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Westminster Hall

Thursday 25 October 2012

[Mr David Amess in the Chair]

Working-Age Disabled People

[Relevant documents: Seventh Report of the Work and Pensions Committee, Session 2010-12, HC 1493, and the Government Response, Session 2012-13, HC 105.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Esther McVey.)

1.30 pm

Mr David Amess (in the Chair): A number of colleagues want to speak. I understand the time pressures and the arrangements, and I will accommodate everyone. I hope that we can work together so that everyone is satisfied in terms of their commitments. I call Anne Begg.

Dame Anne Begg (Aberdeen South) (Lab): I am glad to hear you say that you hope to accommodate everybody, Mr Amess. Rather a lot of people have turned up, I am glad to see.

As Chair of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, I shall speak to our report published in February. Although the title is “Government support towards the additional living cost of working-age disabled people”, most people know the issue as the switch from DLA to PIP, but we thought that that might be confusing, which is why we used the long title.

I begin with a declaration: since 1977, I have been a recipient of, first, the mobility allowance and then the mobility element of disability living allowance. Therefore, any changes to DLA will directly affect me in terms of the benefit for which I qualify. Some people might think it a handicap that I have to make such a declaration, but I hope that having been the recipient of the benefit in question gives me not a unique perspective, because everybody else who receives the benefit will feel the same, but an unusual perception and understanding, in parliamentary terms, of how important the benefit has been.

When I first qualified for the original mobility allowance, I was an impoverished student finding it difficult to get around. I certainly could not afford to own a car and did not come from the kind of family who could afford one, although I had been able to drive since the age of 17. The mobility allowance and then access to a Motability car revolutionised my life as a young teacher on a not particularly high wage. It made my life so much easier, and I have always paid great tribute to the late, lamented Lord Alf Morris, whose idea Motability was. He will be sadly missed for all the work he did in that area.

Returning to the report, the Select Committee’s first finding was that there is considerable scope for reform of DLA. Much of the evidence that we got, even from people who might be critical of the new scheme, admitted that many things about DLA perhaps needed to change. The claim form was long and complex, the criteria were not straightforward and there was no proper or rigorous system for reviewing awards where necessary. Having accepted the need for reform, many of the people from

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whom we took evidence went on to say that that could have been done by reforming DLA, and not necessarily by introducing a completely new benefit, although the Government said that the new benefit could represent an opportunity to address the problems of DLA while improving support for disabled people. In their response to our report, they said:

“These reforms present an ideal opportunity to start afresh, keeping the best elements of DLA… but bringing the benefit up-to-date in order to better reflect 21st century society.”

However—this is a big “however”—the Committee felt strongly that part of the problem was that the backdrop to the introduction of the reforms got them off to a poor start. The first knowledge that anyone had of an intention to reform, and indeed replace, DLA came not from the Department for Work and Pensions, but from a Budget document in 2010. Page 36 of the Budget policy costings said:

“This measure will introduce an objective medical assessment and revised eligibility criteria… The assessment will follow a similar process to the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) used for claims to Employment and Support Allowance, with a points based system to assess eligibility… the central assumption for this policy is that it will result in a 20% reduction in caseload and expenditure once fully rolled out.”

That was the introduction to the change. Because it mentioned a 20% reduction, people in receipt of DLA and many of the disabled organisations that represent them immediately felt that the reason for the change was not to improve the benefit, but to save money. The mention of the WCA and the fact that the Government would follow the kind of framework used for employment and support allowance also rang a large number of alarm bells among disabled people. By the time the Government’s proposals were published, the WCA had already obtained a bad name for being mechanistic, uncaring and unfeeling, and for getting assessments wrong. Putting all those together, we find that the principle of reforming DLA was somewhat overshadowed, because those to whom it would apply were immediately suspicious about the Government’s motives. We said in our report that we thought that that was unfortunate, because it certainly did not get the reform off to a good start.

It is true that during the process the Government listened to some of the criticisms. They dropped the proposals in the original draft of the Welfare Reform Bill to end the payment of the mobility component to care home residents. They also agreed, as the Bill went through the House, to extend the personal independence payment qualifying period, and it is certainly true that the first consultation on the first draft of the eligibility criteria produced some welcome changes, particularly on, for example, people’s ability to get around and preparing a meal. Important changes were made.

However, there are still a lot of questions. I hope that the Minister will not mind, but most of what I am about to say takes the form of questions. I know that she is a new Minister and keen, but I suspect that she will not be able to answer them all today. It will be good if she answers what she can. I know that she has already agreed to appear before the Select Committee some time in November; perhaps this debate will give her a taste of what we might ask her when the time comes. In some cases, she might be in a position to write to us with explanations, and about what has changed.

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Part of the problem is that we do not yet know a lot of the detail of what will happen. The framework in the Welfare Reform Act 2012 was very vague. Everything is being done through regulation, but we still have not seen the final regulations. The most recent criteria were published in November 2011. Considering that PIP will be paid to new claimants from April next year, time is getting tight, and a lot of people are concerned about exactly how it will be tested and what the impact of the reform will be.

The first issue I want to raise is the lack of an impact assessment. Although the Government introduced the original PIP proposals in December 2010, it was not until January 2012 that they estimated the claimant count reduction—at about 500,000 people by 2015-16, which would be 23% of the claimant cohort. The published criteria included a number of hypothetical case studies that showed which types of claimant would and would not qualify for the new PIP, and at which rate. Crucially though, the case studies did not state whether, and at which rate, claimants would have qualified for DLA, so, without that information, it has been impossible to do a comparison and get an idea of who would and would not get the new benefit, and which types of claimant would lose out.

According to a survey published this week by the Hardest Hit coalition, entitled “The Tipping Point”, some 94% of disabled people fear that losing their DLA would be detrimental to their health, with 65% feeling that they would be unable to work and 75% saying that losing DLA would increase their local authority care needs. Without a full impact assessment, we are unable to answer a number of questions. How many people will lose their adapted Motability cars, and how will that affect their ability to work? Many people use a DLA care component to pay for local authority services, so what will the impact be on local authorities if those people do not qualify for PIP? What assessment have the Government made of DLA’s role in preventing people’s health conditions from worsening? What could the impact be on NHS budgets?

The Government need to consider the cumulative impacts on disabled people of welfare reforms, including the reform of DLA. We also have the 12-month time limit on contributory ESA, the incapacity benefit reassessment to move people on to ESA, cuts to local authority care budgets and the lowering of disability premiums under universal credit. Some claimants might be hit by only one or two of the changes, but some might have to deal with them all as they come in over the next three years. That would be an enormous change for them.

Our report said that we were glad to hear in evidence that there had been a form of co-production of the PIP criteria and the implementation of PIP, involving organisations that represent disabled people. However, we have spoken to some of those organisations, and they said that calling the PIP policy development “co-production” is somewhat absurd. There has been some consultation, but until we get the final assessment criteria, we, and they, will not know whether the Government have listened to them and acted. The Government consulted the organisations and might have heard what they had to say, but action is a different matter.

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Disability groups have not been consulted about the framing of the PIP assessment contracts or the guidance to assessors, so, although there has been limited consultation, the wider implications of how the measure will work in practice have not been subject to any kind of co-production. In one meeting, the Disability Benefits Consortium told us that the documents had been counted in and counted up, and that it had been given 15 minutes to look at them. That, again, is hardly co-production.

On the PIP assessment, the Government have said that there will be a requirement for face-to-face assessments for most claimants. That also raises a number of questions. On what basis did the Government come to that conclusion? Will the Government not be able to take account of existing evidence in most cases? That leads me to a question on a slightly different point: will there be any transfer of information already held by the Department for Work and Pensions, so that people do not have continually to remind it of such things as, “This is a glass eye, and of course I am not going to see out of it.” That is not as daft as it sounds. Sometimes, when people have gone for a WCA they have been asked what vision they have in their left eye when they have not had a left eye for decades.

The Department clearly has that kind of information—for example, details of a claimant’s need for different formats—or information that highlights the fact that a claimant is particularly vulnerable or lives in a care home or supported accommodation, which might not be clear from their address, so will it be passed to whoever is administering PIP assessments so that people are not insulted by constantly being asked questions the answers to which would be obvious to anyone who knew them.

There is another question about the face-to-face assessment. Does an arbitrary decision to require a majority of claimants to undergo such an assessment not risk subjecting large numbers of disabled people to unnecessary stress and anxiety, and wasting a considerable amount of public money? I understand that the companies that might deliver the assessments have come up with wildly different figures for the number of home visits there will be.

The other concern regarding the PIP assessment relates to the assessment of fluctuating conditions, which has also been an ongoing problem with the work capability assessment. The activity descriptors attempt to capture the effect of fluctuating conditions by considering impacts that are present on over 50% of days, and that is a welcome change to the provision.

Where two or more activity descriptors apply on fewer than 50% of days individually but reach the 50% threshold when combined, the descriptor that applies for the greatest proportion of time will apply. However, people with such conditions can experience enormous fluctuations; one person might have a condition that fluctuates in such a way that they walk well one day but need an electric wheelchair the next. The difference between their good days and bad days is so extreme that they need the adapted house and all the equipment, although the bad days account for less than 50% of the time. Can the Minister shed some light on that?

The other big concern is the contracts. Atos has won the contract for two of the three areas that cover most of Great Britain, and Capita has won the other. Some of the criticism of the work capability assessment falls unfairly on Atos, and some of it perhaps not. Atos is

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delivering a contract that was written by the Government, so any problem with that contract is the Government’s responsibility. There has been little public discussion about what the Atos and Capita contracts will hold, so we do not know whether the Government are likely to get those contracts right.

One of the flaws of the WCA contract is that providers get paid for every assessment, regardless of whether they get them right, and right first time. On what basis will the providers be paid? The Committee argued that they should be paid for assessments that are right first time. There might be some leeway, but given the number of wrong WCAs there should surely be a penalty in the contract so that the companies would not be paid regardless of the accuracy of the assessments.

On top of that, will there be robust sanctions for provider failure? Will the Department look at the different approaches of the two providers and compare their accuracy and assessment reports? I think that will be crucial, a number of months in, in judging how the providers compare with each other and how they are doing. I know part of the reason why the Government adopted the framework approach to the contract, rather than a single contract covering the whole country, was, hopefully, to get that information and to see which provider was the most successful.

On the PIP assessments and the new assessments for the transition from IB to ESA, we recommended that the Government be sensitive to the timing of WCAs when scheduling PIP assessments. The Government should not underestimate the cumulative impact on vulnerable people of frequent reassessments. There is ample evidence that the WCA has been damaging individuals’ health and may be a factor in some suicides. The Government’s response to the Committee’s report was vague on that matter. They said they would try to ensure, where possible, that claimants will not be called for multiple face-to-face assessments in close proximity. How will they ensure that? Will there be data sharing from the part of the DWP that deals with employment support allowance and the part of the DWP that will deal with the new PIP?

The claim process is meant to be streamlined and very fast, which is to be welcomed, but that may cause some problems because it might be too fast for some people. We know the Government are saying that PIP claims should take about a month, yet, at the moment, the average waiting time for a citizens advice bureau appointment is six to eight weeks, which may be a problem for people who need expert help.

Will four weeks be sufficient to gather medical evidence and for vulnerable claimants to get the help and advice they need? How many people are likely to drop out of the process? If the claimant has a lifetime award, might they think that the reassessment does not apply to them? If the DWP does not hear back from people, will it send reminder letters to say that there may be an issue that has not been picked up? Again, some people will get the letter and think it is a circular, not realising that it is very specific to them and their position.

