It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I appreciate that we only had an hour for this debate; I am only sorry that some hon. Members who made a number of interventions were not able to stay to hear the Minister sum up. I am grateful for the opportunity to follow Ruth George, whom I commend for her work on the Work and Pensions Committee. I thank Gillian Keegan for securing the debate. I share her belief that we need a system that works better for everyone, especially those with disabilities.
The process for claiming personal independence payment or employment and support allowance is not easy or straightforward. As we have heard, claimants fill in extensive forms detailing how their condition affects their daily life and send them off to the Department for Work and Pensions. For some people, that, along with medical evidence, is enough to merit an award. However, more often than not, people are required to attend a face-to-face assessment carried out by one of three contracted assessment providers. The healthcare professional employed by the contractor reports back to the Department, and a decision maker makes a decision about the claimant’s entitlement.
Last Friday, I was invited to witness a personal independence payment assessment, which was conducted by an actor and a health professional. It took an hour and a half. I imagine that was the gold standard for conducting such an assessment. I am sure everyone in the Chamber would agree that the experience of most of our constituents—granted, we see the worst examples—is that assessments are never conducted quite as efficiently or in as gold-standard a way, so I think that exercise was slightly contrived. It was worthwhile to see how the process should operate, but we have all argued time and again how it should operate; the reality is that it does not operate in that way. In reality, assessments are stressful, and many people are forced to go through the mandatory reconsideration process and the conclusions of a decision maker, which ultimately is unfair.
I only have a few minutes to sum up, but I pay credit to the hon. Member for Chichester for rightly highlighting the experience of her constituents, and to my hon. Friend Patricia Gibson and the hon. Members for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), for St Ives (Derek Thomas), for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant), for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for East Renfrewshire (Paul Masterton). I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the work of the Scottish Association for Mental Health. The Government have to do more to recognise mental health in the assessment process.
I read recently that the Department for Work and Pensions will introduce a further step in the appeals process called the continuous online resolution system, which will involve an online review by a tribunal panel. If my understanding is correct, that means people will have to endure a claim, potentially a mandatory reconsideration, and an online text-box tribunal before they can get an oral appeal. The success rate for written appeals is dramatically lower than that for oral hearings, so does the Minister accept that that step may serve only to introduce another needless level of bureaucracy to claimants’ appeals, and that it may not achieve the ends she hopes it might?
The high number of mandatory reconsiderations and the fact that, as the hon. Member for Chichester outlined, 71% of decisions are overturned shows that there are already flaws in the system. I would like the Minister to do more to address those current flaws before taking on the process of streamlining and bringing all these benefits together. I genuinely worry that that would cause many of those who need financial support—particularly those who are disabled—not to get that support, and that such an integrated assessment service would penalise disabled people who need the full range of benefits. I would hate to see that happen.
It is not right or fair for any individual, whether they are disabled or suffering from mental ill health or a long-term debilitating health condition, to be put through such an arduous process. These people are not criminals—they are people who demand and need support from the social security system, which was designed to support them. I hope the Minister takes the time to answer my questions.