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Tuesday 4 September 2012
[Mrs Linda Riordan in the Chair]
Access and Facilities (House of Commons)
Mrs Linda Riordan (in the Chair): This morning’s first debate, on visitor access, is slightly unusual, as it is on a House of Commons matter, not a Government one. The winding-up speech will made by John Thurso on behalf of the House of Commons Commission, and I expect to call him no later than 10.50 am, depending on how many other hon. Members want to speak.
There will be time for Front-Bench speeches, should the speakers wish it. The Administration Committee’s report on visitor access is relevant to the debate. The House of Commons Commission response to that report was published at 9.30 this morning and copies are available.
Sir Alan Haselhurst (Saffron Walden) (Con): Mrs Riordan, you and I are in an unusual position, in that for several years our roles were normally the other way round, but I am delighted to see you occupying the Chair. I am aware that this morning’s subject of debate is not exactly at the epicentre of colleagues’ consideration, given other events that may be taking place not too far away from the Palace. However, it is important that we have occasional opportunities to discuss matters connected to Parliament’s operation, rather than those that concern the rest of the country. I hope to show that we are concerned, when we consider access to the building, about the convenience of the public—the people we serve.
The report of the Administration Committee on visitor access and facilities was published in May and, as you announced, Mrs Riordan, the House of Commons Commission has responded. We have published its response and I am pleased to say that the main thrust of the Committee’s recommendations has been accepted. We expect that, if all goes well, £3 million should be raised annually by 2014-15, to help towards the annual £224 million cost of running the House. Although we were open to receipt of evidence and comments from colleagues, the response was not overwhelming. The purpose of today’s debate, as I see it, is to air some of the underlying issues relating to visitor access, so that the unfolding of plans may be further informed.
The Committee’s starting point was to recognise that access to the Palace of Westminster for the various purposes pursued by members of the public can sometimes be very difficult—uncomfortable, even—with no shelter from extremes of weather. Public access was probably not a very high consideration when the new Palace was
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designed and built by Barry and Pugin in the 19th century, when people did not regularly lobby in their thousands. Parliamentary activity was not as extensive as it has become today, with all the Committees of the House and, indeed, the introduction of this Chamber as a parallel source of debating opportunities. There were not more than 500 all-party groups competing for space and attention. Visits to tour the building were not the feature that they have become today. The use of banqueting facilities was very limited and the education service, with its aim of encouraging school visits, had not been founded. Those and other activities have contributed to an ever increasing demand for access. More than 1 million people have visited the Palace in the past year, and the capacity of our entry points, unfortunately, has not kept pace with demand.
Security is obviously a factor. We must protect the building and all the people who may for one reason or another be in it. The need to ramp up security has led to controls on access that severely limit throughput. Worse than that, on occasions contradictory moves have been made in different parts of the administration of the Palace. On the one hand, there is a desire to encourage people to visit Westminster to see proceedings, or to come on school visits for induction to Parliament by the education service, but at the same time, the physical means of entry have not been expanded commensurately. On occasion, decisions have been made not to expand the entry points on the grounds of public expenditure. The consequence has been queuing. People queuing to get into the Palace are a regular sight, which has led to considerable inconvenience not only for them, but for the hosts who handle the queues and for those holding functions in the House where visitors are expected.
The second problem is the inefficient handling of tour parties. The Palace is an almost unique visitor attraction, as visitors are taken through one way, then brought back again. It is an extremely unusual circumstance, which was remarked on by those who gave evidence to the Committee. The introduction of visitor assistants is a positive step. Perhaps they are the parliamentary equivalent of the “games makers”, because they give visitors a warm reception. Overall, however, we do not give the visitor the best welcome. We are strangely reticent about advertising the fact that people can come into the Palace for various legitimate reasons. The notices outside Westminster abbey, not far from us, are an example of what might be done—and I hope will be done—to give simple information to visitors about their rights of access.
We identified the fact that the Palace has a double role. It is primarily a working building at the heart of our democracy: that is unquestionably its prime purpose. However, we recognise that whether we like it or not, it is a leading visitor attraction. People see it and understandably want to share the wonderment of what it represents and contains. The twin roles can more easily be separated when Parliament is not in Session. They can become confused when one or other House is sitting. People want access to view proceedings, give evidence to Committees, visit their Member of Parliament and attend receptions and meetings. Also, many Members want to encourage visitors from their constituencies to come on a tour of the Palace—something that is now further limited by the recent decision of the House to change Tuesday sitting times.
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For all the purposes I have just described, entry to the Palace must be free and, one would like to think, unimpeded, although for the reasons I have set out that is not always so. There should be no barrier to members of the public for those purposes. However, Parliament’s role as a visitor attraction is another matter. We are among the top five historical attractions. We could say that visiting has nothing to do with the operation of Parliament—we could disavow it and very strictly define the occasions on which people enter the Palace—but the Committee’s view was that we should welcome the opportunity to be seen in such a light. We could see nothing undignified about charging people who want to come in purely for the purpose of seeing a major historical attraction. There is undoubtedly a demand for visits, which has been created in all manner of ways, and would be further swollen if people passing by realised that there was an opportunity to come into the building.
The Committee felt that a clear distinction should be made, in the way that Westminster abbey makes a distinction—if people wish to attend a service in the abbey, there is of course absolutely no question of charging for access, but if people wish to visit the abbey as a visitor attraction at other times, there is most certainly a charge. We therefore think that we can apply that distinction to the Palace of Westminster. Of course, if we welcome visitors, there will also be a demand from them for refreshment and souvenirs.
We recognise that the whole issue of charging is quite sensitive, but we believe that some clear thinking on the subject is needed. We already charge for commercial tours when Parliament is in recess during the summer and on Saturdays, and for civil ceremonies and banqueting. We are increasingly charging for the specialist tours that have been developed—for example, for examining works of art—and it is thought reasonable to add to such tours opportunities for taking tea or even something more substantial.
However, we touched a nerve with a proposed charge for access to what we are now pleased to call the Elizabeth Tower. A charge for visitors was proposed on no more than a cost-recovery basis, but the House recoiled. Arguably, the Elizabeth Tower is not key to the parliamentary process, so we have blurred the distinction that the Committee felt ought to be maintained. The tower has severely limited capacity and, ironically, the consequence of the debate on charging in the House has been an upsurge in demand. Until then, many people did not realise that such tours were a possibility. It is now difficult to get any slot for visitors from one’s constituency for the rest of this calendar year—opportunities are being soaked up very quickly.
We suggested in our report that the line should be clearly drawn between the Palace as the place of the legislature and as a visitor attraction, and that that distinction ought to be reasonably clear and well defined. We do not feel that we should neglect what is an important source of income that is designed either to help us to reduce the taxpayer’s subsidy or to support the upkeep of this building. It has been reported in the press that the Commission is considering what needs to be done to ensure that the Palace is in a full state of repair, and there will doubtless be announcements about
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that in due course, but a great deal of work is being done and has to be done to make sure that it operates effectively as the home of Parliament and, indeed, continues to be a place of attraction and beauty for those who wish to visit.
