I am grateful to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and will try very hard to conform to your stricture; in fact, my speech will last less than five minutes. I congratulate my hon. Friend Graham Stuart on securing this important debate, and I am grateful to follow Debbie Abrahams.
I congratulate the Minister on his maiden appearance in this Chamber. I had a very bad constituency case. The media contacted me about it, and his Department tracked my interview on Radio Gloucestershire. He invited me in to talk about it and, having talked about it, I am now much more reassured about the PIP process, so I am particularly grateful to him.
Like other Members who have spoken, I support the replacement of DLA with PIP, which is a much more targeted allowance. My particular constituent, Mr Stephen Smart, had to wait more than a year for his PIP payment, and we would all admit that in the past the system was far too slow. Waiting for more than a year is completely unacceptable. The hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth referred to the court case, and no doubt the Minister and his Department will have to react to that. The only thing I would say about my constituent’s case is that, had the Cirencester citizens advice bureau brought it to my attention much sooner, I believe that, as a Member of Parliament, I could have helped to resolve it. Indeed, I was able to resolve a number of other cases last year, so I urge my CAB to refer cases to me much quicker.
I am delighted that, in March, claim times were down to 15 weeks from 41 weeks last year. That is a terrific step in the right direction. For people with terminal illnesses, 99% of decisions lead to an award, with an average clearance time of six working days. I agree with the hon. Lady that claims involving terminal illnesses are particularly sensitive, and it is right that the time has come down.
The new scheme will need to find new resources to manage the claims process, so I am glad that the Government have doubled the number of staff working on PIP, but I suspect that the system is still patchy across the country. There are particular problems with recruiting staff in London, and I wonder whether there is the same problem in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness, and maybe in my own constituency. Perhaps the Minister will say something about that, although we discussed it in the meeting and I think our constituents are assessed in the Minister’s Swindon constituency. I think we are one of the better performers, so hopefully there has been considerable improvement since my experience. It is regrettable that I was not contacted much earlier in my constituent’s claim, which would have given me time to act on his behalf.
As others have said, the trials of the scheme will go nationwide in October, and hopefully the transition will be complete for those 1.5 million people early in this Parliament. It will be a great milestone when we get everybody on to the new system. We must ensure that it is properly targeted so that they get the benefits they should have and are able to apply and get help in their own home in the most severe cases. We must be sensitive to the fact that, for some people, filling in the form is difficult. I would welcome the Minister’s assurance on that.
We should consider the issue of the appeals process to the tribunal. In particular, I urge the Minister to address the issue of further appeals to the upper tribunal. I have known cases of appeals to the upper tribunal—not just for PIP payments—to take an interminably long time. He needs to look at that to ensure that, for every Government process, everybody has access to a reasonable appeals mechanism. Things do not always go right. When things go wrong, people need to feel that there is a reasonable mechanism for putting things right if they have a justifiable case.
I absolutely take the point about people with mental health problems, which are often difficult to diagnose. The assessors need to be particularly sensitive to that.