If the providers’ deadline is to be 30 days to make a judgment, and the end-to-end process is likely to take about two months, will there be flexibility in the time allowed to complete the end-to-end process to ensure that all relevant medical evidence can be collected?

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What responsibility will the assessment provider have to seek relevant medical evidence? That is what happens at the moment with DLA, but it looks as if it might be different with PIP. Will all the evidence have to be supplied to the claimant? More crucially—again, this has been a problem with the WCA—who will pay for that medical evidence? Doctors, consultants and other health care professionals are being inundated at the moment with requests to provide such reports. Traditionally, they do not always charge the patient, although they do charge the DWP. Who is going to pay for, in some cases, multiple medical letters, especially as there is a good chance that a large proportion of claimants have a limited income?

Another thing is the scale of the task and the implementation timetable. As I have already said, new PIP claimants will start to be assessed next April. The figures involved are mind blowing. We as a Committee concluded:

“It is…essential that DWP allows itself sufficient time to get the assessment right and to be able to convince disabled people and their representatives that this is the case.”

It is very difficult to see how that can happen under the existing timetable. How can the DWP hope to learn from the early implementation of 10,000 new claims a week from April 2013 in time to implement new claims nationally from June 2013? The Department has from April to June to see whether the thing is working for new claimants. Why is there no pause before national implementation to make that assessment and see whether there is anything that has to change? We know that with all welfare benefit changes there are always unintended consequences and difficulties that people did not expect—they start hammering our doors, as MPs, saying, “This is what has happened.”

What happens if the assessments are found to take much longer than anticipated in the planning? What if there is found to be a greater need for home visits than was envisaged? All that takes longer. What if the descriptors are simply found not to work in real-life situations? I know there has been some testing, but there seems to be no time to test the final descriptors, which we have not seen yet.

I have done a very quick calculation—I suppose it is called a back-of-a-fag-packet calculation—that we have almost 2 million DLA claimants, and the Government will have 31 months end-to-end to assess all of them. We should remember that, to begin with, they will assess only 10,000 claimants a week, but the DWP will have to reassess some 70,000 claimants a month. That, in itself, is a huge amount. The calculation is fairly rough and ready, and I am not saying that that is the figure, but it will be in that ballpark.

The DWP is already assessing people for the move from IB to ESA. At the moment, the number is meant to be some 11,000 a week, but we know the providers are finding that incredibly difficult to manage. They are finding 11,000 a week—44,000 a month—difficult to achieve, and they will have 70,000 DLA/PIP assessments and 40,000 or 50,000 IB/ESA assessments to do, so to deliver their timetable they are looking at having to assess 100,000-plus disabled people face-to-face each month.

I do not think that is going to be possible, because I do not think there are enough health care professionals in the country for Atos or Capita to get through such a

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work load. I would not be particularly perturbed if the timetable slipped, which might be what is needed, but the Government have set a rod for their own back by trying to get so many people through the assessments when we know, anecdotally—we do not have the final figures—that they are really struggling to deliver the much lower numbers who are being put through the work capability assessment.

We know that being online might speed up the process—as a Committee, we have some concerns about that—but the online claims system will not be available for April 2013. Is that not indicative of a rushed implementation process? The most important thing is that we need the claimants’ outcomes to be tracked. Will the outcomes be tracked as part of an evaluation strategy? What monitoring will the Government put in place to ensure that all that is working and not falling apart?

Mr Amess, you will be glad that I am about to draw my remarks to a close because I know other people want to speak. I realise I have asked a lot of questions, and other colleagues will have questions, too, so I appreciate that the Minister will not be able to answer them all, but we look forward to taking evidence from her.

I have one last question on the legislative process. When will the final regulations and the final assessment criteria be laid before Parliament? Will the criteria be published in draft before the regulations are laid? If so, when?

We think that time is running out and that the Government have, unfortunately, started off on the wrong foot on what could be a useful reform by giving a lot of wrong messages to disabled people. It is understandable why disabled people feel that the reform is not to help them but merely a cost-saving measure.

The people who will be involved in the process are the most vulnerable people in society. It will be difficult for all of them, including those who will qualify for the benefit and for whom there is no doubt that they will qualify. If the WCA and the change to ESA are anything to go by, even those genuine claimants feel very stressed at having to go through this process. It is incumbent on the Government to get the process right and make it as easy for people as possible and to listen to the criticisms and do something about them, because the people who will lose out are those who need the money they receive through the DLA, and consequently PIP, to survive and have any kind of quality of life at all. They depend on that money to participate fully in society. I am sure the Government agree that that is the absolutely correct and laudable aim of any benefit, and they have to ensure that they deliver.

Mr David Amess (in the Chair): I apologise to the hon. Lady for not addressing her by her correct title, which is Dame Anne Begg. Secondly, on behalf of the House, I should have welcomed her back after her awful accident, which I learned about in The House magazine. I am sure I speak for everyone in welcoming her back.

Hon. Members: Hear, hear.

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2.1 pm

Stephen Lloyd (Eastbourne) (LD): It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Amess. It is also a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg), Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, of which I am a member.

Some of my colleagues already know that, unfortunately, and in true DLA style, my hearing aid conked out a few days ago, so I do not have it with me. I am rather deaf, so if the folk on my right want to intervene, they should wave furiously. If I miss that, Mr Amess, please let me know. I apologise, but that is the reality of disability.

Introducing a new disability benefit in place of one that has been around for a number of years is fraught with complexity, anxiety, and often inaccurate media reporting. Consequently, I intend to drill down to a number of the specific features and concerns that the Select Committee has with the new personal independence payment benefit, and the current response from the Department for Work and Pensions. This is a complex issue. The hon. Lady mentioned a number of areas where we have concern. I have flagged some of them up before, and I am going to be precise.

I hope that all of us in the Chamber agree, to a varying extent, that disability living allowance is a benefit based on unclear criteria, is not well understood and has no proper system of reviewing awards. The Committee recognised that. For example, the 2004-05 national benefit review found that approximately £630 million of DLA per year was overpaid as a result of unreported changes in circumstances, while £190 million was underpaid—vital support not reaching the people for whom it was intended.

The concept behind the introduction of PIPs is to ensure that the state, rightly, can continue to support those individuals experiencing the greatest barriers to living an independent life while ensuring that the benefit continues to remain affordable and sustainable. It is also worth noting that the new PIP assessment has been developed in conjunction with a group of independent health, social care and disability experts, and the DWP believes that it will be fairer, more objective and consistent. The theory is that there will be a more responsive and individualised process for ensuring that claimants continue to receive the right support. In taking evidence, the Committee found that the complex DLA claim forms can make it difficult for people to make a claim. Therefore, I and the Committee broadly support the Government’s intention to address those issues.

In addition, we found that there is no proper system for reviewing DLA awards; for instance, 24% of working-age DLA claimants have either had no change in, or no review of, their award for more than a decade, which underlines the Government’s point.

Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): The problem I have with the 24% figure is that it mixes up two things. We have to acknowledge that. It seems to refer to people who have never been reviewed and to people who have had no change, which is not the same as not being reviewed. It could well be that they have been reviewed, but have had no change in their circumstances. The 24% figure is often put across as if people are not assessed. My experience with constituents is that a lot of working-age recipients of DLA are being assessed, because they come to me with their problems.

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Stephen Lloyd: That is a moot point, because I know some people, even in my constituency, who have not been reviewed for many, many years, and who, in normal and sensible circumstances, would be going through a review process. The DWP has come up with the statistic and I think it is reasonably robust, but I take the hon. Lady’s criticism. Perhaps the Minister will clarify the matter.

Media coverage is one of the most challenging issues. The Department says that it recognises the need to work together and to do more to challenge and change negative attitudes towards disabled people. That is why, according to the Department, it is in the process of developing a new cross-Government disability strategy to give renewed impetus to the Government’s commitment to disability equality. Frankly, I do not think it is doing a very good job. I am disappointed with some of the media coverage in the past year or so, and, on occasion, with some of the responses, or even some of the stories that have been set running by either Ministers or the DWP.

The Committee recommended that the Government take on as a priority the fact that public opinion towards disabled people and disability benefits can be and is influenced by the media. We felt that the Government should take more stringent steps to ensure that their own contribution to media stories is accurate and contextualised by actively encouraging robust reporting of their own statistics on benefits.

Anne Marie Morris (Newton Abbot) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman agree—I think this emerged from the Select Committee report—that no Government and no political party can control the byline in a newspaper? I suspect that one of the challenges we have is that while we clearly need accuracy, we need to be mindful that we cannot control what the media write.

Stephen Lloyd: I agree to a great extent. The way that some of the media, particularly some of the tabloids, have been reporting the issue has been disgraceful. I have said that more times than anyone can possibly imagine. However, the DWP and the Government have an enormous responsibility when they are introducing such a seismic change to a benefit. Some of the time, the Government and Ministers have been good and positive, pushing strongly and actively the social model and what they are trying to achieve; at other times, they have been guilty of pandering to people who are more focused on what I might term the tabloid agenda.

The Government have an enormous responsibility, and I would like them to be aggressive. If one of the papers—I do not even need to mention them; we all know the ones I am talking about—comes out with a particularly inaccurate story, I would like to see the Minister and the Secretary of State dealing with it aggressively on the airwaves.

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Kilburn) (Lab): Bylines in newspapers may not be the responsibility of the Government, but it is certainly the responsibility of the Government and the DWP to point out the fact that DLA is an in-work as well as an out-of-work benefit, which they markedly fail to do. They should also highlight the fact that more than 35% of families who claim

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housing benefit are in work, and that the reason they qualify for housing benefit is because their pay is so very low.

Stephen Lloyd: I agree entirely. A lot of people do not understand that the DLA was introduced to help to support disabled people in leading independent lives. I do not know the exact figures, but I know that an enormous percentage of people on DLA are in work. That is a very important point.

I retain doubts about whether that Select Committee recommendation has been followed, either by Ministers in their speeches or by the DWP, and urge that it be made a priority for the Government. However, I strongly support the steps taken by the coalition Government to involve disabled people in the process for devising and implementing PIP, which have proved effective. The DWP has continued to engage extensively with organisations that represent disabled people since May 2011, through its implementation development group, which has more than 50 members and represents a broad range of national and local disability organisations. Engagement at such a level should ensure that the operational design, implementation and ongoing operation of PIPs considers the informed perspectives of disabled people and their representative organisations.

As a consequence of advice and lobbying from me and other Select Committee members, the Department dropped its original proposals to end payment of the DLA mobility component for care home residents, after the Low review, and to extend the three-month qualifying period under DLA to six months under PIP.

I urge the DWP to continue to listen, consult and take on board advice from disabled people and their representative organisations, particularly about the descriptors in PIPs, which I shall come to later. For the record, the disability pressure groups and charities also have a responsibility to be factual in their advice, lobbying and media coverage, as much as the Government do. The victims of misreporting on both sides are disabled people themselves. That simply is not right.

I welcome the Government’s decision to support a three-month qualifying period for PIP, rather than extend it to six months as they originally intended. However, I support the Select Committee’s view that there is evidence of significant financial hardship caused during the current three-month DLA qualifying period, particularly for those with sudden-onset conditions. I ask the coalition Government seriously to consider the Select Committee’s recommendation to implement a facility for early eligibility, which could operate in the same way as that for terminal illnesses.

I welcome the changes made to the first draft of the PIP assessment criteria, which demonstrate that the Government have listened to concerns expressed by disabled people and their representatives. I have had a number of discussions with Lord Freud and his office, drilling down on how some descriptors written into the initial draft were inadequate. I look forward to the final draft, as does the Select Committee.