The charge that one might apply for visits, whatever the purpose for which visitors are allowed in, is another matter. In evidence to the Committee, we were told that we probably undercharge. One approach is simply to go on cost-recovery; the other is to recognise that we are in a competitive marketplace in relation to visits, so we should consider whether a profit could be made that contributed to the purposes I have described. I do not think that many people would thank us if, through any kind of neglect or reluctance to spend money, we allowed this building to fall into any measure of disrepair.
As I have mentioned, another source of income connected with visitors to the building is the sale of souvenir gifts, on which we have been half-hearted over the years. If people visit a stately home run by English Heritage, it is impossible for them to escape without going through the gift shop and the cafeteria, and English Heritage freely admits that it makes a great deal of money that way. The public make no complaints about that, because they see it as part of the visitor experience. It has been very difficult to achieve what might be our full potential in that respect in the Palace. Ironically, that is because English Heritage has been especially protective about Westminster Hall, which is the logical place for a souvenir shop. Of course, at one time in its history, Westminster Hall was very commercial, with shops and market stalls, but that was a long time ago.
Undoubtedly, there is a right and a wrong place to put a gift shop. At the moment, it is in St Stephen’s Hall, which is a congestion point, and people do not want to stop there on the tour to decide whether to buy something. People complete the tour in Westminster Hall and a relatively small number go back to the shop, while others go elsewhere, so opportunities are being missed. We are now addressing that, in the hope of increasing revenue and, indeed, of further contributing to people’s pleasure in visiting the Palace. I hope that such a benefit will soon be seen.
Overhanging our whole approach is the question of security. We recognise that high security is needed in respect of all aspects of access to the Palace, but our entry points are nearly all constrained either through sheer lack of capacity or, as the Committee suspects, in some cases for want of manpower, in that extra security guards mean extra cost. In the Committee’s view, that is not a reasonable ground for holding off improvements to the smoothness of access. At many times, throughput is now very badly hampered. We welcome what the Serjeant at Arms is seeking to do to ease some pressure points, but we think that that can make only a minor contribution to improving the flow. We have made a suggestion about improving the categories for prioritising visitors who should be fast-tracked into the building through the Cromwell Green entrance.
Two major problems persist. One is trying to separate what one might call the urgent visitor—the person who has an appointment with a Member of Parliament or has a commitment to give evidence to a Select Committee—from the rest. It is quite wrong that such people should be held up and, in practice, it is quite
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difficult physically to separate on the ground the genuinely urgent visitors, who need to be in the building by a certain time, from everyone else. We have proposed a restoration of the cabin that was previously stationed adjacent to the St Stephen’s entrance, which would allow a proper and more physical separation and, at the same time, ease the pressures on the Cromwell Green entrance.
Sarah Newton (Truro and Falmouth) (Con): I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for securing this debate and for the way he is explaining the work of the Committee in such great detail. I want to emphasise the point that he has just made. Many people come to the Palace for good reason, including helping parliamentarians in their duties in all-party parliamentary groups. Meeting rooms are often changed at short notice. I have seen the most terrible scenes of people, who are giving their time freely, who are often professionals and who have come from all over the country to participate in the work of Parliament, scurrying around the building because they have been delayed on entry and then find that the Committee Rooms are changed at the last minute. I wholeheartedly agree that urgent measures must be taken so that people who are visiting Parliament for business purposes can get on with their work in a timely way.
Sir Alan Haselhurst: My hon. Friend, who is a valued member of the Committee, makes an excellent point. It is a real problem and a source of embarrassment for many Members of Parliament that visitors can be messed around to such an extent.
The second problem is the line of route for visitors. In accordance with telling the story of Parliament, visitors would traditionally begin at the House of Lords’ end of the building and exit through Westminster Hall. Since the introduction of the Cromwell Green entrance, the route has been reversed and visitors are now brought into Westminster Hall first. I repeat what I said earlier: we have the unusual circumstance of having to escort them, at varying pace, right the way through the building, which causes congestion and sometimes leads to confusion. I remember taking a party through the House. When we got to the House of Lords’ end, we found that we were missing someone. That was simply because not everyone keeps the same pace. Despite politely saying, “We must go through, but you will see all this on the way back,” people may be suspicious of that and will naturally gaze up in admiration at what they are seeing, and that delays them, which is a general inconvenience to the group. It lets time slip. The professional guides, who are possibly contracted to do two tours for members of the public in the morning, find that their schedule is also held up and the next lot of visitors who have arrived on time are kept waiting until they are free after the first tour. I am happy to say that I am involved in informal discussions with the House of Lords to see how we can tackle this matter and improve the whole visitor experience. I hope something fruitful will come out of those discussions in the not too distant future.
Let me say a brief word about the longer term. Most people would surely agree that a good job is being done by our education service, the information office and parliamentary outreach to engage the public. As elected representatives of the people, we should delight in that
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fact and recognise that we need to get more people to come here for an understanding of what parliamentary democracy is all about if belief in parliamentary democracy is to be sustained. We worry about people abstaining from voting in elections and so on, but perhaps that is because they do not fully appreciate Parliament’s potential. We should do all that we can to bring Parliament’s role to people’s attention. Nothing is better than for people to come here and learn about what happens and that may light their own ambition to come here in due time as an elected representative.
There is a strong case for magnifying the efforts of the education service, the information office and parliamentary outreach to introduce young people to an understanding of parliamentary democracy through greater access. However, the education service has no proper home within the Palace. In 2007 both the House of Commons and the House of Lords agreed that there should be a proper base for the education service, but that has not yet been achieved.
If we look at what is done in other Parliaments, we will see that we could do better by our citizens if we had a proper visitor centre where a warm welcome could be afforded and a proper introduction to parliament made. Both these functions—the education service and the visitor centre—could be combined in a purpose-built facility, but we have fought shy of the expenditure that would necessarily be involved. We owe it to the public to be bolder in our approach. That is a longer-term aspiration, but it is something that would allow us to look the public in the eye and say, “This is not a matter of aggrandising the position or the comfort of Members of Parliament. This is for you, and you have a right to get the best out of the Parliament that is here.” We should make it clear that they are welcome and when they come here we should handle them in a way that is informative and makes the experience something that they will remember for a long time.
We need to be courageous in our approach, and the question of access and the reception of visitors deserves much greater attention. I hope that the deliberations of the Administration Committee and the report that we have produced, plus the welcome that it has had from the House of Commons Commission, will alert colleagues to what our priorities should be. We need to move forward in a way that understands the clear distinction that we have tried to emphasise in our report that yes, we are first and foremost a place of parliamentary legislative business, but secondly, that we are seen as the mother of Parliaments and the home of parliamentary democracy, and it is a home to which we should want to welcome people as much as we can.
