Personal Independence Payment Applications

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:44 pm on 17th June 2015.

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Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Conservative, Beverley and Holderness 4:44 pm, 17th June 2015

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered processing of personal independence payment applications.

It is a novel and pleasant experience to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I welcome to his place the new Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend Justin Tomlinson. As my colleagues know, and as people across the House will find, he will be excellent in this role. He has great ability and compassion, and I am sure that we all wish him well in delivering for disabled people throughout the country.

Over the past several months, I have been contacted by a number of desperate constituents who feel like they have nowhere to turn. They are often severely disabled people who already have to suffer significant physical pain and distress daily. On top of their conditions, they have had to endure months of delays in applying for the personal independence payment. A system designed to help them is instead increasing their hardship and anxiety. I called for this debate to give those vulnerable people a voice.

I begin by saying that I support the underlying principle of the personal independence payment. Under the old system of disability living allowance, half of all claimants never had to undergo an assessment, and 71% of people who received the benefit never had their award reviewed. That meant that people whose conditions worsened were underpaid and those whose conditions improved received more than was necessary. That system was neither effective nor compassionate in supporting disabled people. Clearly, the money was not being well targeted at those who genuinely needed it.

By contrast, the personal independence payment is a more dynamic benefit, capable, at least in theory, of adapting to disabled people’s complex and often changing conditions, and providing them with the appropriate level of support. However, I have dealt with many cases locally of people waiting far longer than the target of 16 weeks to have their PIP claim processed. I have serious concerns that the administration of the new benefit has not functioned as well as it should have done in order properly to support some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

When PIP was introduced in the last Parliament, average delays were as long as 30 weeks. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions rightly acknowledged that those delays were “unacceptable”. Since then, the number of healthcare professionals has doubled, the number of assessment centres has increased and their opening hours have been extended. I understand that that has helped to bring down average waiting times substantially, which is welcome. I commend the Minister, who has been in office for a limited time, and his predecessors on their work in getting to grips with the issue. However, the many letters and emails that I continue to receive from my constituents, including one only yesterday and another as I waited for this debate to start, suggest that there are still unacceptable delays.

To highlight my concerns, I shall describe in detail two cases. After having an accident at work, Mrs Lynn Dodds from Beverley suffers from two chronic pain conditions: chronic regional pain syndrome and fibromyalgia. She has to use crutches to get around her house and needs a wheelchair whenever she goes out. She has a carer for 37 hours a week. She suffers daily seizures, brought on by stress and anxiety.

Mrs Dodds first applied for the personal independence payment in November 2013 and she had to wait eight months before being assessed. In that time, her condition deteriorated. She was then, unbelievably, told by Department for Work and Pensions staff that she had to start the whole application process again. Devastated by that news, she none the less reapplied for PIP in August 2014. She had to wait a further seven months to receive her reassessment. The healthcare professional told her that the decision could have been made on paper, without a face-to-face assessment. That is what she was told after all that time.

Mrs Dodds was then told that she would receive a decision within four weeks. It has been nine weeks and she is still waiting, although I think that something may have happened in the last few days, coincidentally or otherwise. When I raised the case with the DWP, I was told that the delays in her application were due to a heavy workload. When Mrs Dodds inquired herself, she was informed that the reason was that Atos had not yet sent her assessment forms to the DWP. She is frustrated that whenever she phones up to try to register a complaint, she is told that she must wait five working days for a call-back—call-backs that of course do not come within the five days, or at any time. After her initial attempt to lodge a complaint four weeks ago, she is still waiting for the DWP to call back. So much for five days.

Mrs Dodds says that following her experiences over the past two years, she suffers from depression and anxiety. We can easily understand why. She has gone from being a wife and mother looking after her family full time to being completely dependent on the care of others. I understand there are inherent difficulties in introducing a whole new benefit. I also understand that PIP’s more rigorous and improved assessment process will lead to an increase in work for DWP staff, but the length of time it has taken to process Mrs Dodds’ claim is unacceptable and completely wrong.

The second constituent’s case that I want to highlight is that of Mr Terry Read, also from Beverley. He lives with his 16-year-old daughter and is unable to work because of his disability. Following a deterioration in his condition, he applied for a reassessment of his personal independence payment to reflect his change of circumstances in October 2014. It was not until April 2015 that he was given a medical assessment. Every day his condition was deteriorating. Every day he called the DWP to ask why the decision was taking so long. When he contacted me, he said he was at his wits’ end. When DWP eventually awarded him the benefit last week, it did not backdate it to when the decision was made, so even after months of delays, he was given less money than he was entitled to in order to support the costs of his deteriorating condition.

Although I have named only two examples, many others have contacted me in the last few months about delays in receiving the personal independence payment. Mr Davies, you may be aware of a recent verdict in the

High Court: the judge ruled that the delays experienced by two PIP claimants were unlawful. In that case, the claimants had to wait more than seven months for their benefit applications to be processed. The benefit should assist with the additional costs of disabilities, but the delays make disabled people reliant on family, friends and carers, when they want to be able to support themselves. In many cases, the delays cause added stress and anxiety, which aggravates claimants’ conditions.

From October this year, those still claiming disability living allowance will be invited to make a claim for the personal independence payment. That is why it is so vital that problems in the system are resolved now, and that average delays continue to decrease. What steps has the Minister taken to reduce delays in processing applications? What lessons can be learned from the roll-out so far, as October will be the beginning of a large and doubtless challenging process? What is his analysis of what has gone wrong?

I am aware that there are particular difficulties in setting up and running assessment centres in sparsely populated rural areas. I chair the Rural Fair Share campaign and the all-party group on rural services. It is easy to design policies in this place that do not work very well for vulnerable disabled people in rural areas, where there might be few, if any, public transport services and there is a real challenge in getting to cities to be assessed. I have spoken on numerous occasions in this place about the need for the Government to ensure that their policies are rural-proofed. A disabled person who happens to live in a rural area should not have to wait longer for an assessment for the financial support on which they rely for their independence.

Is the Minister investigating the feasibility of pop-up assessment centres that have shorter opening hours, but that enable people living in rural areas, such as my constituents, to have their assessments carried out locally? If further work could be done, or if there were guidelines on what such a pop-up centre might require, perhaps communities including those in my area could look at them and identify premises where such provision could be made available.