The DWP deserves credit for the way it has involved disability groups and disabled people in the co-production approach it has adopted to the development of the PIP criteria. However, thus far, mobility descriptors still concentrate too heavily on the ability to move a fixed

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distance and do not include barriers to accessing public transport, or the difficulties of some locations for individuals where routes to shops, public transport and so on are particularly challenging.

The PIP assessment criteria also tend towards the medical model of disability. This is an incredibly important point. I value the fact that the DWP understands, or appears to understand, the social model of disability and that it is about providing support for disabled people so that they may lead independent lives. However, within the PIP criteria, we seem to be slipping back to the medical model. I urge the Minister to watch that closely. For instance, those criteria do not properly take on board the barriers to being independently mobile that a blind person may have face. Yes, they may be able get to the shops or their workplace via a route they know, but the descriptors do not take into account the challenges that a blind person might face if they were travelling to a destination they did not know, which is not uncommon for all of us on a weekly basis. If I had a visual impairment and was using a route that I do not know, I would face a series of different challenges. The descriptors need to show understanding of that and to take it into account.

I was encouraged by the language used by the Minister’s predecessor, who described the PIP assessment as a conversation between claimant and assessor. It is vital that the PIP assessment does not take the same mechanistic approach, based on an inflexible computer system, as originally adopted for the work capability assessment by the previous Government. In time, though, I would like there to be a checking system or review system—call it what we will—that allowed PIP recipients to be reviewed without having to go through the stresses of face-to-face assessment. I suggest that a letter of support from a consultant or other expert in the field—someone with knowledge of their disability—should suffice once the face-to-face assessments have been completed.

I understand why the coalition Government are going through the process of face-to-face assessment—some people have not been reviewed for many years—but it is important that the DWP take on board the profound worry and stress that many disabled people and their families are going through because of the proposed changes. If the Government do not take this on board, they will be perceived as uncaring and their stated desire—our stated desire—to support the social model of disability and to provide additional support for those who need it while being properly careful with the public purse will turn to nothing. I for one will become not a supporter of the Government’s objectives, but a highly vocal opponent. I really do not want this to happen.

My many years in the field of disability lead me to recognise that the system is not good enough. An annual overpayment of more than £600 million and an underpayment of almost £200 million show that it is heavily flawed, but I request that the Government do all they can to ensure that we replace DLA with something better and fairer, and that works. PIP could be that, but it is not yet. I believe it can be and profoundly hope that it will be, by the time it is rolled out in the pilot scheme in April 2013. The coalition Government must get this right, because people’s financial security, their level of comfort and their daily lives heavily depend on it.

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Several hon. Members rose

Mr David Amess (in the Chair): Order. The winding-up speeches will start at 4 pm. I do not want to impose a time limit and I want to call everyone, if we can share the time out.

2.17 pm

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Kilburn) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd). I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg), as Chair of the Select Committee, for her prescient, direct analysis of what we have found in our deliberations to be the areas that the Government must address with no small haste, because if they mess this one up, hundreds and thousands of people will suffer grievously for the inadequacies.

Concerns have already been expressed, which all hon. Members must have heard from our constituents, about the whole assessment process. We all have horror stories to tell about the previous Atos regime. It does not seem to have got any better, because the number of appeals against existing assessments, although not necessarily with regard to DLA, are rising exponentially and being upheld almost exponentially.

One of the most glaring holes in the Government’s approach to the assessment process is in the area of illnesses and disabilities that fluctuate, the most obvious to me, having had representation from my constituents, being Parkinson’s disease. I have also had representations on multiple sclerosis and myalgic encephalomyelitis, and that is long before we get into the variabilities of people who are lifelong sufferers of mental health problems, not least those who are bipolar. My hon. Friend gave an example of someone who may be perfectly capable of getting out of bed one day, but the next day is completely incapable of moving, but under the present structure they would possibly be deemed to be perfectly capable of moving every day. That is simply not the case.

Aside from the Government’s black propaganda agenda for people who claim the whole range of benefits, which we touched on earlier, the great irony of what is being proposed is that no one in Parliament or in the country would argue with the concept of assisting disabled people into work. That seems to be fundamental—why else do we have Equality Acts or laws against discrimination? We want people to work, and people with disabilities are themselves desperate to work, but the great paradox of the Government proposals is that they are actively working against the possibility of people with disabilities being able to get into work because the process is so cloudy and unclear, as is the other issue of what passported benefits—to use that good old cliché—they will still be able to claim.

Anne Marie Morris: Throughout the House there is acceptance that we want to do everything we can to enable people with disabilities to take a full part in life, whether working or not. If I may correct or add to what the hon. Lady said, I think it is true that more appeals have been unsuccessful than successful. My second point is the result of an interesting conversation that I had with our new Minister, who is dedicated to helping disabled people get into work. My constituents have said, “Well, that’s a lovely idea, but how can we do that when many of the jobs are nine-to-five?” I am pleased

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that the Minister is now looking carefully at what is happening in other jurisdictions to ensure that flexibility is available in the work on offer, so that those who have good days and bad days may still participate in the world of work.

Glenda Jackson: On the hon. Lady’s point about appeals not being upheld, the length of time taken to hear an appeal is growing exponentially—my favourite word—so we do not know. People are having to wait months before their appeal is heard, because of the increase in the number presented.

On the changes with regard to nine-to-five, with all due respect that applies to every woman who works—that situation already exists for women. The only job that they might be able to obtain is nine-to-five, although they have children who go to school and the times are completely outside their range. That is not something new that the Government have to address in particular for people with disabilities. If we are looking at the accessibility of existing jobs for people with disabilities, I give the example of one of my constituents who is profoundly deaf. One of the Government’s arguments on accessing the work capability assessment for DLA is that if people do not get the letter they can phone, but that is of absolutely no use to anyone who is profoundly deaf. It certainly does not help my constituent: if he goes along to the jobcentre because he has read about a job he could do, there is no one there to translate for him, so there are holes in the existing system, and I am concerned that they will become crevasses if the Government do not get their timing right and their assessment of people with DLA done within a reasonable period.

The assessments also need to take on board what we were told when the Government initially introduced their changes to the whole of the benefits system: the assessment process, which they accepted in the past had not been up to snuff, would be infinitely more flexible and sensitive. I see absolutely no signs, given the time scale for assessment of people with DLA, of greater flexibility and more sensitivity, which are absolute givens when talking about people whose lives will be fundamentally overturned if they fail to meet the precepts set down by the Government. With all due respect to my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South, who as I said gave a remarkable oversight of the evidence and the concerns expressed, the organisations that work in concert with and on behalf of people with disabilities remain seriously concerned because such questions are not being answered now. We had evidence before us in Committee last week of a coroner in Leicestershire, I think, who attributed a suicide to the individual’s concerns about having to go through the DLA assessment. From our constituents we all know of the anxiety already out there, which is actively having an effect on people now.

That was my introductory rant, but what I am most concerned about is the linkage between services for people with disabilities and local authorities providing such services. Owing to the massive cuts imposed on local authorities, we are already seeing a major downturn in, or removal of, services that many people with disabilities have been or still are dependent on, my favourite example being day centres. They can be a major part of enabling someone who, for example, cares for a person with disabilities to work and to maintain their families. Those

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day centres are being closed, without there being any idea how support will be provided in the area and made accessible to all those who need it. That is another major issue, as is the accessibility of affordable transport, which is seemingly being taken away every five minutes. The argument that has always been made is that the kinds of services required by people with disabilities should be in their local communities, where they can be reached. An example given to me was of a six-year-old boy who needs a hydrotherapy pool. There is such a pool at the end of his street, but although it is in a state school, he does not attend it, so he is precluded from using it and his family have to drive 23 miles there and back to take their child to a hydrotherapy pool.

The overarching argument that I am attempting to put forward is that local authorities have a vital part to play in ensuring that people with disabilities can work, and that they can make a contribution not only in the workplace but in their local communities so that their quality of life and that of their whole family is improved. As we all know, in many instances if one or possibly two people in a family are disabled, the entire family is focused on supporting those people. The needs of the family can often be as great, if not greater, than those of the one family member.

I have probably exhausted the points that I wished to make. I am grateful for everyone’s patience. I stress to the Minister, however, that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity not only for her Government but for the people in this country who have disabilities and for the much wider community—namely, the whole country. In future, do we really wish to be presented as a people who rejected the most vulnerable in society and who believed the black propaganda and accepted that the vulnerable were all workshy, when we all know that that is the antithesis of the truth? We have a duty to ensure that our best might possibly be demonstrated by the care we take of our weakest.

2.27 pm

Jane Ellison (Battersea) (Con): Unfortunately, I have to go to a meeting between 3 and 4 pm, so I apologise to all colleagues in the Chamber and in particular to the Front Benchers if I miss any part of the wind-ups. It is nice to get an opportunity to comment, but as someone who hopes to join the Select Committee officially in the next few weeks, once the bureaucracy can be sorted out, I leave the detailed commentary to those who have helped to prepare such a detailed report and can comment with more expertise. I will confine myself to a few general observations and to a couple of things that I have taken from a brief glance at the report and the Government response.

One of the striking things is the consensus on the need to reform DLA. Clearly there are diverging views on how that might be done, but the consensus is interesting to see. I think it is generally agreed that DLA is a confusing benefit. I understand that fraud levels are low, so I agree with those comments, and I shall come back to the points about media coverage and so on. The DWP’s own figures estimate, however, that there is more than £600 million of overpayment and, more significantly, nearly £200 million of underpayment. Any benefit involving that level of misallocation of resource clearly needs to be looked at carefully to see how it can be reformed.

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Once I knew I was likely to be joining the Select Committee and, in particular, to be contributing to this debate—although I have tried to speak in other debates on disability-related benefits—I made a particular point of talking to disabled people. I also have a disabled staff member, and over the last few days I have talked to carers of disabled people and looked at the case load that comes to my constituency surgery to try to get an insight into people’s lives and how they can be supported.

I took from the Committee’s report the concern about a big bang approach, and I note that the Government have said that the reforms will be phased in, although the Chairman of the Select Committee raised some concern about the phasing-in looking fairly big bang-ish, and I am sure the Minister will comment on that. However, it is sensible that some of the reforms have been characterised by not being big bang changes. The previous Government introduced some big bang reforms, and I understand from what former Ministers have said that they spent several years afterwards dealing with the consequences. I am sure that the Select Committee’s work is invaluable in trying to advise on how some of the reforms can be introduced without causing people unnecessary problems.

I also took from the Committee’s report—this goes partly to the point about coverage—concern about interaction with disabled people and the groups that represent them. The Government have responded positively to that. The snappily named personal independence payment implementation stakeholder forum is now holding a dialogue, and I am sure that the Minister will comment on its work and how it is informing the Government as they proceed.

I was interested to see that the Government have responded to some of the Committee’s recommendations, but other issues have been raised today to which they must also respond. I am firmly in the camp of my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd) as someone who very much wants the reforms to work, but I will use the knowledge that I have gained on the ground in my constituency and feed it back into areas where we may need to do something differently, because there is a slight danger. To put that into context:

“Our goal is to make responsibility the cornerstone of our welfare state.”

That could have been said by the Secretary of State, but it was in the Labour party’s manifesto at the last general election.