Dr Thérèse Coffey (Suffolk Coastal) (Con): I did not notify you, Mrs Riordan, that I wished to participate in this debate, but the subject of visitor access to Parliament is close to my heart. My right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) is right to say that this is a place of legislation. It is primarily a place of work. Members are here representing constituents, and most of them want to facilitate access as much as possible. Given the arrangements of this debate, I am not sure how we get a response to our questions, but I will raise a few issues anyway.
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In the report, I was struck by the varying ways in which the fast-track scheme can be used. I welcome the idea of giving access to that scheme to members of our armed forces. Those brave men and women serving our country should be able to take up the rare opportunity of visiting Parliament without having to stand outside for an hour waiting to get in. To be honest, I did not even realise that there was a fast-track lane until I read the report. I do not remember it at all. Before I was a Member, I would just hang about in the back.
I read about the capacity flow-through and some of the changes that are proposed to increase the number of people coming through at Cromwell Green and Portcullis House. I was struck by the fact that while 500 people an hour can be processed through Cromwell Green, only 125 people can be processed in Portcullis House, which makes no sense to me. That is far worse than BAA’s operations in Heathrow, which are pretty appalling. We need to understand why the capacity at that entrance is so poor, although I appreciate that there are issues about it being a holding place.
One thing that I often do, and it is mentioned in the report, is to bring people in through 1 Parliament street. I go against the Committee’s recommendation of introducing another entrance facility through the St Stephen’s entrance, even if it was for VIPs. There are plenty of other ways that can be used. Using 1 Parliament street is an appropriate way to bring people into the Palace. I remember going through St Stephen’s entrance, and it always felt very grand, but the opening up of Westminster Hall has been good—although the visual blockage at the top end of Westminster Hall may not be particularly sightly—even though it is not the end with the new stained glass window being erected.
On other aspects of access, to ensure that we do not just focus attention on Cromwell Green, we could let some of the visitor assistants escort people from different entrances through to Central Lobby. At the moment, it is quite easy to say to a constituent, “I will see you in Central Lobby,” because they can just come into Parliament and walk to Central Lobby. The same is true of people attending banquets and other functions. But, quite rightly, nobody can walk through by themselves from Portcullis House to the main Palace; they must be accompanied by a pass holder. I wonder whether there are other ways in which we can use the existing visitor assistants to facilitate people arriving around the clock.
I have some sympathy with the view that was expressed about the inefficiency of tours. Dare I say that there is also an issue with the timekeeping of some of our guides? Having asked a guide to try to get round in 60 minutes instead of the usual 75 minutes, my guests came back to me 100 minutes later. There is a real inconsistency in how some of these services are delivered: if a guide suddenly extends a tour to closer to two hours than one, that is not great productivity.
I want to mention two issues that are not raised in the Administration Committee’s report. In doing so, I am perhaps straying from the report’s remit, which concerned visitor access and facilities. However, dare I mention first the issue of access to the bars of the House of Commons? We know that there are rules about taking people into Strangers Bar, including about who can purchase drinks. It is beholden on Members to try to
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respect the rules. It is frustrating to see Members take 20 guests on to the Terrace in the Members-only section on a very busy day. Frankly, to do so is to show bad manners to other Members, as I point out to Members—although not in front of their guests—who do so.
Secondly, regarding other access, a lot has been said already about the education service. I support the development of the education service. Some of the things that we have done with the Speaker’s Council awards have been very good. However, the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso), who is a member of the House of Commons Commission, will know that I have asked parliamentary questions about the subsidy that is available to help children to come to Parliament. I am raising that issue again now in a very parochial way, from the point of view of Suffolk, where my constituency is. The constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous), who is my neighbouring MP in Suffolk, live up to 130 miles away from Parliament, and my constituents live an average of 120 miles from Parliament, yet Suffolk schoolchildren receive no subsidy to visit Parliament. If we went the same distance and travelling time from Parliament in the other direction, we would start to reach beyond Birmingham, but the amount of subsidy that is given to schoolchildren from that area to visit Parliament is considerable in comparison to the zero subsidy that is given to schoolchildren from Suffolk. Will the Administration Committee, and perhaps also the House of Commons Commission, look at that issue again? Why is it that schoolchildren in Peterborough can receive a subsidy to pay for up to 50% of their travel costs, even though the time it takes them to get to Parliament by train is less than an hour and Peterborough is much closer to Parliament than my constituency?
I have strayed from the parts of the report to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden referred. However, I think that we should try to be as friendly to visitors as possible. I would love it if we started to rename the Strangers Gallery as the visitors gallery, and changed some of the words that are used in Parliament, as we have started to do in our parliamentary procedures. We no longer use the phrase, “I spy strangers,” and we have a different way of referring to visitors. In the 21st century, we can also change the names of Galleries and bars.
Nigel Mills (Amber Valley) (Con): Thank you, Mrs Riordan, for calling me to speak. It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst), who is the Chairman of the Administration Committee.
I have the pleasure of serving on the Administration Committee and I think that my right hon. Friend was right to say in his introduction to this debate that the issue of visitor access and facilities is not a great topic of interest either for today or for most Members most of the time. However, it is one of those important issues about how a Parliament runs. Those of us who have a sad busman’s holiday occupation of going round other Parliaments see a very different situation to the one here. We have not just a working Parliament, which people want to see because they have an interest in
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how the Government work and how laws are made, but a hugely attractive historic building, which people want to see for its architecture and the art that is contained here. That creates twin pressures on visitor access: there is a huge amount of interest from people who want to come to meet their own MP and see what we do here, but also from those who want to see the surroundings in which we do it.
The Committee rightly brought out that theme in its report. It is quite reasonable to charge people who want to come to Parliament as a tourist, but it is completely inappropriate to charge people who want to come here to engage in the democratic process and to see their MP. If people want to come here to see how Parliament works, how legislation is made or to lobby their MP, they must be able to do so in a timely manner and for free. We cannot and should not charge people to do that, and as far as I know there are no plans for that type of charging to be introduced. However, if people are coming to Parliament to have a tourist experience, they should more than cover the costs to Parliament of their doing that and they should make some contribution towards the upkeep of these historic buildings. I am not recommending that any subsidy should come from that contribution to support the parliamentary function, for which the taxpayer in general should rightly pay. However, the upkeep of these historic buildings needs to be funded somehow.
My right hon. Friend the Chairman of the Administration Committee also worked his way around how we fund the catering establishments in this place. Clearly, visitors have a role to play in that process. We sit here as a Parliament for only about 70% of the year, but we are funding catering establishments to be here for 100% of the year. That is one reason—there are many others—why we have such a large subsidy, or loss, for those catering operations.
I am not one who thinks that MPs should have glorious, luxurious eating establishments, but clearly there need to be catering establishments in a place such as this so that MPs and all their staff have somewhere to eat—and drink too, probably—and so that visitors, too, can eat. The more use we can get out of those catering establishments when Parliament is not sitting, the less demand we will make on the taxpayer to subsidise them. Hopefully, we will try to neutralise some of the issues that exist. People’s perception of those issues is partly correct, but they are also partly misinformed about where some of the catering establishments’ loss comes from. The more visitors that we can get in, the more we can enable them to be here and make full use of the catering establishments when Parliament is not sitting. That would be a far better situation than the current one.
