the House on something that we all, including the Minister, see as unfair and unjust. We are moving forward together to deal with that.
Alex Maskey (Sinn Féin)
Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. First, I thank Mickey Brady, who is the main person responsible for bringing the issue to the House this afternoon. I thank all the Members who spoke and extend my gratitude to those who supported the motion. Of course, I want to indicate our support for the amendment tabled by Ulster Unionist Party Members. We think that the amendment is helpful, because it reminds people that the availability of medical evidence is preferable when assessments are carried out. So I want, again, to thank all the Members who spoke and who indicated their support for the motion and, indeed, the amendment. Many Members gave personal anecdotes from their experiences as local MLAs dealing with the issue over the past number of months.
I remind the House that the motion is in two parts. The first part deals with the reassessment process itself, and the second part deals with the burden on the public purse. The appeals are being paid for out of the public purse — in other words, through the block grant. People here are picking up the tab to address a flawed system.
All Members who contributed to the debate indicated their dissatisfaction with the reassessment system. The motion has nothing to do with parity. It does not deal with the Act or the principle of shifting from DLA to PIPs. It simply deals with the process of reassessment. I am reminded of the time, several months ago, when we were advised by a range of stakeholder organisations that the system was likely to be flawed. Our attention was drawn to the experience of the process being rolled out in Britain, and we were referred to the Harrington report.
When Professor Harrington reported here, he carried out a desktop exercise; in Britain, he carried out site visits, virtually unannounced, to a range of social security offices. To my knowledge, that has not happened here. However, I would be very concerned if it had, because Professor Harrington was due to meet members of the Social Development Committee but could not carry out that engagement because he was sick. So I would be concerned if he had been here doing other work and none of us had been made aware of that. I presume that he is continuing his desktop-type analysis here, although I stand to be corrected on that. We look forward to the positive sides of Professor’s Harrington’s report and to the experience being garnered from his and similar reports.
When we raised that issue with the head of the Social Security Agency during a meeting with the Minister, we were told that the contract negotiated here with Atos had additional clauses to correct some of the difficulties previously experienced in Britain. We were told that the process here was an improved contract of reassessment. Therefore, it strikes me as important that such a motion is brought to the House, because, clearly, notwithstanding the fact that the contract was supposed to be improved, there are still difficulties.
Some Members believe that 40% of the appeals that are made are successful, and others may think that it is a higher figure. Really, when you start to hit the figure of 40%, it does not matter whether it is 40%, 50% or 60% — clearly, there is a problem. What the motion says, and what all Members are saying unanimously — I think that it is a very important message — is that the system is flawed. You can argue about the extent of the flaw and about the difficulties that are contained within, but all the Members who have spoken have acknowledged that there are flaws in the system.
It is very important to remind ourselves of the particular anecdote from Mr Morrow. He referred, as did the Minister, to the anecdote that we have heard on a number of occasions, about a person who had not been displaying rocking in the chair. When we raised that with the Social Security Agency, because it was a surprise to me, we were told that that was, in fact, true but that it was only one of 27 descriptors. For a system that is supposed to be becoming more simplified, we were told not only that that was only one of 27 descriptors but that, in fact, those descriptors will increase in number. We were advised of that by the Social Security Agency, so it was proved to us, as Members who raised it, to have been a case in point, where people had been reassessed and declared fit for work despite the fact that they had serious conditions.
The motion, supported by all the Members who have given their own testimony, is that the system is, to some extent at least, flawed — the extent of that depends on your take on that — which has caused, in some cases, fairly serious trauma to people who have been claimants and have had their claims rejected. Not all of those who have had their claims rejected have even put in appeals. Again, anecdotally, we can say that some people thought that there was no point so they did not bother. That is something that I cannot quantify, so I am not going to give any facts or figures on it.
From our party’s point of view, we are very pleased that Members across all the parties are agreed that there is a problem with the reassessment process and that it is important, as the system rolls out, that we get to the bottom of that problem. The motion calls on the Minister to ensure that a proper review is carried out on those flaws, which, all of us are able to testify, have had serious impacts on quite a number of people who have had their claims rejected. That is obviously very unfair and wrong. The fact of the matter is that, if we have to go to appeal and to tribunals, it takes a lengthy time, which adds to the adverse impact and, perhaps in some cases, to the trauma. It certainly adds to the cost to the public purse here, which, I think that we would all agree, should not be acceptable.
Without rehearsing all or any of the rest of the arguments, I am satisfied that all the Members who have spoken have done so very eloquently from their experience. That may not make the motion unique, but it is informative that all the Members who have addressed it this morning have spoken from their own direct experience as local representatives dealing with cases and claimants or even attending appeals.
I urge the Minister to ensure that such a review is carried out. Professor Harrington’s work has been an important part of that, but it is critical that we get that work in a particular framework that we can report back. The Minister himself suggests that we may need a wider debate on the issue. I think that everybody would welcome that wider debate. There is no question or doubt about that, because it is a learning process. The experience that we have all gained so far leads us to believe very clearly — it leads us to know, as the testament of all the Members who have spoken indicates — that there is a problem. What the motion is addressing is that we must get the problem fixed. Go raibh míle maith agat.
Question, That the amendment be made, put and agreed to.
Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.
That this Assembly expresses concern that the reassessment process for people who are moving from incapacity benefit to employment and support allowance, with no cognisance being taken of their medical records, is resulting in many people being unfairly deemed “fit for work” and losing their benefit; and calls on the Minister for Social Development to review urgently the reassessment process to avoid both the undue distress it is causing and the additional burden it is placing on the public purse by triggering so many appeals.
Francie Molloy (Sinn Féin)
Order. As Question Time begins at 2.30 pm, I suggest that the House takes its ease until then.
On resuming (Mr speaker is in charge of proceedings of the House of Commons in..." class="glossary">Deputy Speaker [Mr Dallat] in the Chair) —