There is enormous consensus on the cornerstone of responsibility. I am not being partisan, but there is sometimes a danger that throwing up a series of practical concerns about implementation may add up to a cumulative whole that, if followed to its logical conclusion, might present an overwhelming case for not pressing ahead. I believe that there is an overwhelming case for pressing ahead and working through some of the implementation challenges, because there is a huge danger in not doing so. It may sometimes appear that throwing up such problems amounts to saying, “Let’s just put this in the ‘too difficult’ tray and come back to it in a few years.” That has been happening for decades, and it does a great disservice to the welfare state.

I want to pick up something that my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne said about the dialogue on

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welfare reform, and particularly that involving disability. I completely agree with the comments about some of the tabloid coverage, and I am sure that Ministers have taken on board the need for all of us to be responsible, but there is a flipside, and those charged with representing disabled people—the activist groups, charities and pressure groups—also have a responsibility not to alarm people unduly. I will give a practical example.

I recently went to the annual general meeting of an organisation that provides support and advice to people with disabled children. A lady from a welfare advisory group gave a 25-minute presentation, during which she presented, almost without exception, the possible downsides of the reforms without knowing anything about the personal circumstances of the people in the room, many of whom I knew pretty well because they were constituents and people I had dealt with. Some of them had much to gain from some of the reforms she was talking about, but her starting point was how things could get worse.

Two things struck me about the lady’s talk. In 25 minutes, she did not at any point mention work. She made an assumption that none of the people she was addressing were in work or would progress towards work. That was dispiriting. It is important that those on both sides of the argument do not exaggerate for effect, and the Chairman of the Select Committee made the point about some people’s vulnerability.

I take issue with the suggestion that all disabled people are among the most vulnerable people in our society. I do not believe that. An obvious and clichéd example is that many of the Paralympians we admired during the summer—they were clearly not vulnerable. They had a disability, and we wanted to help them to get over that disability and make the most of what are already fulfilling lives. My friend who works for me has a disability and needs help to fulfil his working life, but he is not intrinsically vulnerable. I take slight issue with that suggestion.

There are two recent reports—“The Tipping Point”, and “Holes in the Safety Net” which Baroness Grey-Thompson introduced last week.

Stephen Lloyd: My hon. Friend reminds me that I was at a meeting only last week when the partner of a blind person said that because his wife was blind and could not work they needed support. That was frustrating because, although I am sure he loves his wife, he was making the assumption that a blind person could not work. I know blind people who are earning more than £100,000 a year. We need to change public perception.

Jane Ellison: I could not agree more. It is central to these important reforms that we ask people what they can do, instead of what they cannot do.

Glenda Jackson: I take on board the hon. Lady’s point about overstatement of the most vulnerable, but some people who are asked that question are totally incapable of answering. A constituent who is 27 years old with a mental age of a six-year-old went to be reassessed. She is already in the system, and the assessor’s report was a million miles from the facts and the actuality. Without the new change that allowed her to take her mother with her, she would have been not only vulnerable but completely unsupported.

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Jane Ellison: Absolutely. That intervention illustrates two points. First, there is an enormous range of disability; we are talking about huge diversity. We must be mindful of the fact that it is difficult to say anything that is true of all disabled people because of the extraordinary span of people covered, from the example just given to some of the people we saw winning gold medals for Britain during the summer. Secondly, the system has already been changed to respond to that concern, and that is exactly as it should be. I am sure that the Select Committee plays an important part in looking at evidence from life to see how a small tweak to the system can enable someone who is exceptionally vulnerable to be properly represented in the system.

Glenda Jackson: The hon. Lady is missing the essential point that I clearly failed to make. The decider in that instance is someone who has been appointed and financed by central Government. They make the decisions, and we have already spoken about the number of appeals arising. That individual should have said immediately, “This is absurd and no one should have sent you to see me”, but they went through the process. My only point is that the deciders of an individual’s life are sometimes a million miles from understanding. They are appointed by the Government, so it is the Government’s responsibility to ensure that assessors are up to the job.

Jane Ellison: I completely agree, but that is not a reason not to press ahead with important reforms.

To return to my previous point, it is sometime possible to give the impression that when a series of practical concerns amass to so great a number—many have been brought up today—that is a reason not to proceed. That is exactly why we have made the mistake of leaving things in the “too difficult” tray in the past.

Teresa Pearce (Erith and Thamesmead) (Lab): I thank the hon. Lady for giving way; she is being very generous. On the problems that are being experienced, is it not the job of Government, the Opposition and all of us here to use our experience to ensure that when contracts are drawn up, they are the best contracts possible? It is not fair to say that it is oppositionism; it is experience. The hon. Lady said that there have been amendments to the Atos contract, and she is right, but this time we would like there to be no need for further amendments. The contract should be right in the first place. What we are saying is, “Let’s look at what could go wrong and what has gone wrong, and let’s get it right this time.”

Jane Ellison: I do not disagree with the hon. Lady, and I have not used the word “oppositionist”. What I am trying to convey is that by constantly focusing on the things that might go wrong or sometimes do, we are not always talking about the things that have gone wrong; sometimes, we project forward and consider things that could go wrong, and that in itself can become a reason to doubt the point of the reform. That is the point I am making. We need to try to show some balance.

Finally, I believe in the welfare state. It is an enormously important, civilising aspect of our modern society. A problem we have at the moment is that there is not a general buy-in from the general public. We have talked about the media and some of the red-top coverage, and

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so on. This is a critical juncture for the welfare state. If we care about it and believe that it is vital to everything that we are as a country, that should make us more determined to press on with reforming the parts of it that clearly are not working.

Stephen Lloyd: I thank the hon. Lady for giving way. Does she agree that the welfare state, which I, too, passionately support, should be about a hand-up and not a handout? There are many tens of thousands of people with disabilities and disabled people already in work, and many more who would do outstandingly in jobs if they were given the right support to do those jobs and not seen by society as victims, which they are not.

Jane Ellison: I absolutely agree, and that is why it is so important to rebuild the general confidence across our nation in our welfare state. Reform cannot be put off any longer, and although there might be difficulties and practical hurdles, we have to work through them. So long as people do not see the welfare state and disability support through the prism that my hon. Friend described, but instead have an unhelpful, negative, tabloid view of it, we will continue to lose the trust and the buy-in. That point is absolutely fundamental, and I hope that as part of the Work and Pensions Committee I can play a thoughtful and responsible role in holding the Government to account. I support the broad thrust of the Government’s reforms, because the future of the welfare state and the respect in which it is held are at stake if we do not press on and get this right.

2.43 pm

Debbie Abrahams (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab): Thank you, Mr Amess. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, and I look forward to welcoming the hon. Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison) when she becomes a full member of the Work and Pensions Committee.

This is not a partisan point, but for clarification I should say that the Opposition support genuine reform when there are clear issues. We have never said that we do not. The issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg), the Chair of the Committee, is that the reforms are cuts. That is an important point to have made. There are practical issues that we need to address, but fundamentally, the evidence supplied to us independently indicates that the reforms are cuts.

Anne Marie Morris rose—

Sheila Gilmore rose—

Jane Ellison rose—

Debbie Abrahams: I give way to the hon. Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris).

Anne Marie Morris: The hon. Lady is very generous. As I understand it, when we look at the figures in terms of the reduced amount available in future—the 20% cut, as she would describe it—and the assessment for the old DLA, which took account of expected changes, there is no difference. I am not sure, therefore, that the

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talk about cuts is correct. It is more about recognising that the current system does not work, because people who need the support do not get it, and the people who do not need it, do. The cuts are really about trying to rebalance that.

Debbie Abrahams: I should also have said that I have to leave soon. I apologise because I will not be taking any more interventions, but I am happy to answer that question. What the Chancellor said in the emergency Budget in June 2010 was clear:

“It is right that people who are disabled are helped to lead a life of dignity. We will continue to support them, and we will not reduce the rate at which this benefit is paid. However, three times as many people claim it today than when it was introduced 18 years ago, and the costs have quadrupled in real terms to more than £11 billion a year, making it one of the largest items of Government spending.”—[Official Report, 22 June 2010; Vol. 512, c. 173.]

As my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South said, there will be a 20% reduction in the number of people who are able to have a disability-related benefit awarded to them, and significant savings, again, can be identified within the Government’s impact assessment.

I want to unpick what the Chancellor said in that statement. He was, and is, saying that even if the prevalence of people with disabilities has grown by three times—there was a very unpleasant undertone implying that it had not—sorry, folks, it is just not sustainable. That is the key message that has been coming through, as my hon. Friend made clear. The impact assessment on the personal independence payment was, again, telling. It said:

“The new benefit will help to ensure that expenditure on DLA is sustainable and resources focused on those most in need of additional support.”

It goes on to assert that although there is an association between low income and poor health, there is limited evidence that providing money will improve health, which is correct. However, it continued:

“It is possible that the policy could have positive impacts on health if it leads to more disabled people moving into work.”

That, too, is very telling. First, the evidence was deflated or inflated, depending on what it said, to support the policy to get rid of DLA and replace it with PIP. The evidence was clearly manipulated and the lack of a comprehensive evidence base is shameful; my hon. Friend referred to that. There is real concern that the policy is being railroaded through. As we have discussed, there are a number of independent disabled people who are able to work. That is absolutely fantastic, but there are also some very vulnerable disabled people. The benefit should take them into account as much as it does those who are independent.

Secondly, the impact assessment makes an association with the positive impacts of work on health—which again, there are—when DLA has always been about helping contribute to the extra costs of being disabled. It is not an out-of-work benefit, so that relates to shifting the mindset of what the change is about. That is so important. The allowance has always been about supporting people with disabilities to lead as normal a life as possible.

For the record, the evidence on the trends in disability reflects our industrial heritage. The regions with heavy industries and occupations that did people’s health no

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favours have the highest rates of disability and ill health. There are diseases such as coal miners’ pneumoconiosis, asbestosis and silicosis. Of course, many of those diseases have long latencies, and there are industrial accidents that Members will be familiar with. Most work is good for people’s health, but not all, and there is strong evidence about that.

As I have said, we can agree—there is consensus across the House—that the DLA system, as it stands, is flawed. For example, a clear system for reviewing some awards is needed, but we should not restrict the access to support to overcome the barriers to day-to-day living that a person with a disability faces. That is what we need to address.

As I said before, the Government’s own estimates predict that more than 500,000 people will not receive this support. As many expert witnesses in the Select Committee’s inquiry concluded, cutting DLA is nothing more than a cost-cutting exercise. It is part of the wider erosion of the welfare state. As has been said, public buy-in is achieved by changing our view of what welfare is about. Unfortunately, the Government have a willing accomplice in the media to help them to do that.

I am really disappointed. We have talked about the role of the media. We have done a number of reports highlighting the importance of the media’s role and of responsible press releases and statements. However, this morning on the “Today” programme, the Secretary of State was talking as though people who are claiming benefits are a drain on society. It was a very inaccurate portrayal of benefit recipients. It was an attempt once again to suggest that the majority are workshy scroungers when the facts are that most people on benefits are in work and most are net contributors to the Treasury. That was not being reported; it was as though people were really abusing the system. There have been a number of such reports, and that has to change.

In addition to the reporting and the way in which attitudes to welfare are being changed, a system is being created in which people on higher incomes see themselves as separate to or outside the welfare state. We are not in post-war Britain. At that time, there was buy-in to the welfare state by everyone. Everyone saw themselves as contributing to and gaining from it. We were literally all in it together.

The final issue—this happened in the US under Reagan—is the putting in place of policies whose implications are unclear. Little has been done to assess the impact on the people they will affect. We have talked about the shameful impact assessment. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South talked about the lack of information available on the implications of this benefit change.