I can give an example from my busman’s holiday this summer, in the state Parliament in Victoria. We had a free tour of the Parliament; it did not take very long. It was interesting to see the Parliament, but not all that exciting. However, we were then offered the chance to have lunch in the Members’ dining room. We went in there, we handed over some identification, we were given a security pass, we could walk through the corridors and, as I say, we could go to have lunch in the Members’ dining room while the Parliament was in recess. That is not something that a visitor can do here in this Parliament on spec. I am not necessarily saying that the Members’
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Dining Room should be opened all year round for that purpose, but freeing up access and allowing more people to come and see what these House dining rooms are like and have a chance to eat the meal that we get to eat would have huge advantages all round. People could get to use the whole place and see it, and that would reduce the amount that we require from the taxpayer to subsidise those facilities.
I agree with all the other points that have been made, very articulately, about the importance of educational visits. However, it is very hard for schoolchildren from my constituency to get down here. It is quite hard to get a slot when schoolchildren can come on a visit. I know the organisation that is required to arrange such a visit; people need to be on the phone the minute those slots open to try to get a decent one. Also, visiting Parliament is a long and expensive journey for many schools to arrange, especially when there is not even the budget available to pay for half the travel costs that are still required.
The more that we can do to get children to come to Parliament from other places that are further away in the country than London, rather than just having children from the London area, the better it would be. Children really gain a lot from understanding how democracy works and how important Parliament is; they can see it. In the two and a half years that I have been here, I have had about half a dozen groups of schoolchildren come down to visit, out of the dozens of schools in my constituency. It really is a very small percentage of children who get to do that.
Before I was elected as an MP, I had been in this building only once before, and that was on an organised tour 14 years ago. Visiting Parliament gives people a completely different picture of this place. They come and have the tour, they have the experience and they see how Parliament works; they even see how small the House of Commons Chamber is. People get a very different picture of democracy from actually being here rather than just seeing those clips on a Wednesday night on TV of MPs behaving rather badly at Prime Minister’s questions.
Sir Alan Haselhurst: Does my hon. Friend not see that there is an incongruity in what he is suggesting? I absolutely agree with him that we should maximise the opportunities for schoolchildren to visit Parliament, which may require subsidy, as it already does to some extent. However, if we simply increase demand without spending money on ensuring that visitors can get into the building, they will not exactly have the best of welcomes. The two things go together.
Nigel Mills: I absolutely agree with that point. There are things that we can do in the short term to make access easier. We can make better use of the various large rooms that we have. In this building in particular, we have this room itself—Westminster Hall—that is not used for much of the week. We also have the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association Room and the Inter-Parliamentary Union Room, which are also not used the whole time. Those rooms could be used more for educational visits than they are now.
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access routes more effectively; they do not run at capacity. We do not use No. 1 Parliament street or Derby Gate effectively at all; Derby Gate is a fully effective security access route. There is no particular reason why, especially on days of nice weather, a party could not be led round there, through security and back through the building if there was a queue somewhere else. I know that option was not favoured, but if there is a half-hour or hour wait and accesses elsewhere are empty, there must be a better use for those accesses.
I am tempted to raise one of the thornier issues that affects the running of the Palace. Most people would be surprised to learn that the House of Commons runs half the Palace and the House of Lords runs the other half, and that, at times, never the twain shall meet. We are talking about sensible things such as starting the tour route and putting visitor and education facilities in the right places, but much of that has nothing to do with us. We have no say because those decisions are for the House of Lords.
In the interest of the good, sound, efficient and economic running of this place, we need to make more progress on jointly running catering, visitor access and security through one organisation, rather than artificially dividing them somewhere down the corridor where the carpet goes from green to red. That is an historical anomaly that leads to inefficient practices. We will not resolve those issues efficiently and sensibly until we have one management team running the whole building. We can skirt around that for historical reasons, but at some point, if we really want to address the issues, that point must be settled.
John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Riordan. Although this is not the first time that a Commission spokesman has replied to a debate, it has not happened for some while. This is a novel experience for me, and I hope that I do justice to the excellent introductory remarks of the Chair of the Administration Committee and contributions from hon. Members.
I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) and to the work of the Committee, the members of which are often unsung heroes. Having served on the Committee during the 2005 Parliament, I am well aware of how much work is done. On behalf of the Commission, I assure the Committee that its report and, indeed, its other work are taken extremely seriously. We are grateful for that work, which is extremely helpful in assisting the Commission and management to formulate the strategies and policies that the House management will follow. I am extremely grateful to the Chair of the Committee for securing the debate, and I hope that he will pass on to those members of his Committee who are not here the Commission’s thanks for his and the Committee’s hard work.
The report is an important body of work that will inform Members and management on the principles of the House and the management of visitors for years to come. The report’s first conclusion, which the right hon. Gentleman set out in his opening remarks, says it all. The central idea that has emerged from the inquiry is
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the critical point that two conceptions of Parliament are required: the working institution and the visitor attraction. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that the Palace of Westminster is, first and foremost, a home to Parliament as a working institution, and that all procedures of Parliament are and will remain freely available to all citizens who wish to observe and visit Parliament or their MP. Secondly, subject to that primacy of free access for parliamentary purposes, the Palace of Westminster is a world-class visitor attraction that should be open to visitors, provided that the costs of providing any maintenance and of servicing those visitors are fully recovered from tourist visitors, thus ensuring that no supplementary finance is required from the taxpayer. Those are my words, but I hope that they accurately reflect the Committee’s recommendation and the Commission’s acceptance of that recommendation.
There is an interesting debate to be continued on what “recovery of costs” might mean. Obviously, there is a cash on-cost, because if a visitor walks around, a member of staff is required, and if there are no visitors, there is no staff cost. If there are more visitors, more staff are needed, so there are more direct costs. However, there are also indirect costs: wear and tear to the Palace and other costs that build over time. I argue that there should be full recovery of costs, with a surplus on the operating profit line of the resource account to put against further costs as time goes by, but that is a debate to be had in due course.
I will briefly address several of the points raised by the Chair of the Administration Committee. He highlighted all the important points, particularly the conflicting demand for access. Our business and tourist visitors are often in conflict, and we need to resolve that conflict. Again, as he said, we need to address the challenges of modern security and the way queues build up. The recommendations on that are central and have been taken on board, and I shall address them later.
The right hon. Gentleman touched a slight nerve when he referred to the debate on charging for access to what is now the Elizabeth Tower, the full consequences of which are only beginning to be understood. He stated that that debate raised awareness, which is a good point, as marketing a free service tends to increase use. The problem now is to deliver on that demand. He also made some good points about interaction with the Lords and the education service.
