I, too, thank Graham Stuart for securing this important debate. Like him, I have had many constituents contact me because they are worried and distressed about the transfer from DLA to PIP and the delays that have been taking place.
My constituency is in the north-west of England, which has been particularly hard-hit by the delays. They have caused an unacceptable number of my constituents to be living in financial hardship. I echo the points made about problems in rural areas, as my constituency has poor public transport.
I am pleased that improvements have been made to the system. I am aware that the Minister has confirmed this week that the average claimant wait is seven weeks for PIP assessments, down from the 16-week target set by the Secretary of State. Although I welcome those long-awaited improvements, will the Minister to clarify whether the 16-week target covers the whole process from the applicant’s request to the final decision?
In January, the Minister confirmed that DWP would implement the full PIP roll-out in a way that is commensurate with capacity. He said:
“Claimants will be randomly selected...on a post code basis where we are confident that capacity exists.”
It would be helpful to know exactly how that is being assessed and how capacity across all parts of the system will be maintained.
As has already been mentioned, October is the beginning of the most challenging phase of reassessing people currently in receipt of DLA. In addition to dealing with new claims and the fixed-award DLA claims that are ending, the Department will have to manage the PIP awards that are ending and the roll-out of indefinite awards. I seek assurance that the Government have taken that into account when assessing the capacity, so we do not go backwards and return to the delays and unacceptable waits for assessments and decisions.
It is important to recognise that PIP is a gateway to other areas of support, such as tax credits and carer’s allowance. People cannot access those other benefits until they have had a decision about PIP. The problem is that, particularly with the delays that have been happening, although PIP is backdated to the date the claim was made, the other benefits are not. That is grossly unfair. Why does that have to be the case, and will the Minister consider reviewing it?
What really concerns me, and what I genuinely fail to understand, is how, when the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions told us that PIP was created to ensure that the most vulnerable people in our society would get proper support for the extra costs that have to be borne through long-term illness and disability, my constituents feel they are being punished and victimised because they are unwell or disabled. I have seen people in tears on the doorstep because they are genuinely frightened for their future. We need to look at how the Department manages people.
Finally, I want to mention some of the language that is used when discussing PIP and disability allowances. The Prime Minister, in reply to a question from my right hon. Friend Stephen Timms on
“What we have actually done is to increase the benefits paid to disabled people by bringing in the personal independence payment, which is more generous to those who are most disabled.”—[Hansard, 3 June 2015; Vol. 596, c. 589.]
Whether that is actually true is open to challenge, but I want to talk about the phrase “most disabled”. Redefining people as “most disabled” is incredibly unpleasant, because so much hinges on some form of recovery, which is something that medical practitioners have commented on. How do we judge whether someone is “most disabled”? Is it in the same way that we assess whether someone with a learning disability is more mobility impaired than a person who can walk 25 metres? I would like to know how the Government calculate that the people with the most severe disabilities have had an increase, either in overall terms or in benefit levels.
Disabled and ill people want to be part of society; they are part of society. They want to work, and they do not deserve to be treated in the way they have been. I would like the Minister to assure people on such benefits that he understands their needs and that they will be treated with the respect and compassion they deserve—the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness spoke about that—as he continues to roll out PIP.