Despite a detailed, evidence-based inquiry by the Select Committee, the Government have rejected our recommendations out of hand. They seem determined to press on with what they are doing. I really have concerns about that. My hon. Friend mentioned the case in which a coroner reported that a suicide could be directly attributed to the pressure that was felt by someone with mental illness as a result of having to go through the work capability assessment. Is this really the type of society that we want to live in? I ask that question because I have—

Jane Ellison: Will the hon. Lady give way?

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Debbie Abrahams: I will not. I am sorry, but I have only a few minutes and then I have to make a school visit.

I appreciate that I am talking about work capability assessments, but we have seen from the evidence that there is a link with the process that is to be adopted.

I want to touch briefly on the issues that have been mentioned in depth by colleagues. I have already talked about access to benefits being restricted. The application process is made as complicated and bureaucratic as possible, so that people already on DLA have to opt in rather than migrate across—the so-called “brown envelope syndrome”.

The assessment process is another issue because of the criteria used. They have little clinical relevance. It is a case of trying to set a very high minimum bar. I know, because I have met their representatives, that the royal colleges and the British Medical Association are really concerned that the criteria have not been developed in conjunction with them; they are often punitive and meaningless.

Similarly, there is an issue about assessors not being qualified in the conditions that they are assessing. That is an absolute nonsense. In addition, little attention is paid to the medical reports submitted in the assessment process. As an aside, I think that it is rather bizarre that Atos was contracted to undertake PIP assessments after such a poor performance on the WCA, but in Scotland it is sub-contracting the undertaking of the assessments to the NHS. What is going on? If this is about saving money, surely that is not the way to do it. In addition, there is little reassurance that someone will not be subjected to myriad assessments, potentially exacerbating their existing condition.

[Jim Sheridan in the Chair]

On the point about evidence, I have said this already but it is inexcusable that we do not have a comprehensive impact assessment that is able to predict—there are methods by which this can be done; I have used them myself—what the impacts will be, not just on claimants but on other services and on society as a whole. We should be doing that. I welcome the new Minister, but I hope that she will reflect on the recommendations that we have made and reconsider this change, in light of the huge concerns about its implementation.

2.56 pm

Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan. Given the colour of your shirt and tie, you are obviously celebrating “Think Pink” week or whatever it is. That is germane to some of the people who have to claim the kind of benefits that we are dealing with today.

I sincerely welcome the hon. Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison); I am sure that she will indeed be joining the Select Committee. We have missed our Conservative members at the last few meetings. It might be thought that we would find that a bit of a relief, but actually it is very good to have the debate that we usually have. I am sure that the hon. Lady will be relieved to know that it is a Select Committee in which we do not necessarily spend a lot of time berating one another; there is often a wide area of agreement.

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I would like to take up a couple of points before going on to the more detailed issues that I wanted to raise. People think that this is a change for the worse because of the context from which it started. That is very important to remember. It is still about reducing the number of people who will be on PIP compared with DLA. That is in the Department’s own impact assessment. It is about saving money. That not only coloured the beginning of the process, but has continued to colour the process. People are very concerned that things may get worse for them or members of their families.

I take slight issue with the comment made by the hon. Member for Battersea that previous Governments left all this in the “Too difficult” tray. My right hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs McGuire), who will be answering this debate on behalf of the Opposition, will have the scars to prove that that was not the case. Changes were made to many of the benefits that existed; I do not think that it is true to say that nothing changed.

I find slightly odd some of the language that has been used in relation to the need to reform DLA. The suggestion has sometimes been that it is a very old benefit that has to be modernised and brought up to date. In fact, it is not that old—20 years old is not Victorian; it cannot even be described as post war. There is a tendency to exaggerate some of the claims, and if people do that, there is a danger—

Jane Ellison: On the point about exaggeration, I take the point made a moment ago about where things started—the way a debate starts out and how it is framed can influence the tone of it thereafter. I accept that point.

Would the hon. Lady accept that there is a duty and responsibility on those who support the best interests of disabled people not to assume the worst in every circumstance—not to highlight only the cuts aspect or whatever of reforms, but to present them in a more balanced way? Many important reports, including the two I referred to in my speech, are based on opinion surveys of disabled people or their families. Colouring opinion by misrepresenting the facts feeds directly into how people feel and becomes self-perpetuating. I seek balance on both sides in the tone used in the discussion.

Sheila Gilmore: I would not suggest that exaggerated comments have not been made. In answering or writing to constituents, I certainly find myself at times being careful to say, “I think this is wrong” or “I think this should not be done”, while not panicking people, so I tell them that it is not happening tomorrow, that there is time and that they should seek advice. It is important that people are not unnecessarily concerned.

The atmosphere in which the debate is ongoing is not helping. It is easy to blame the media, but there is still a tendency on the part of Ministers, whether they intend to or not, to juxtapose benefit claimants with hard-working people. Only the other week, the Prime Minister spoke about people heading out to work in the early hours of the morning, seeing their neighbour’s curtains closed and feeling rightly angry.

That neighbour with the curtains closed might be a night-shift worker or someone with an illness, which might not be visible. It is clear that those with mental health difficulties or less obvious conditions are those

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who people see and think, “What are they doing on benefit? How is that happening?” It does not help to compare and contrast continually in that way. It engenders some of the responses that we get.

The Government have to be careful about how they present their statistics. There have been improvements of late, in that not quite such provocative statements have been made in response to statistics, but it is not all about media spinning. There is a tendency with the statistics—this week, for example, on the outcome of ESA assessments—to emphasise how many people are found fit for work, with an undertone of, “which means that they were previously scroungers or not entitled to the benefit.” We have not had the migration statistics on ESA, so they were new claimants; they are claiming for the first time.

Let us have a comparator. Let us see what happened previously with incapacity benefit, for example, when people claimed for the first time. I hope that we are careful not to fall into the same trap when the PIP statistics come out. Some 50% of those who try to claim DLA are refused, so if 50% of those who try to claim PIP are also refused, I hope that it will not be hinted at or suggested that that in some way proves that people were getting a benefit that they should not have had. Remember what a baseline is and look at it that way.

Teresa Pearce: Does my hon. Friend agree that a possible unintended consequence of such media reports and skewed statistics is that employers who have read those reports may be more prejudiced against people with disabilities, who already face prejudice, who want a job, and against those who have been on benefit and want a job? It makes it more difficult to get those people back to work.

Sheila Gilmore: I hope that employers would not form that view, but there are dangers.

If the Government wanted to reform, the way to start would have been to discuss seriously the issues around DLA, not to start from an assumption that it was somehow old-fashioned, not working and that people did not understand it, so we had to throw the whole thing in the air and start all over again. That leaves aside how the reform was couched in terms of financial savings.

If the Government wanted to make a change, it would have been helpful to have the discussion and carry out the research. If we think back to when the White Paper came out in late 2010, an extraordinarily short time was given for people’s responses. It was a generalised paper, and the extensive response to it was responded to in a very simplified fashion. That did not help. If we had sat down with a lot of the groups in the first place, we might have come out with a better ending.

Obviously, as a Select Committee, we look at the details. The hon. Member for Battersea was correct to say that we have to be careful that we do not end up seeing the trees and not the wood, but details are part of the job of a Select Committee. One thing that we all say, and we all feel strongly about, is that we must get the assessments right first time, which is precisely what appears not to have happened with the WCA.

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We know that the cost of appeals is met by the DWP, not the provider.

Stephen Lloyd: I completely concur with the hon. Lady about the statistics on the WCA and the level of successful appeals. Does she agree that the changes to the WCA that the coalition Government have brought in, with Professor Harrington’s reports, will mean that the first assessment is wrong for fewer people and that the new WCA is more effective and productive?

Sheila Gilmore: Unfortunately, the statistics do not yet show a huge change. The latest statistics show a small reduction in the number of successful appeals, but the number is still very high. Statistics always lag back a few months, so it may be that further improvements are still to come, which would be good. It is particularly important that we get this benefit reform right.

Many people, including those in the disability field and Opposition Members, have asked whether there is any penalty of any sort on the assessor for not doing the job as they should. We are constantly told that we cannot have the information because it is all commercially sensitive. I can understand that perhaps being the case during the tendering process, but I am not clear why it is deemed to be quite so commercially sensitive once the contract is awarded. We still do not know. Public money is going to these organisations, so it is important that we have confidence that this time there is a system in place.

The Select Committee’s recommendation was:

“DWP contracts with private companies for the delivery of the PIP assessment”


“directly link the payment of public funds to the production of reliable assessment reports that are ‘right first time’.”

Now that the contracts have been awarded, I hope that the Minister can tell us whether that has been done and whether it will be monitored and reported on. Obviously, if the assessments are much better, there will not be many penalties, but we need to know now whether that link has been made. It would give people more confidence in the process.

The Chair of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg), briefly mentioned contracting. The PIP assessments have been let on a regional basis. In Scotland and the north of England, Atos won the contract, but it appears to be subcontracting to NHS Lanarkshire to carry out the assessments.

If Atos is not doing the work, what is it getting out of the contract? How much of the contract price goes to Atos and how much to Salus? Salus is the not-for-profit arm of NHS Lanarkshire; it does other forms of occupational health work, which is why it was selected. It is not unreasonable to ask those questions. Such arrangements are becoming all too typical in this new world of outsourcing to large, all-purpose, public service, private companies.

We saw it in the Work programme. At the apex are the big boys such as G4S, A4e and Serco. Sometimes they do the work themselves; sometimes they subcontract;

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sometimes the subcontractors subcontract. At the bottom of the heap some of the sub-subcontractors see little of the payments. That is a major problem.

What are some of those big companies being paid to do? Are they being paid just to put the contract together? Are they just creaming something off the top? They are certainly not shouldering the risk for their subcontractors, because when those get into trouble—with the Work programme, at least—they are not bailed out by the prime contractor. The main contractors do not carry a financial risk of that kind.

We need to know what is happening with the process. The question arises whether it might not have been easier to contract the work in the first place directly to the NHS. If we talk about these things a lot, it is because people naturally think there may be a connection. My hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) pointed out that in statements that have been made in the past the connection with WCA was made overtly. It is not only we who make it.

The question of targets has been controversial. Atos has said there are no targets in relation to WCA. The Government have vehemently denied that there are targets. However, it now seems clear from people who have worked as health care professionals in this field for Atos—and this came out of the television documentaries in the summer as well—that there are expectations about normal and correct outcomes of assessments. Health care professionals whose performance deviates from those expectations are audited so that their performance can improve towards them. We must ask ourselves at what point an expectation becomes a target, or when there is very little difference between the two.

If there are such expectations, what cognisance will there be of regional variations in ill health—and even variations within regions? Partly because of industrial history, certain forms of ill health are more prevalent in some areas and they are likely to have a greater number of people with certain conditions than others. If there are to be targets or expectations, whatever we may call them, such things must be taken into account. However, since we do not know the guidance, we do not know whether they are taken into account. I hope that they are.

If the Government want people to be more confident about the changes, they must be more open and transparent about them. In the absence of such openness and transparency people reach conclusions, rightly or wrongly, which tend, in modern parlance, to go viral around the disability community. People then get very frightened.

Another aspect of the matter that has, I suppose, come out of the WCA experience, is to do with what kind of assessment is being carried out and the attempt to restrict complex conditions to a simple set of descriptors. The aim from the outset seems to have been, certainly with WCA, to create a system that could perform large numbers of assessments and achieve reliable and replicable results. People have often complained about a tick-box approach, and that seems to me to be a direct result of that attempt.