“It is our view that members of the United Kingdom armed forces wearing uniform should…be eligible to be fast-tracked into the House”.
No one would gainsay that recommendation. Particularly in these times, but probably at all times, that recommendation should be given effect. The Commission has directed the Serjeant at Arms to consider all these matters carefully, so although I cannot give a categorical assurance on any particular point, I assure both the Chair and members of the Administration Committee that that recommendation is being seriously considered.
The hon. Lady also talked about children’s access and the fact that children from Suffolk Coastal receive no subsidy. Of course, as my constituency is on the north coast of Scotland, I am literally at the other end of the scale. Interestingly, schools in my constituency
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receive the maximum subsidy, but I have had only four school visits in 12 years in Parliament, because the part schools have to pay is so great. I suspect that the sum is greater than the full cost for schools from Suffolk, although I do not know that. The way we provide sufficient subsidy to ensure that kids from Kinlochbervie, Farr or Golspie—or wherever—are able to get here as easily as kids from Islington or anywhere relatively close by is an interesting conundrum.
Indeed, the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) also addressed that theme in his excellent contribution, and this goes back to what the Chair of the Administration Committee mentioned and a matter that we on the Committee during the 2005 Parliament discussed at length, but never implemented. Are we going to provide facilities properly designed for education, which includes a proper reception for children and proper areas for classroom activities? I can give no commitment on behalf of the Commission, but I remain convinced that providing the capital expenditure necessary to provide a proper facility—one that would enable teaching to be done comfortably without using other rooms in the Palace, as currently happens, and that would enable children to be looked after properly and taken through the Palace to see what happens—would represent a tremendous addition to our outreach. Obviously, we are in straitened times, but if we accepted that principle—I stress again that I am speaking for myself on this point, not the Commission—it would be a tremendous step forward.
The hon. Member for Amber Valley also touched on the important question of how catering is funded. As a former caterer, that is something that has always fascinated me about this place. It all depends on how we look at it, because if we do a price comparison, many of our dining rooms are in line with commercial competition in the area. The prices are not particularly generous in many outlets, especially in banqueting and some of the dining rooms. The operating profit—what we used to call the kitchen profit, or sales minus food cost—as a percentage is absolutely bang on with commercial percentages found in the industry.
As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, the problem is that the profit generated three days a week for 30-odd weeks of the year is expected to fund the building, the catering outlets, the kitchens and the staff seven days a week for 52 weeks of the year. That equation does not work. Consequently, the final bottom line is a negative figure, which implies a subsidy, but it is not a subsidy on a daily operating basis—it is due to how we work. I have therefore always been keen to use the fallow times when staff and facilities are available in a way that would allow the subsidy and requirement for taxpayer funding to be reduced or even eliminated, and that is a critical point.
The hon. Gentleman also raised the question of the relationship between the Lords and the Commons. Again, I have slightly peculiar inside knowledge, in that I served on a Sub-Committee of the House of Lords when I was in the other place. When one sits in the other House, there is a desire not to cede its sovereignty to anyone for any purpose, which makes negotiations slightly more difficult. I commend the Chair of the Administration Committee on working hard with his opposite number, but I think that we in this House must proceed wherever we can. If we wait for their lordships, we may wait for a long time.
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I want to respond to the points raised in the report, and particularly to the Commission’s agreement in principle to a package of measures that will improve the services available to visitors to Parliament and make a significant net contribution to defraying the additional costs to the public purse that arise from occupying the Palace. I stress again that, first and foremost, we are a Parliament providing free access for those attending parliamentary proceedings and meeting their Members. However, as has been pointed out, the building is available thereafter to contribute significantly to defraying costs.
In that light, the Commission has agreed in principle to open for commercial tours during the Christmas and Easter recesses, bank holidays and Sundays between April and October on the same basis that we have opened during the summer for the past decade, and more recently on Saturday. In addition, it has agreed in principle to open for an extra hour on each commercial day of opening; to increase the range and frequency of specialist tours, such as the new art and architecture tour of Portcullis House; to introduce new options for tours, including a short tour of Westminster Hall and an audio-guided tour in addition to the current tour with a guide; to relocate the St Stephen’s shop to the Westminster Hall area; to relocate the bookshop to a more suitable new retail unit at 49-50 Parliament street; to introduce an online retail facility for souvenirs; to develop the range of guidebooks offered for sale following the successful launch in July of a new official guide to the Palace; to develop filming possibilities in the Elizabeth Tower—for the purposes of clarity, I add that that will be charged for; to offer afternoon teas to those taking tours; and to offer the atrium in Portcullis House, the dining rooms in the Palace of Westminster, the Pugin Room, the Jubilee Room and the Terrace Pavilion for commercial hire—I stress on an experimental basis—for two years, on a limited number of occasions when they are not expected to be used by Members. There will be a limited trial in those facilities. Finally, the Commission has agreed to establish or work with an existing small charitable body to raise funds to support the advancement of public education and information on, and access to, the history of UK parliamentary democracy and its processes.
Detailed plans are being drawn up for implementing each of those ideas. The current public-facing services that generate income—visitor tours, catering, retail outlets and so forth—are operated at a net annual cost to the House of £900,000. That includes a small surplus on retail operations, a break-even for the bookshop and a net deficit for visitor services, which represents the cost of free access and tours sponsored by Members. Initial estimates suggest that the proposed activities, as the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden said, would generate an additional £3 million in net income by 2014-15, thus turning the current net cost into an annual net contribution of some £2 million.
The various groups of staff responsible for managing tours, visitor catering and retailing have been brought together under single management, which is expected to bring greater commercial imperative and financial clarity. That has been welcomed by the Finance and Services Committee, which I have the honour to chair and on which the Chair of the Administration Committee also sits.
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The Commission is also taking action to tackle the queues for entry that can occur at peak times. We take the issue extremely seriously, and the Commission considers that ideally, apart from on days when there are mass lobbies or exceptional events, people should not have to queue. The search facilities at Cromwell Green have been reviewed by the Serjeant at Arms, and changes have been made to alleviate lengthy queues. In addition, the Serjeant is continuing to explore options for making changes to improve the flow at both the Cromwell Green and Portcullis House entrances.
However, current security requirements pose challenging resource and practical constraints on resolving the problem immediately. As a first step, officials will seek actively to manage the situation, focusing on limiting waiting times to no more than 15 minutes. That might require the House administration to set up a central booking system, as suggested by the Committee, although the Commission recognises that constraints on when activities can take place could inconvenience individual Members.
Mr John Spellar (Warley) (Lab): Is it not a fact that, as with most security systems, minor improvements to operation can often result in considerably increased throughput? For example, when the Administration Committee went to look at the Cromwell Green entrance, the main bottleneck was at the camera taking photos for passes. It turns out that there is a second camera. Had it been manned, all the security gates could have been operated, which would have relieved the process considerably. It is not about huge capital investment, or even significant manpower investment; it is about better management of the system. It is the same as at airports. They have improved a lot, and our operation needs to as well.
