It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and I thank Graham Stuart for securing this important debate.
I want to bring to the Minister’s attention some issues that have been brought to me by some of my constituents who suffer from Parkinson’s disease. As he is aware, Parkinson’s is a progressive, incurable disease. It presents some visible symptoms, such as tremors, and some non-visible symptoms, such as dementia, depression and, often, pain. Against that background, I make the following points.
First, my hon. Friend Debbie Abrahams raised the issue of delays. Parkinson’s disease can be exacerbated by the stress and anxiety caused by delays. Awards have been backdated where there has been a delay, but will the Minister consider apologising to the people who have suffered due to the delays?
Secondly, on the nature of the assessment process, the Department for Work and Pensions guidance states that, where there is sufficient medical evidence, the assessment should take place on paper. Unfortunately, that does not seem to be widely known throughout the system. I have been told by some of my constituents that the norm is still that a face-to-face assessment is expected. What steps can the Minister take to ensure that the guidance, which is of some antiquity now, is known to staff throughout the system? It would not only help claimants, but relieve the assessment burden, if fewer people had to go to the assessment centres.
Thirdly, there is the issue of consistency. There are, as the Minister is aware, what are known as informal observations—in other words, people are observed as they approach the assessment centre. What they are carrying is often taken into account. Will there be a robust system in place to ensure that there is a set of objective criteria? Even when informal observations are taken into account in an assessment, they should be evidence-based.
I am wary of your strictures on time, Mr Davies, so I will finish on this point. How confident is the Minister in the robustness of the system? As the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness said, more and more people will be migrating from long-term disability living allowance to the personal independence payment, but will the system cope? We must not have delays of the scale we have had in the past. Is the system sensitive to the particular conditions—particularly progressive and incurable conditions—that people are suffering from? What steps can the Minister take to ensure that assessors such as Atos and Capita gather the information that will enable them to be sensitive to those conditions?