It is not just bad practice by Atos; sometimes, critics concentrate too hard on Atos and not enough on the underlying system. I think that what happens is inherent in the adoption of what is effectively a computerised

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test approach. I am sure it was sold to the Government as the IT answer to carrying out assessments. I think that we all know that IT magic miracle cures are often oversold by those who sell them. Before the Minister says so, I know that it was the previous Government who introduced the WCA and the form of test in question. The fact that they turned out to have inherent difficulties should not mean that we should not criticise them and consider whether we were perhaps naive to think an IT solution could deliver all that was needed.

Mrs Anne McGuire (Stirling) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend also accept that the previous Government had already established some monitoring and evaluation of the WCA as it was initially introduced? They did not go for a big bang approach but were going to role it out gradually, so that lessons could be learned.

Sheila Gilmore: Certainly the system had been operating for some time before the roll-out to all the existing invalidity benefit claimants, but it is not clear that the evaluation was put in place first. I think at the time we said that as some concerns were being considered, and new ways of doing things were being found, it would have been more sensible to put those changes in place before moving everyone else across.

The WCA experience tells us that IT is a tool, and should never become the master of the process. The computerised test should not be the whole of the assessment process. What comes through loud and clear from Professor Harrington’s report is the importance of seeing the computerised assessment as only a part of the whole. Gathering essential documentary evidence early in the process is important. I often heard the previous Employment Minister say that people come to WCA appeal tribunals with information that was not there in the first place—as if people keep it hidden at home and deliberately wait for the appeal to produce the information. Many of the appellants say that no one asked them for it. Some people have even said that they turned up at assessments with information that was not looked at. We must ensure that information is made available from the outset.

The other important thing, according to Professor Harrington, was that DWP decision makers should not simply rubber stamp the computerised assessment. They should consider the position in the round—look at the documentary evidence and consider the situation again. That change should now be in place for the WCA, and there are signs that that is happening, although when I have asked the Government questions about how many Atos assessments are changed by DWP decision makers, I have been told that the information is not kept in that form. Again, it is quite difficult to know exactly what is happening.

The Minister’s predecessor gave us to understand that the PIP assessment would be very different. In the Government’s response to our report, they said:

“The face-to-face consultation, as part of the Personal Independence Payment assessment, is fully intended to be a two-way conversation between the claimant and the health professional, allowing a detailed exploration of how the claimant’s health condition or disabilities affect their day-to-day lives. The discussion at the consultations should not be mechanistic and should be tailored to individuals. This is being clearly expressed to potential providers as part of the tendering for Personal Independence Payment assessment contracts and will be set out

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in detail in the supporting guidance for providers and their staff. The guidance will stress the importance of positive interaction throughout all aspects of the assessment. The contract will require assessors to have excellent interpersonal and communication skills, including the ability to interact with people sensitively and appropriately.

The Department is not placing targets on the time required for face-to-face consultations and is making clear to potential providers that consultations will need to be as long as necessary to reach evidence-based conclusions on individual cases.”

That sounds wonderful, and if it happens we will definitely have a much better assessment process than the WCA one that we have criticised. I have a problem reconciling it with the contract approach. Has it been built into the contracts? How will it work? If an assessment on one day, for one person, takes as long as is needed, what happens to the other people sitting in the building waiting to be assessed?

Are those people going to be sent home or asked to come back another day? What effect will that have on the number of assessments carried out? What are the targets or expectations of how many assessments should be carried out each week or month? There is a conflict—a tension, at least—between those hopeful and optimistic words and a contract-based system that has expectations of putting through a large number of people over a short space of time.

The Committee was also concerned about the frequency of reassessments. Although we accepted that there should be more reassessments than previously, we had concerns about how often people should have to go back through that process. It is very stressful and expensive for claimants. Stress can affect people’s health and make them worse rather than better.

Dr Eilidh Whiteford (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): I am glad the hon. Lady has raised that point. The whole question of getting to assessments has been one of the biggest issues around the WCA for people who live far away and often depend on relatives or friends to take them. It can mean a whole day trip for a simple—and sometimes unnecessary—assessment process.

Sheila Gilmore: That is where I hope we will see a more flexible approach that in some cases allows for a decision to be made without the absolute necessity of a face-to-face assessment. That should certainly apply in the case of reassessment, even if not always for the first assessment. There will be some cases, even when it is the first occasion, when the obviousness of someone’s situation should make a face-to-face assessment unnecessary.

There is sometimes a reluctance to accept that anybody falls into that category. It is important to give people optimism and hope. I had a constituency case concerning WCA, although it could have applied equally to DLA. A constituent’s son has a number of conditions but basically he is a 21-year-old toddler. He had no concept of what he was to be put through, but his mother did. He had been kept at his special education school for some time beyond normal school leaving age. However, he now had to apply for the benefit. His mother asked whether it was absolutely necessary to take him to an assessment. His inability to handle new situations is so great that she cannot get him into strange places and buildings.

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When she phoned to ask about that, she was repeatedly told that there would have to be an assessment and that she would just have to do it. She filled in the form and sent it in. She was then told that he had been granted the benefit without an assessment. That is good, but she had been put through a lot of unnecessary stress, because one bit of the Department did not seem to know that that was possible under certain circumstances. Anyone who had met him would quickly see that the young man was clearly entitled to the benefit and to be in the support group. There was no way he could undertake employment any more than any toddler could.

There are real cases of people who should not be put through all that and the extra difficulties. Apparently, one of the providers is proposing to do quite a lot of home visits and that might take out some of the difficulty. However, that prompts the questions of whether the process will take longer and of how to deal with the large numbers involved. It has been described as a much bigger challenge than the migration from incapacity benefit to ESA. The Department is taking on a bigger challenge before it has completed the previous one.

One problem encountered by people who appeal under the WCA process is that the reassessment comes through quickly thereafter. One oddity is that the decision on the reassessment period is based on the recommendation of the original assessment. The original assessment might say that someone should be reassessed within a year. The person might then appeal and win. If the appeal takes 10 months, that person could still be called back for reassessment two months later, even though the decision to call someone back within a year was based on an original flawed assessment. It does not seem sensible to operate such a procedure. There seems to be no reason why a decision about reassessment should not be reviewed if someone wins an appeal.

The Government response said that the recall time for reassessments could be almost any length; they could be a year or 10 years. They would never again be indefinite. A year is a very short time when one considers that to qualify for the benefit in the first instance, it is necessary to demonstrate that the condition is likely to last for at least a further six months. I would suggest that over-short periods will put everybody through unnecessary difficulty.

Other speakers have mentioned the piloting phase. It defies belief that a proper evaluation of a pilot can be done within two months and then the results applied. That is what is being suggested. The initial roll-out in the Bootle office will start in April. The roll-out to new claimants in the whole of the UK will start in June. There is barely time to get enough data to make an appropriate evaluation, let alone carry out that evaluation and then make changes.

The Department constantly tells us in connection with this benefit and universal credit that it now has an agile system that allows details to be changed as things go along and it can keep rolling out in different ways. That was not our experience with the Harrington changes in WCA. It took months for most of those changes to be put in place. When we asked about it, we were told, “We have got to draw up new instructions to staff. They have to be sent out to staff. New training has to be put in place.” In effect, between the first Harrington report in November 2010 and the following summer, some of the changes began to be rolled out. The explanation we

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were given for the time lag was that that was the time it takes to go through a process of getting staff ready for the changes.

How is it that suddenly, only a year later, the Department is confident that it can have a pilot, evaluate it and roll out changes and make a real difference to people who are making claims? In October next year, the process of ending people’s DLA claims and inviting them to apply for PIP will begin. The whole process is quite tight and does not give opportunity for proper evaluation and tracking of what is happening to people. Perhaps the Minister can tell us whether there will be a proper evaluation of the Bootle pilot. Who is to carry it out? When will the results be known? Does she think it makes sense to move to the full roll-out in June?

Monitoring and tracking changes of this sort is important. We need to know how this will be monitored in an ongoing way. I was appalled to discover how little tracking seems to go on of the results of the ESA process. Parliamentary questions that I have asked about the destinations of people who are found fit for work are often answered with, “We do not keep that information. We may know who is on benefit and who is in employment, but as for other things, we do not know.”

The previous Government put in place a research project that started to track such information, but I think that it has now stopped. It had a first and second wave, but there is no sign of the research continuing. Perhaps the Minister will let me know whether I am wrong.

On ESA, the project found that within a year of people being found fit for work, 43% were neither in work nor in receipt of an out-of-work benefit. That is an awful lot of people simply to disappear. There are a whole lot of reasons for that; people may have gone on to jobseeker’s allowance, run out of the contributory JSA or they may have a working partner. Some may have a small pension because they were retired from work early on health grounds—even though they were then found to be fit for work, which is not uncommon.

There may be lots of reasons, but, as a responsible Parliament and Government, we really should know the effect that this measure is having. These people are seeing a substantial reduction in their incomes. They may have been in a two-income household, which then becomes a one-income household plus a benefit and then a one-income household possibly with the additional costs of having an illness of some kind.

What happens to those people and their standard of living is important. It is the same with the change we are discussing. Some may say that making the change will be good. We were even told by the Minister’s predecessor that some people who previously did not get this benefit—especially mental health applicants—will do so now. We may have even more people getting the benefit. We need to know all the information. I hope that we will have a proper research project and that the Minister will tell us that it is being fully funded by Government.

As for the housing benefit changes, the Government have put in place a research project, which is being carried out by one of the universities. A baseline piece of work has been done, so that we know what we are measuring against, and then it will look at the effect of the changes. If we are going to do that, we should have been doing the baseline now, but perhaps we are and I simply do not know about it.

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Data collection is important as well. There have been some hints that the Government will be doing less reporting and data collection on benefit recipients. However, if we do not collect the data, we cannot do the research, even if we try to do it later. At the moment, we can find out how many people claiming DLA are doing so in relation to different conditions. We can tell the proportions of people who are receiving the benefit because of Parkinson’s or other such conditions. If we stop collecting these data—I hope the Minister will reassure me that there is no such intention—we will have a much less clear view of what is happening. Hopefully, we will go on collecting them.

Finally, the implications of the change not being a migration are important. People will consider it to be a migration if they had received incapacity benefit and are now on ESA—of course, not every DLA recipient is in that category. The notion that people will necessarily respond, and respond in time, is fraught with difficulty. Possibly the first time people will notice it is when their benefits stop. Suddenly the benefit will stop, and they will say, “What has happened here?” They will go and get advice and then discover that they have missed the boat—they had not gone ahead as they should have done.

The time scales are short. From the letter’s dropping through the door, a recipient has four weeks to get in the first part of the application. When they get the stage 2 form back, they have four weeks in which to return it. Voluntary and advice agencies say that if people are going to get assistance with some of this process—for some people it is very important to get such assistance—four weeks is not a long time. In many areas, people can wait that sort of length of time for an appointment with an advice agency or a welfare rights adviser, so the time scale can be a serious problem.

If people have to get additional information, which the form will apparently ask for, people will need time. The time scale seems short, and that may be revealed by the pilot. Will the Minister assure us that if it turns out that a large number of people are either not making the claim that they should be—they are not responding to the stage 1 letters and are dropping out—or are having difficulty with the four-week period for returning the form, the Government will move to change the process fairly quickly?

We do not want to see a lot of people losing out over this. If, as the Government claim, the change has genuinely been made to improve the situation for people with disabilities and to give them a personal independence payment that enables them to play a full part in our society, we have to get it right. No Government should be unprepared to accept that.

