I welcome this opportunity to scrutinise the DWP’s spending, because when I sit in my surgery, week after week, listening to the stories of people living in poverty and struggling to survive while facing a continual battle with the benefits system, I find myself wondering just where nearly a quarter of all Government spending is going. It is certainly not reaching the people who need it most in my constituency. People have had overpayments, underpayments, long initial waiting periods, inaccessible and complex online forms that lead to uncompleted claims, a lack of support with claims, and cruel disability benefits tests, with fines consistently being overturned at appeal.
We have had plenty of debates about universal credit, and it is not working. The five-week wait for initial payment is driving people into poverty, debt and rent arrears, forcing them to turn to food banks to survive. We have already heard about the number of people using food banks. In my constituency, like everywhere else in the country, the numbers are going up year on year at an alarming rate. Despite the Government’s claim that nobody will be worse off under universal credit, we now know, thanks to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, that 1.9 million adults will be at least £1,000 worse off.
While the Office for Budget Responsibility’s report at the start the year upheld the Government claim that 1 million ESA households will, on average, receive an extra £110 a month, it also showed that exactly the same number of ESA households will lose, on average, £217 a month. It is no wonder, therefore, that the UN special rapporteur, Professor Philip Alston, accused Ministers of window dressing to minimise the political fallout. That is both damning and shaming.
I have spoken on many occasions about the cruel, unfair disability benefits tests that my constituents have to go through, and for what? Record numbers of people are winning appeals against the Department, and it just looks like the whole process is a stick to beat people with. As we have heard, more than 70% of personal independence payment and employment and support allowance appeals will find in favour of the claimant. One of my constituents was assessed five times in eight years of being on ESA, and despite being found fit for work each time, they won every time on appeal. How flawed must the assessment process be to be so consistently wrong? How can the cost of defending five separate appeals be justified when the decision is the same each time?
More than 16,000 appeals have overturned a PIP decision in the first three months of this year, and nearly three quarters of the 22,000 that went through a tribunal also ruled against the DWP. Waiting times for a PIP appeal are coming up to a year in my constituency—nearly a year in which some of the most vulnerable people in our society are denied the financial support that they need. Things can get worse, because if they have a Motability vehicle, they can lose that as well. I met someone last week who clearly could not get to her job on public transport, but she now faces losing her car due to a PIP assessment. I have little doubt that she will win her appeal, but what consolation will that be if she loses her job in the meantime?