I agree; it is a disgrace, and not just when it comes to the number of applications being turned down.
Over a year ago, the Government signed up to the assessments being recorded so that their quality could be improved, but we have seen no progress in that regard. People in my constituency want to see a video recording of their assessment because they are so terrified after previous experiences. For example, people who are suicidal have been asked why they did not go ahead with committing suicide. They are now terrified of attending another assessment for disability benefits and are desperate for their assessment to be recorded. However, in order to have the assessment recorded, people have to phone up three days in advance and get specific recording equipment that can produce two recordings at the same time. These pieces of equipment are rare nowadays, as cassette tapes are required to produce such recordings. This is the current guidance from the DWP. People have to source that equipment in order to have their assessments recorded, well over a year on from the Government’s commitment that they would ensure that that was the case in every assessment where people wished for it.
Not only do people have to undergo these cold, terrifying and impersonal assessments where they are concerned that they are being marked down—the Minister appears to disagree—but I have heard from women who say they have been curled up on the floor crying at having to remember their sexual abuse, with the assessor not even looking at them but simply repeating the question. So I am sorry, but I do not accept that those assessments are personal and that they take people’s circumstances into account, from the accounts I have been given that are so distressing to hear.
Ian Paisley is right to say that 32% of PIP applications are turned down. That is actually better than in my part of the country, where 46% of applications from those moving on from DLA have been turned down. Some of these people go on to mandatory reconsideration. We used to have 80% targets for the refusal of mandatory reconsideration. I would love to hear from the Minister what the current rate of refusal is. With regard to the tribunals, although 74% of people who undergo them are successful, they take 48 weeks to take place—over a year on from the start of the process.
People are absolutely terrified, all the way through, of losing their benefits. In too many cases, they are having to go to the jobcentre and claim universal credit if they cannot access their employment support allowance any more, and then being deemed fit for work. Doctors have been written to and told that they cannot sign people who are sick off work any more—that the DWP will not accept their professional medical judgment because its assessors have deemed people fit for work. One of my constituents who was going through the process of appeal was forced back into work, and, on the first day back, suffered a heart attack and died. My constituent and his wife and family cannot get that life back, but we can seek to improve this system that does so much damage to so many people.
Even if people on benefits end up being successful in getting through a tribunal, the amount of benefit that they are on is reduced. Under universal credit, they have to wait at least five weeks in order to get their first proper payment. Yes, they can get an advance of that payment, but they have to weigh it up—do they want to spend the next 12 months in debt because they are having that advance payment deducted from their already low amount of universal credit, or do they try to muddle through? People end up getting into debt with family and friends or with loan sharks and online loan organisations. We have heard that 3 million households are still worse off under universal credit. Despite that, local housing allowance is meeting only 3% of market rents in many areas, including some in my own constituency, so people are seeing a reduction in their benefit. They are having to make up their rent because local housing allowance does not meet it, and over half of universal credit claimants are having deductions made from them as well.
It is no wonder that people end up in poverty. Some of my constituents end up with just £20 a week to pay all their bills. As if that is not enough, people on universal credit are being hit more and more with civil penalties of £50 for being late in supplying information or late for an appointment. Answers to parliamentary questions that I put yesterday show that nearly £400,000 of such penalties has been passed on to debt collectors by the DWP in the past year. These are people who are already very poor. They are already suffering from having a penalty imposed on them, and then they are having to pay debt collectors the £135 fee that they charge on top of trying to seek the £50 fee. How is this being fair to people who are poor? How is this supporting people back into work? It is no wonder that we have seen the number of people visiting food banks rising, homelessness rising, and in-work poverty rising.
I could say much more as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on universal credit: time and again, we hear about the problems with the system from fantastic advisers who, day in day out, try to support people. In many cases, those advisers—Citizens Advice, Derbyshire welfare rights—have to come to us as constituency MPs to try to sort out problems that they are not empowered to sort out on people’s behalf.
I am sorry to say that my advice agents across Derbyshire are having to come to me to see whether I can help constituents in other parts of the county whose MPs refuse to help them. It is not right that we should be getting to the point where MPs—on the other side of the House, I am afraid: every one of those requests has come from Conservative constituencies—are not prepared to listen to and support their constituents, who need such support to be built into the system.
People feel absolutely powerless. No wonder we have seen a huge rise in debt and mental health difficulties, especially among young people growing up in poverty and in families struggling against this system. Please let us not just change the amount of money that goes into the system, but the whole way in which people are treated. They must be supported and empowered to live fulfilling lives.