John Thurso: The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely spot on. Indeed, as somebody who flies north and back again every week, I have seen the improvements as people work out how things should operate and make small suggestions about the way they are handled. To take one example, I more often than not go via Gatwick. The way Gatwick’s security has improved—from the absolutely ghastly experience of five years ago to the relatively painless experience of today—is an object lesson. There has been some careful capital expenditure on the right kit, but most of all good management. That point has been taken on board, and it is precisely what the Serjeant at Arms and other members of the management are considering. All suggestions are gratefully received. The House management wishes to get people through as quickly as is consistent with decent security.
Sir Alan Haselhurst: Will my hon. Friend refrain at this stage from ruling out the possibility of reintroducing a cabin to provide a separate entry, which was a possibility on which my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) poured cold water? As I understand it, the Commission has embraced the idea of mini-tours through Westminster Hall, which would be the way of handling those people, quite apart from any other easing of capacity that it would provide.
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John Thurso: I can certainly confirm that nothing is ruled out. In all my dealings with the officials and management of the House, I have been deeply impressed by how much they are seeking to give effect to our wishes. Clearly, as is apparent from the debate, there are contrary views. It is the job of advisers to advise on the pros and cons; ultimately, it is for Committees and the Commission to come to a decision. However, I assure the right hon. Gentleman that that point will be given active consideration.
I hope that the Committee will welcome the positive response that I have outlined, although it clearly is not possible to resolve quickly all the issues it raised. Paragraph 77 of its report refers to the idea of an education centre, to which I referred earlier. That was endorsed by the House as long ago as June 2007, but despite a number of studies, it has proved very difficult—actually impossible, to date—to find a suitable space for such a facility within the existing secure perimeter. The Commission continues to support the need for an education centre and to look for a suitable opportunity.
Paragraph 36 of the report recommends that the Commission should organise a full debate on its savings programme. In June, the Commission agreed that it would seek a debate in October on the draft savings programme, the administration estimate and the House’s medium-term financial plan. Such a debate will provide an excellent opportunity for hon. Members to discuss the savings programme and to return to some of the issues we have been considering today. It is my hope that such a debate, which would be on an amendable motion, meaning that it could involve votes, would ensure that hon. Members made a key contribution to the strategic decisions faced by the House.
We have an exceptionally loyal and hard-working staff who are led by a management that, in all my dealings, I have found seek nothing more than to give effect to what we want. However, it is sometimes difficult to be certain of what we want, because the manner in which we communicate, via Committees, is not always the most perfect. A debate in the House will be an opportunity for all hon. Members who have a point of view to express it. It will result in a single decision, as it were, that is made by hon. Members collectively. That will enable those who look after us and the management to operate within a clear strategic framework and to be able to manage much more effectively on our behalf.
On behalf of the Commission, I am very grateful to the Chair and members of the Administration Committee for their report, which is a serious and important piece of work. I am also grateful to hon. Members who have taken part in the debate. I have tried to address the points that have been raised as best I can in the somewhat greater time than I originally imagined I would have, but if there are any further points, I am more than happy to take them up with hon. Members informally, or to respond formally to any written or oral questions.
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I am pleased that the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Chris Grayling) is here. I am not sure whether this will be his valedictory performance in that role, but I saw pictures of him going into Downing street earlier, and if he has been promoted to the post of Secretary of State for Justice, I would like to be the first to congratulate him. I remind him, however, that in that post he will be responsible for the tribunals service, which deals with appeals relating to the work capability assessment, so he will not completely escape responsibility for some issues that will be raised this morning.
I am conscious of the number of people present for this debate, which highlights the fact that although hon. Members may be consumed by events in and around Downing street today, many people outside are concerned about aspects of the work capability assessment and employment support allowance. I am sure that hon. Members will want to reflect those views and with that in mind, I shall endeavour to be brief. I shall take only a few interventions, to allow more Members to contribute.
There are three points on which we probably all agree: first, there are benefits in working. I have seen many of my constituents—although it is harder to do so now than it was a few years ago—return to work after long periods of unemployment. As well as any material benefits, the positive impact on their health and well-being is obvious. We should all encourage as many people as possible to work and get back into work if they have not worked for some time. Secondly, as most of us would acknowledge, helping and supporting those who have not worked for a long time can be difficult and time-consuming. It needs to be done sensitively, so that people feel helped and not as though they are being punished. Thirdly, although not everybody completely accepts this point, many feel that an assessment for those who rely on sickness and disability benefit is useful and appropriate. That was the envisaged purpose of ESA: to support those who can work into work, as well as those who sadly will never be able to work again.
Six months ago, I was fortunate enough to secure a debate on this issue in this Chamber. At that time, the Minister confidently predicted that the performance and situation would massively improve and some changes that had been made had not yet fed through. Six months later, I suggest to the Minister that the number of people present today indicates that very real concerns and problems remain, many of which are sure to be reflected during the debate.
In our previous debate, I focused on the experiences of constituents who had undergone the assessment. I told the story of a constituent trapped in the system who went through an assessment, a successful appeal, a reassessment, followed by another successful appeal and then another reassessment. For too many people, that remains the experience across the country. The Minister and whoever his successor will be need to look carefully at that issue and address it. I have spoken with many constituents who would love to go out to work,
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but it is not possible to do so because they suffer from a disability or a chronic condition, and I am sure that many Members in the Chamber will want to speak up for such people.
Jack Dromey (Birmingham, Erdington) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate on a vital public concern. He has spoken of his own constituents. In my constituency, Paul Turner, a manager and proud family man, contracted a serious heart disease. He was off work and although desperate to work, could not do so. However, he was told that he was fit for work and was denied benefit. As his wife says, he went into serious decline and died only weeks later. In the work capability assessment, his heart was not tested. Does that not demonstrate how fundamentally flawed the assessment process and its conduct by Atos are? Does my hon. Friend not agree that it is absolutely wrong in a case such as that for the Minister to refuse to refer it to the serious case review, so that profound lessons can be learned? Never again should anyone be treated in the way that Mr Turner was.
Tom Greatrex: My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. A number of cases could be cited that indicate the lack of comprehensiveness in the assessment process and the failure sometimes to incorporate other evidence to ensure that not as many people are wrongly assessed.
I want to concentrate on some contractual issues this morning, and I am sure that others, like my hon. Friend, will make comments about individual cases to illustrate those points. The work capability assessment must be tailored in the interests of both the individual and the taxpayer. Unfortunately, both are getting a raw deal from the system. It is true that the work capability assessment was introduced under the previous Government, which is a point that Government Members frequently make, as I am sure that they will today. It is also the case, however, that in late 2010 the contract with Atos Healthcare was amended, extending it to 2015, beyond its original conclusion date of 2012. The work capability assessment was rolled out to millions of people on incapacity benefit under this Government, despite pilot projects in Aberdeen and Burnley highlighting serious concerns. The Minister said during our previous debate—I paraphrase him slightly—that, in his judgment, the Government should get on with that process and try to work on the basis of the expert reviews as they were going on, rather than fixing it in the first place.
Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): My hon. Friend is right to point out that the work capability assessment has been around for some time. For many years, I have been helping my constituent, Mr Robert Shafer, who was the victim of a poor assessment. Is my hon. Friend as concerned as I am that the chief medical officer of Atos is now Professor Michael O’Donnell? He was previously employed as chief medical officer by the American insurance company, Unum, which was described by the insurance commissioner for California, John Garamendi, as an “outlaw company” that has operated in an unlawful fashion for many years, running claims denial factories? Is that the kind of person that the Government should allow to be in charge of a work capability assessment system?
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Tom Greatrex: My hon. Friend makes an important point about the organisation of the company contracted to undertake that work on behalf of the Department for Work and Pensions. I shall go on to make points relating to other legitimate concerns about Atos Healthcare that need to be addressed. In many respects, given that the cost of appeals has more than doubled in two years, from £25 million in 2009-10 to £60 million in 2011-12, the performance by Atos Healthcare has, in many ways, been extraordinarily poor.
Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab): On appeals, does the fact that nearly 40% of the people who are initially unsuccessful are then successful on appeal not demonstrate a fundamental flaw in the work capability assessment process?
Tom Greatrex: The level of appeals and successful appeals indicates that, although no process is 100% accurate all the time, many decisions are wrong and need to be corrected through the tribunals service. No one should forget, however, that that process can take six to nine months because of the backlog of appeals. During that time, people suffer from severe anxiety and concern about their fate, so my hon. Friend makes an important point.
Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent North) (Lab): This issue affects us all, in all our constituencies. The whole test is deeply flawed. Does my hon. Friend agree that, in the short term, we can advise our constituents that when they are undergoing the test, they can request that it be videoed, which would at least assist with further appeals? It has just been pointed out how much the appeals cost the taxpayer, so the Government are paying twice over for what is essentially a flawed capacity assessment.
Tom Greatrex: I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. I am not unaware of what Atos says to people who seek to video their assessment, because cases have been highlighted to me in which people have asked for their assessments to be recorded. In the previous debate, the Minister said that if anyone wanted to have their assessment recorded, they could have it recorded, but that has not been the case in many instances and people are refused permission to record the assessment themselves. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s response to that point.
Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way again; he is very generous. He has hit on an important point about the interface between the appeal problems and Atos’s work. Is it not true that there is a weird revolving door now? People get an assessment, question it and wait ages for the appeal. They may or may not win the appeal, but by the time the appeal comes up, they have had another assessment and therefore they go through a revolving door of losing benefits. Something is fundamentally wrong and unfair.
My hon. Friend touches on a very important point. When I raised it with the Minister at recent DWP questions, he indicated that, finally, some of the information coming back from the tribunals service would go to DWP decision makers, so that they were better informed. I will make this point now, so that
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the Minister can, I hope, respond to it. That started to happen in July. I want to raise the issue of the status of those reports and what impact they will have on people being called for further assessments. In particular, some tribunals now have a section at the end of that information that suggests that that particular applicant should not be reassessed within 12 months or 24 months. Is that something that the DWP is taking into account and appreciating before it calls people back? I ask that because my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) is exactly right: there are many cases of people who have been caught in this process, which is no good for their health and no good for taxpayers, because we end up paying again and again over time.
Tom Greatrex: I will take one more intervention. I apologise to everyone else, but I want to leave time for other hon. Members to make contributions. I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Pamela Nash).
Pamela Nash (Airdrie and Shotts) (Lab): On the point about recording assessments, a constituent of mine was told recently that they could record the assessment, but only if they paid for a private, independent company to come in and do it. Obviously, someone who is living on benefits cannot afford that. I wrote to the Minister at the time about the issue. I wonder whether he can deal with the recording of assessments in his closing remarks.
I will attempt to move on. Back in February, I wrote to the National Audit Office to outline concerns about the contract between Atos Healthcare and the DWP. The correspondence centred on two issues: first, a lack of efficiency in the use of public funds, to which I have referred, and, secondly, a lack of accountability inherent in the disbursement of those public funds. As the recent House of Commons Library note and many of the figures that I have received as answers to parliamentary questions over the past 18 months or so have confirmed, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) reflected, 41% of those found fit for work appeal the decision and 38% have their appeal upheld. For those who seek the advice and support of professional advocacy groups such as Citizens Advice, the appeal success rate is closer to 70%. Just last week, Kent’s largest citizens advice bureau indicated an appeal success rate of 95%.
The impact of what is happening is twofold. First, too many sick and disabled people are being found fit for work when they are not. They become entangled in a lengthy appeal process that can occupy up to nine months of their time. In many cases, even when the appeal is successful, the individual is placed in the work-related activity group and then they have to begin the whole process anew.
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The second impact of the high appeal success rate is cost. The cost to the public purse from appeals relating to the WCA was £60 million in 2011-12. That figure has more than doubled since 2009-10. It is almost 50% of the total yearly value of the Government’s contract with Atos Healthcare to carry out the assessments in the first place. In effect, taxpayers are paying for the process not to work, and then to correct it. Given the unprecedented pressures on the public purse, it beggars belief that the Government are apparently content to sit back and do very little to rectify that situation.
In oral evidence to the Work and Pensions Committee in June 2011, the Minister claimed that if the migration of those on incapacity benefit to ESA was successful, it would save money. He said that the aim is not a
“savings measure—it is not a financially based exercise, although clearly if we succeed it will save money”.
The Minister appeared to accept that an indicator of success was saving money, so does he accept that the significant increase in costs associated with the number of decisions being appealed—and being successfully appealed—shows that, on that measure, the Government have failed?
One measure that I and many others have been questioning is the imposition of financial penalties on Atos Healthcare to compensate for poor performance. In February, in response to my written question on whether the Government had considered imposing such sanctions, the Minister appeared to absolve Atos of the blame for the number of decisions overturned on appeal by saying that:
“it would not be appropriate to impose financial penalties on Atos to reflect the number of work capability assessments which are overturned on appeal.”—[Official Report, 22 February 2012; Vol. 540, c. 852W.]
I tried again in July by asking for a note of when penalties had been imposed and what their total value was, but that time, rather than absolving Atos of blame, he decided to protect the company’s commercial interests, replying with the frequent defence of “commercial sensitivity” as the reason for withholding that information. I find it difficult to understand how commercial sensitivity comes into play when we are talking about a single company that is paid from the public purse to carry out an exclusively public function on behalf of a Department. Transparency would help to ensure that there could be confidence in the system and to highlight where performance was not being properly managed. It is important that the Minister seeks to address that.
“We do not consider that the current contractual targets are sufficiently challenging, and in our view this allows the contractor to deliver a significant number of assessments before financial penalties become due.”
“Our review also concluded that the Department has not sought adequate financial redress for contractor underperformance.”