Let me touch briefly on the issue of our Olympians and what people can and cannot do. Sadly, the success of the Paralympics could turn out to be a double-edged sword for some disabled people, although I hope that it will not. Not everyone can be a Paralympian. Just because some people can, it should not be assumed that other people who are not able to find work, volunteer or play sport are somehow not trying very hard. Although it is good for people to see that disability is not about being a victim and that people can do lots of things when they are disabled, we should not make the obverse mistake of thinking that everyone is up to that and that they are just not pulling their weight.

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As many of the Paralympians said, DLA was one of the benefits that helped them to achieve some of the important things that they did, whether it was getting to their training sessions or being able to have a carer so that they could concentrate on getting to places, doing their training and having a home. Many of them specifically said how much they benefited from DLA. We must remember that someone can be a Paralympian and still need benefit.

3.37 pm

Graham Evans (Weaver Vale) (Con): I am sorry that I was not here for the start of the debate, Mr Sheridan, and thank you for calling me to speak. I would like to make a brief contribution.

Since the introduction of disability living allowance in 1992, the number of claimants has increased from 1.1 million to 3.2 million, with a 30% increase in the past eight years alone. It is clear from the escalation of those figures that a proportion of the claims need to be reviewed. The Government are committed to disabled people’s services, will continue to spend more than £40 billion a year on them and anticipate spending £13 billion on personal independence payments next year. We also know that reform is needed.

We understand that each individual’s situation is different, and we also know that circumstances change—illnesses can progress or, on the other side, treatments can help to manage symptoms or even provide cures. No one person is the same as anyone else, and someone’s health can change rapidly. That is why it is vital that we look to guarantee that each person is supported according to their own needs, not according to a checklist, which was ably shown in the speech of the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore).

The Government will not write off people as unable to work, pushing them to the sidelines to feel that they can never contribute to society. DLA is considered a benefit for life: 130,000 people have not had their award changed since the inception of the policy two decades ago, in 1992. Some 71% of people receiving DLA do so on a permanent basis. That is clearly wrong. The state has failed to recognise and adapt to the changing needs of claimants.

There have been about £630 million DLA overpayments —clearly, that is wrong—but it is much more important to focus on the fact that £190 million has been underpaid. It is our duty to ensure that we provide vital support to the most vulnerable in our society. A more tailored approach will prevent those failures.

About 50% of assessments are made without any additional medical evidence being provided. That is a deeply concerning state of affairs, especially when we consider individuals with mental health issues or learning difficulties who might struggle to identify needs that a medical professional could identify. The best way to make assessments is to use face-to-face consultations, dependent on the individual’s personal conditions, to find out how people’s disabilities affect their day-to-day lives.

I also welcome the increased number of definitions of criteria in the assessment, to ensure that we make assessments objective and consistent. Examples of that

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include splitting the “communicating with others” category into “communicating” and “engaging socially”. I am sure that my colleagues will agree that those are two very separate issues that affect an individual’s interaction with society very differently.

I welcome the Government’s overhaul of an outdated and inefficient system that forces a one-size-fits-all mentality on the welfare of disabled people across the UK. We have a duty of care and a duty to enable. PIPs will provide us with a way to achieve that.

3.41 pm

Mrs Anne McGuire (Stirling) (Lab): Thanks very much, Mr Sheridan, for calling me to speak. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.

First, I welcome the Minister to what I think is her first set-piece debate on an issue in her portfolio. She follows a distinguished line of Conservative Ministers for Disabled People. We should never forget that her colleague, the Foreign Secretary, piloted the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 through the House. Frankly, he did so in the teeth of opposition from his own party, and he should be recognised for the contribution that he made with that first step along the road of legislating for the rights of disabled people. I welcome the new Minister to her post.

I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg) for mentioning Lord Morris of Manchester, who was the first Minister for Disabled People, and certainly a great source of advice and opinion to me when I was the Minister. Along with his colleague, Lord Ashley, he made sure that we all kept on our toes on these issues. They were at the forefront and the pioneers of parliamentary activity, as well as activity outside Parliament, in ensuring that the rights of disabled people were recognised. The memorial service for Lord Morris will be held soon and I hope that many colleagues can attend.

I also particularly thank members of the Work and Pensions Committee for their valuable report. I appreciate the time and effort that have gone into accumulating the evidence and presenting the report to Parliament. It is an interesting comparison that we in Westminster Hall this afternoon are competing with a badger cull debate in the main Chamber. I will let that comment stick to the wall and say no more.

I offer a vote of thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South, who has been a Member of the House since 1997. She came into Parliament with me as one of the so-called Blair babes. At times, we felt like Blair’s grannies, but never mind. My hon. Friend has served the House with distinction since that time, no less than during the past two years in her chairmanship of the Work and Pensions Committee. She brought to the report, and indeed to her contribution to our deliberations today, her very particular and personal insight into disability benefits.

Sometimes I think that MPs give the impression that somehow they are not real people, and that we do not live lives out there that have nothing to do with politics. I know from my hon. Friend’s activities, both as a teacher and as a political activist, that she has provided inspiration to many people who are disabled—not only in the way that she conducts campaigns and is articulate on behalf of disabled people, but because of a very

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particular knowledge. We should recognise that and not hide her particular light under a bushel. I want to pay that particular compliment to her. She has done that work while managing yet another difficulty, having just spent more than three months in hospital.

I thank the Work and Pensions Committee for providing a pretty comprehensive picture of the changes that are taking place. I appreciate that the report is a little dated now in some respects, but the views that underpin it have not dated, not least the view of the context and environment in which the changes are taking place. I will come back to that point shortly.

I also welcome the Government’s response to the report, although I must say that in many places it is pretty inadequate. It is full of fine words, but as some people in some parts of the country say, “Fine words butter no parsnips.” There are a lot of people out there who think the Government response is camouflage rather than one of substance.

However, I welcome the Government’s recognition that more work needs to be done before personal independence payments are introduced in April 2013. We have heard some of the reasons why more work needs to be done. We are talking about an incredibly tight timetable for a change that will throw the financial stability of many disabled people in this country up in the air. We should not run away from that, and I hope that the Minister will not run away from it. Therefore, will she update us on the progress on her deliberations on those changes that are necessary and that the Select Committee report has identified as necessary?

I hope that the new Minister will not underestimate the distress that the uncertainty is causing out there; I do not think she will. Yesterday, I met with some young people from a Royal National Institute of Blind People group called Haggeye. You, Mr Sheridan, will not be surprised to learn that that is a Scottish group; they have amalgamated our national food with their own disability to name the group. They were joined by some other young blind and visually impaired people from other parts of the country. They had a tour of Parliament, and they met with some MPs and Mr Speaker.

At one point during the day, I had a conversation with them and I must say to the Minister that that conversation with those young blind and visually impaired people encapsulated many of the discussions that I have had, and I am sure other Members of the House have had, during the last several months. We talked about their fear of the future. One young woman said to me, “I don’t think I’m going to qualify.” There are grave concerns out there among visually impaired people about whether they will qualify for the new PIP. She also asked, “What happens to me?” The financial underpinning that allows her to conduct her life could be taken away.

The Government must accept responsibility for the environment that they have created. I welcome the words of, I think, the hon. Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison), and indeed of the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd), who are supporters of the coalition Government. They recognised that throwing a hand grenade into the debate on the disability agenda in June 2010, without any warning or consultation, did not set the right tone for the debate.

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The Minister needs to look again at what is meant by “co-production”. The hon. Member for Eastbourne made a valiant attempt to say that that announcement in June 2010 was an example of co-production. It was not co-production; co-production would have meant that disabled people were involved in discussions before the announcement was made. If he wants to see some experience of co-production, in 2005, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) started on the route to our welfare reforms and he did so by talking to disabled people and involving them from the beginning, rather than saying, “The Chancellor has said that and we now need to manufacture a new benefit around it.” The Chancellor effectively said that there would be a cut of whatever billions of pounds he happened to conjure up at that time. I appreciate that the Minister is new to her post, but the Government must accept some responsibility for that environment.

I also want to highlight some other issues that I hope the Minister will address. I note, for example, that the response by the Department for Work and Pensions fails to reply effectively to the evidence given by Professor Sainsbury, who, at paragraph 38 on page 15, says that

“he was ‘at a loss’ as to where the 20% figure came from”

and did not know how it could have been put into the public domain

“before any work had been done on the criteria and thresholds for the benefit.”

Although we have heard fine words that the change is about serving the needs of disabled people and so on—we all know the script—the reality is that the figure was put into the public domain and policy arena as a savings target, not to define a new benefit to meet the needs of disabled people. No matter how much work has been done in recent months to try to ameliorate that impression, it still sticks, because that is where it emanated from. I hope the Minister will allude to that initial statement by the Chancellor.

Moving on, the Government’s response says on, I think, page 5 that the 20% figure was

“a high level assumption”

and that further work is being undertaken on

“assessment criteria and the detailed policy that will underpin primary legislation. More detailed and updated expenditure savings figures will be provided”.

Will the Minister provide us with some of that information to allow people to start to flesh out exactly what is meant by this new benefit? It is disturbing that anguish has been caused to many disabled people on the basis of a high-level assumption of a 20% cut, translated into the withdrawal of benefit from between 500,000 and 640,000 people—that is the rough spectrum, depending on how we cut the statistics. I hope she will refer to that. Are there current working assumptions for the reduction in spend and numbers? If so, will she share them with us?

I was pleased that various Committee members here, and indeed the Committee as a whole, highlighted the issue of media coverage. The reality is that the Government set the initial context. We should not run away from that, and I hope that the Minister will not because some of her ministerial colleagues were disgraceful in how they never or rarely rebutted any of the scrounger stories in the national newspapers. I was delighted that

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the hon. Member for Eastbourne mentioned some of those issues. Indeed, on occasion, the Secretary of State fuelled such media stories. I remember one about disability living allowance for children and Motability cars. He said—it was in quotation marks—that all people had to do was fill in an application form for DLA and, Bob’s your uncle, they could move almost directly into their new Motability car.

Dr Whiteford: The right hon. Lady is making an important point about how disabled people have been vilified in the press in recent months. Does she agree that far from being a benefit paid to people who cannot help themselves, DLA actually helps a lot of disabled people keep themselves in work, making them and their families less dependent on the state?

Mrs McGuire: That is right, and it is a part of this debate that has been missed. Although a significant number of people on DLA are not in work, an equally significant number are, and they use their disability cars, if they have them, to get from home to their workplace. If they are not on the higher rate, they can use their allowance to meet some of the additional costs. One of the young visually impaired people I met in my discussions with Haggeye yesterday said that he used his DLA for a taxi to work, because it was too difficult for him to navigate the roads. He worried about that. The hon. Lady is quite right.

I will give the Minister a bit of flexibility, as this is her first outing, but the newspapers have been awash with stories equating in the public mind those on disability benefits with scroungers. Glasgow university, commissioned by Inclusion London, delivered a report showing that the number of negative stories about disability had increased. Frankly, many people felt that the Government had set up an Aunt Sally and then knocked it down. Instead of being honest about what disability living allowance is for, they set up the image that everybody who claimed it was not entitled to it. There have been instances of hate crime, with people being harassed because others did not think they were as disabled as they made out to be. The way that the debate has been conducted has had a domino effect.

I thought optimistically that the Secretary of State had seen the error of his ways but, disappointingly, he has proved himself a serial offender. He was at it again this morning, this time talking not about disabled people but about people with families. I use this to illustrate my point about setting the context. I was aghast to hear him say in his interview this morning that there are tens if not hundreds of thousands of families out there on benefits who have multitudes of children. A freedom of information document published by the DWP on 12 September shows that there are 10 families in receipt of benefits who have 13 children. It is not until we get to families with one, two and three children that the numbers run into hundreds of thousands.

