It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, especially as you were the first to invite me to come on an official visit to a constituency. I am very much looking forward to it, but we will wait to see whether I will be invited a second time. The tone and the constructive and proactive nature of the debate are a real credit to Members. It is such an important subject, and Members gave a lot of first-hand experiences that will help shape how I take things forward, and I am grateful for that.
In the limited time I have, I will try to respond to as many of the points that were made as I can. If I have missed something, I will follow up on it after the debate. The debate is a credit to my hon. Friend Graham Stuart, who is widely respected for standing up for his constituents. He faces the challenges of representing a rural community, and he has done it a good service today. I am delighted that the particular cases that were highlighted at the beginning of his contribution have, we believe, been resolved. It was absolutely right, however, to highlight the principle.
This is my first debate as the Minister for disabled people. As a Conservative, I am very proud that, when William Hague was the Minister, we introduced the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. We have made a clear commitment to halving the disability employment gap, which we would all welcome and support. It is a role where I know I can make a tangible difference. I have already spent a huge amount of time engaging and working with stakeholders, and I have made numerous visits.
During my five years as a constituency MP, I have done a huge amount with local organisations, charities and businesses acting in that area, and the one big thing that I get when I talk to people is that they are enthused about opportunity, and in particular about the opportunity to work. Only this morning, I met with Liz Sayce of Disability Rights UK. She said that disabled people are too often seen as recipients when all they want is to be net contributors. That was brought home to me when I went to the fantastic charity Whizz-Kidz. I met the Kidz Board ambassadors, George Fielding, who is the chair, and Kayleigh Miller. George is a politics student, and he knows more about politics than all of us. He will come to take our jobs before too long. They made it clear that they want a focus that gives them the same opportunities that their friends enjoy in going to work. They both have fantastic career prospects. As a former employer who has employed people with disabilities, I would snap them up without hesitation.
It is important to reflect why we are doing what we are doing. There was a real need for reform. DLA was too often a crude, blunt instrument in providing support. Only 6% of claimants had a face-to-face assessment. Some 50% were assessed without any medical evidence and 71% of people were given an indefinite award, yet one in three will have their circumstances change within 12 months. It could be that their circumstances got worse and they were not getting appropriate support. The system needed to be changed. PIP considers how impairment affects a person’s life, rather than labelling individuals on the basis of their impairment. It rightly recognises that every disability is unique.
Through the face-to-face assessment, there is an opportunity to articulate individual challenges that cannot be done purely on a paper-based form, and in my visits, it has been repeated to me how important that is. Trained healthcare professionals can tease out exactly what support is needed. I have sat through an assessment in my constituency of Swindon. Those professionals do it in a fantastic manner and try to be supportive. I understand that people are nervous, and I am keen to see a lot more videos put online so that people can see in advance what to expect. That is an important message that has come forward today, and I want to see more work on that. Crucially, the system will pick up on such things as mental health conditions and learning disabilities, which it was felt that the paper-based system simply did not pick up on, and there is broad stakeholder support for that. For the most vulnerable people who need the most support, 22% of people who go through the system will expect to get the highest rate of support. Under DLA, that was only 16%.
Members have rightly highlighted that there have been delays, and in some cases that is clearly unacceptable. However, a huge amount of work has been done by the Department, the providers, my predecessor and me. I am having two or three meetings a day on PIP, and am beginning to dream about it. The headline is that we have quadrupled the number of healthcare professionals. I went to Cardiff to sit through a claimant’s entire journey, and I will continue to look closely to try to find ways to improve that process. We have over 200 more assessment rooms. We have doubled the number of DWP staff. In the initial stages, productivity levels for decision makers was at about four cases a day; it is now up to about eight a day, which is making a big difference. The IT systems have been improved and are a lot more reliable, which was greatly welcomed by the staff in Cardiff at a question and answer session I attended. There are also more prompts in the system, so if the same things are being written repeatedly, that will be picked up. Again, that improves productivity.
On communications, letters are being improved to remind people of the types of evidence they need to bring in so that the system flows more smoothly for them. We are being proactive: when people are sent forms to fill in we would expect them to be returned within 28 days. If after 20 days we have not heard anything, the system automatically triggers two telephone call reminders, as well as a letter, and we are now looking at text messaging. We are trying to be proactive, and that is making a big difference. We are clearing the backlog. Since August 2014, every month, month on month, we have seen cases being cleared. Between January and April this year, we cleared about 71,000 claims a month, against an average of 52,000 new claims a month coming into the system. That is four times the rate in January 2014.