I do not think that a family with three children is large. I certainly do not think that a family with four children is large, having come from one myself. To set a context by saying that reform—in this case, reform of other benefits—is essential because tens of thousands of people are out there abusing the system is disrespectful

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to the people who, more often than not, want to get out of the benefits system. The Government certainly set the context quite nicely in terms of disabled people, because disabled people have been feeling threatened since then.

I was interested to read on page 5 of the Government response that the Department is

“developing a case study approach to illustrate the contribution disabled people make to society”.

Again, what exactly is happening? When is it happening? What newspapers have been approached? It is fine for the Minister for Disabled People to write features for major disability organisations, but it is not the opinions of those organisations that we need to change; it is those of the mainstream press. I am interested to hear her response.

I appreciate that we have taken a lot of time and will probably run out of time, and that the Minister has a lot of questions to answer. On the assessment of the impact of introducing PIP, will she consider a cumulative impact assessment of all the benefits affecting disabled people? The previous Minister used to say that it was too difficult, but it is astonishing to me that a Department with more than 100,000 civil servants should find it too difficult to come up with a cumulative impact assessment of their policies on disabled people. Disabled people know what the impact will be, and if the Government are not prepared to accept some of the findings of the Hardest Hit campaign and Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson’s report earlier last week, they are duty bound to come up with their own impact assessment. They cannot just discredit everyone else’s and say, “We’re not going to do one.” I hope that the new Minister will think about that.

Can the Minister tell us when we will see the final regulations? Time is getting tight; there is no doubt about that. PIP is coming in next April, and we have not yet seen the final regulations. I am also interested in knowing what the Minister’s interpretation of co-production is. It is not just consultation after the effect; it is the involvement that I have mentioned.

I, too, welcomed the comments made by the previous Minister for Employment, the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), about the idea of there being a “conversation”, but let me test the logistics of that idea because this is a crucial issue. The Government’s response says that there will be no time limit, which I am sure is a welcome statement, but although there might not be explicit targets, if a company has to carry out some 100,000 reassessments in a short time, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South has said, there is an implied target. There might not be a target in the contract, but one is certainly implied, particularly I understand that Capita has already found out that 60% of people would like home visits. I just do not know how the Government will do this.

On the prime contractors, many colleagues have identified that there is no great confidence in at least one of them, and the Minister might be aware that in Scotland Atos has contracted with an NHS social enterprise called Salus. Atos told Third Force News, the newspaper of the voluntary sector in Scotland, that

“subcontracting the work to the NHS would help assessors make more informed decisions as they would work alongside local health boards when it came to assessing claimants.”

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Why would Atos contract with an NHS unit only in Scotland? Is there a particular reason, perhaps concerning the politics of Scotland or because Atos feels that there is more sensitivity there? To whom is it subcontracting in the other areas in which it has the contract? Regarding the trail of public money, is it not ludicrous that the Department for Work and Pensions, as a public sector organisation, is contracting with a private sector organisation, in this case Atos, which is then subcontracting to a public sector organisation? What way is that to run a business?

Dr Whiteford: The right hon. Lady asks a valid question. Does she share my view that we might now get more accurate assessments?

Mrs McGuire: The expectation would be that there might be more accurate assessments, but we must also take on board the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore), who said that the assessment criteria are set not by Atos but by the Government. The issue is how those assessment criteria are interpreted further down the line. We might get better, more valuable assessments, but as the previous Minister said on more than one occasion in this House, the ultimate decision is made by the decision maker in the Department for Work and Pensions, and the criteria are set down by that Department. We must always remember that.

I want to come on to an issue relating to Atos, of which the Minister may or may not be aware. I understand that this afternoon some major disability organisations are up in arms about the fact that Atos has apparently named them in the contract. They did not know anything about it. As a matter of fact, they are incandescent with rage, because their being named in the contract has given the company an element of credibility. In one instance the contract states, I think, that those voluntary organisations are going to carry out the disability training of Atos staff and do various other kinds of partnership work with the company. Someone in one of the organisations has said, “It is difficult to know whether we should fall about laughing, because it is so ridiculous.”

Will the Minister tell us whether Atos named in the contract organisations that it had not contacted? What is happening now that those organisations are challenging the fact that Atos has put them down there? If the contractual system has proved to be flawed, will the Minister say that she will have to review the contracts? We cannot have a situation in which a private sector contractor uses as cover disability organisations in the voluntary sector, when those organisations have not given their permission and have in some instances said that they would have nothing at all to do with Atos.

Sheila Gilmore: Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is all part of the opacity of the contracts? Public money is going out, and we do not know what is in the contracts or, in the case of the subcontracting, who is getting what money and what Atos is even being paid for, if it is getting other people to do the work.

Mrs McGuire: My understanding is that the disability organisations involved did not know that they were listed as Atos partners, if I can call them that, until some of the information was published recently. There are

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serious questions here. I do not know whether the Minister will have an answer this afternoon, but if she does not, I suggest that she might need one pretty quickly, because some organisations are up in arms.

Finally, I want to come on to young people. I note from page 19 of the Government’s response that they still think that the age of 16 is the appropriate cut-off. There is a myth that the changes will have no impact on young people and children, but by the end of the roll-out of the process a 14-year old who is in receipt of disability living allowance now will be affected by the changes brought in with PIP. The previous Minister told me that 16 was the appropriate age because it is the natural point at which a child transitions to adulthood, but I suggest that the Minister reconsider that. The school-leaving age is going up, and I assume that that will have an effect on disabled young people at school. If a child or a young person was moved from a benefit at the age of 16, when they were still going through their school career, they could be in the ludicrous position of having qualified for DLA but not for what the Government have promoted as the tighter benefit of PIP. Young people in what would be fourth year in the Scottish education system—I do not know what it would be in England—should not be put under such additional stress. I suggest that 16 is no longer the appropriate age. The Government have stated that they are considering a transitional arrangement for people aged 16 to 18, and I am keen to find out the Minister’s view on that.

In conclusion, I will quote an optimistic sentence spoken by the Chancellor just before the emergency Budget, which is highlighted in the Hardest Hit report:

“Too often, when countries undertake major consolidations of this kind, it is the poorest—those who had least to do with the cause of the economic misfortunes—who are hit hardest.”—[Official Report, 22 June 2010; Vol. 512, c. 180.]

There is a strong sense out there that disabled people are the hardest hit. [Interruption.] I am delighted that the hon. Member for Battersea is back in her place. I am sure that she will be a great asset to the Select Committee.

In the Hardest Hit report that I have mentioned, the Paralympian David Clarke stated:

“There are hidden costs [to being disabled]. Computing what those costs are is very difficult…but fundamentally they exist. Withdrawal of [that] additional funding to cover those additional costs, if that is being planned, will jeopardise the independence of disabled people.”

Paralympians did wonderful things this summer, but many of them will say that one reason why they could do those things was because of the additional support from something like disability living allowance. I hope that the Minister will address that issue because we need to consider that there are extra costs to disability. PIP will, according to the Government, recognise the people who are most severely disabled and those in the greatest need, but there are people in great need, and people in greater need. No matter how laudable, if we concentrate all the effort and finance on those who are most severely disabled, there will still be disabled people who require some help to meet those additional costs. That is the dilemma the Government face.

Jim Sheridan (in the Chair): Before I call the Minister, I remind colleagues that we are scheduled to conclude at 4.30 pm. As has already been said, the Minister has

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been asked to answer a number of serious questions, but the Chair of the Select Committee has indicated that she would like a few minutes at the end to conclude.

4.10 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Esther McVey): I begin by congratulating and thanking the Liaison Committee for calling this debate. I thank the members of the Select Committee and other right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken today, some with very personal knowledge of this most important subject.

In summing up I hope to get through all the questions. As Members can see, I have papers on those questions across my desk, but should I not get to answer all of them, I am sure Members will catch my eye and pursue the matter that most concerns them.

I am pleased, Mr Sheridan, that you are chairing the debate today. Thank you.

I believe that the change will be of the same quality and standard as the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, which was introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Mr Hague). I thank the right hon. Member for Stirling (Mrs McGuire) for mentioning that Act, because I think all of us here are concerned about, committed to and believe in the rights of people with disabilities. We want the changes that we seek to be implemented as best they can be and brought about for the right purposes. The coalition Government are committed to enabling disabled people to fulfil their potential and to have opportunities to play a full role in society.

We have been clear about our welfare reform plans, which are designed to rebalance the benefits system so that it is fair to claimants and affordable for the taxpayer. Key to ensuring those objectives is replacing the disability living allowance with personal independence payments for people of working age.

Sheila Gilmore: Will the Minister give way?

Esther McVey: I have only just begun, but the hon. Lady may intervene if she wishes.

Sheila Gilmore: I regret that the Minister has fallen into the trap of counterpoising claimants and taxpayers. Many claimants are indeed taxpayers. Many are income tax payers, but they all certainly pay VAT. The two groups are not distinct.

Esther McVey: I never sought to put them in two distinct groups. I said “affordable for the taxpayer”. I am afraid that it is the hon. Lady who distinguishes between the two. I certainly did not.

The Government currently spend almost £50 billion a year on disabled people, including more than £15 billion on adult social care, £1 billion on free transport for elderly and disabled people, £13 billion on disability living allowance, £15 billion on a range of other benefits and £320 million on disability employment programmes. We are also putting an extra £15 million into Access to Work. We should be proud that we are doing all of that.

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We spend a fifth more than the EU average, and we are acknowledged as world leaders, which is a very good point to start this debate.

Those services enable disabled people to make their own choices and live independently, and for the services to continue to be available they must be sustainable and keep pace with the needs of disabled people today, which is considered no longer to be the case with disability living allowance. As hon. Members may be aware, from May 2002 to February 2012 the number of people claiming DLA rose by almost 34%. DLA, therefore, is financially unsustainable. We, like many others, including the Select Committee, consider DLA to be outdated and in need of fundamental change.

Dame Anne Begg: Those figures have been mentioned elsewhere today, and they should be put in context. The growth in the numbers claiming DLA is because people are living longer. Most of that growth comes from those over 65, because if people qualify before they are 65, they effectively keep DLA until they die. Of course, the introduction of PIP does not apply to that cohort. It is therefore wrong to say that the growth in DLA will be halted by the changes, because the large proportion of the growth is purely down to demographics.

Esther McVey: I checked the numbers before I came here today, and the over-65s are not the vast majority, but a third of the total. Interestingly—I think my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Graham Evans) brought this up, although many people have touched on it—DLA is not a static benefit; it is a dynamic benefit in so far as 3.3 million people are on it and the conditions they have will change. Some might stay the same and some might get worse, but some people’s condition may get better, and we have to acknowledge that when people get better, they will move off the system. There is a natural movement within the system, and we have to consider all those incidents, which is why we believe the reform is required.

I know I am short of time, so I will address the assessment and answer as far as I can some of the specific questions that were raised. If I do not have enough time, because there were so many points, I will write to hon. Members.

Mrs McGuire: Will the Minister address the Atos contract for PIP?

Esther McVey: I will get to that at the very end. Perhaps the right hon. Lady should wave to me about a minute before the end so I can ensure that I get there with what I have.

Jim Sheridan (in the Chair): Order. That will need to be a few minutes before the end so that the Chair of the Select Committee can wind up.

Esther McVey: Thank you, Mr Sheridan.

I have been corrected, so perhaps the right hon. Member for Stirling could wave to me a few minutes before the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg) speaks.