One of the most concerning revelations from the NAO was that in only 10% of the cases in which financial penalties could have been imposed did the Government do so. That is astonishing. Given that the Government and the Minister quite frequently comment on the
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importance of value for money for the taxpayer—in some respects, I agree with that—it beggars belief that when there are opportunities to put that into practice, the Government have done so in only one in 10 cases.
“In these times of tight budgets, we need to make sure the money we do spend is better spent. If we don’t we are failing disabled people and their families.”
Those were the words of the Prime Minister in 2009 at a conference on autism. In that same speech, the then Leader of the Opposition cited a NAO report that examined value for taxpayer money in relation to autism. I am sure that, even given his elevation today, the irony is not lost on the Minister.
There are many questions that the Minister must answer to account for the failure properly to manage the contract with Atos Healthcare. Why did he impose financial penalties on only 10% of the occasions on which they could have been triggered? What was the value of compensation clawed back from Atos Healthcare to reflect that poor performance, and what was that as a percentage of the cost to the public purse for the original contract and appeals? Does he agree with the NAO that targets that trigger financial penalties are not sufficiently challenging? What are the key performance indicators that the NAO described as insufficiently challenging? That is a particularly important issue.
On a number of occasions, I have attempted to gain clarity on what is expected of Atos in relation to customer service, the number of assessments conducted, the number of people found fit for work, targets, statistical norms and many other issues. The Minister has refused to be fully transparent, releasing a very limited excerpt from the medical services agreement with Atos that relates only to waiting times. As I said, maximum transparency is important to enable people here to hold the Government properly to account, and to hold Atos Healthcare, through the Department for Work and Pensions, properly to account for the work that it is undertaking in a very important area.
“Limited routine validation of information provided by Atos Healthcare”.
“the Department develop processes to validate key performance information supplied by Atos Healthcare.”
“On capacity issues, as we stand here today, the incapacity benefit reassessment is on time. New claims for ESA have fallen a bit behind, mostly because of the introduction of the personalised statement…We discovered in the first few weeks that it took health care professionals…longer to complete the statement than expected, so the number of completed assessments dropped. That has changed. They have caught up again, and we are chasing through to clear the backlog, as we are doing with the appeals backlog”.—[Official Report, 1 February 2012; Vol. 539, c. 292WH.]
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to the DWP is 35 working days—seven weeks. Between September 2009 and August 2010, the target was met with a clearance rate of 33 days, yet in less than two years, not only has the target not been met by an astonishing margin, but the time sick and disabled people have to wait for their assessment has risen by 85% to 61 working days, or more than 12 full weeks.
“Atos Healthcare’s ability to deliver a service within the AACT was also impacted by the service volumes for this period which were significantly above departmental forecasts; in addition Atos had recruitment demands/challenges. These issues…resulted in an increase in the AACT.”—[Official Report, 9 July 2012; Vol. 548, c. 51W.]
Atos Healthcare receives more than £110 million a year to deliver a contract, but is unable to meet its recruitment needs to deliver it properly. That, at best, is an example of the underperformance and the level of failure due to which the Government should ensure that financial penalties are brought against Atos Healthcare. Such contractual failure feeds directly into the experiences that I am sure we will hear about in the remainder of the debate. Many people across the country have found themselves waiting an excessive time for their assessment. They are under pressure and feel hounded, and they may well wait a significant period for the appeal to follow. A degree of the chaos in the system is caused by the Government’s decisions and the failure to hold Atos properly to account.
This is not the first time that recruitment challenges at Atos have been highlighted as reason for failure. In December 2011, the Minister advised that a key Harrington recommendation would not be implemented beyond the pilot stage due to capacity pressures at Atos. In less than a year, the Government have twice cited the failure of Atos to recruit enough staff as the reason why those undergoing the WCA are being short changed, which gives rise to a question: if the Government are content to blame Atos, why has the Minister spectacularly failed to do anything about it? Why, in his answer to written questions, does he lambast Atos when waiting times increase, yet sit on his hands when it comes to making the company pay financially for its underperformance?
In 2010, the average WCA customer journey was 36 working days. That rose to 44 working days in the first half of 2011, and increased still further to 53 working days in the second half of 2011. Unfortunately, 2012 brought more misery for ESA claimants, as between January and May, the average customer journey increased to 64 working days, or just under 13 weeks. The Minister inherited 36 working days and transformed it into 64—an increase of 78%. It might seem that I am talking about the dry detail of contractual issues, but we see the defects at the heart of the process—the failure of the management of the DWP and the failure of delivery at Atos—reflected in the experiences of many people we represent.
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A further criticism in the NAO review, which interestingly enough was dated the same day as the announcement of the PIP framework agreement, was about medical services contracting. The NAO stated specifically in relation to the PIP procurement process:
“Our review of existing arrangements concluded that the Department needed to make changes to secure effective leverage over future medical services contracts...we have recommended that the Department focus on reducing the barriers for new suppliers to making a sustainable entry to the medical services market, in particular addressing the current risk that a single incumbent supplier has significant cost advantage which makes delivery of a level playing field in the market more challenging”.
“dependence on a sole national supplier”
“limited opportunities for routine assessment of value for money, for exercising contractual leverage and for wider market development.”
Like many Members in the Chamber who represent constituencies within the areas for which Atos Healthcare will undertake the PIP assessment process, I received a letter from Atos confirming that it had been successful in securing the contract. It included the chilling phrase that it had won the contract on the basis of its record delivering assessments for the Government over a period of years. This is a serious point, because as the PIP process is established, it is vital that some of the problems encountered in the WCA are not simply repeated. There is concern that there is an increasing risk that that will be exactly the case, given the chosen contractor.
Contractual arrangements, performance measures, penalty clauses, and monitoring and delivery failures are technical, dry and dull matters, especially when contrasted with the sometimes heartbreaking and tragic cases that I have heard about, not only from my constituents, but from many of those who have contacted me prior to the debate. Many of those experiences are due to the flawed delivery of the WCA and the record of Atos Healthcare.
Whoever is the responsible DWP Minister tomorrow afternoon, we need a process that works in the interests of taxpayers, and of individual claimants and applicants. We need a process that is comprehensive enough to encompass complex conditions and that recognises that it is a waste of time and money to keep reassessing people with progressive and incurable conditions, while also recognising the fluctuating nature of many other conditions—that people have good days and bad days. We need a process that appreciates the very difficult challenges of assessing mental health needs and that takes account of expert medical evidence much more fully than the current process, particularly in some of the cases we have heard about. We need a process that does not make blanket assumptions about the time it takes to recover from very serious illnesses, such as cancer, nor imposes blanket conditions as a result. We need a process that helps people who can work and does not hound those who cannot.
Mrs Linda Riordan (in the Chair):
Order. With the permission of the Chairman of Ways and Means, and due to the number of Members wishing to speak, I will limit speeches to three minutes. When you hear the bell, you have one minute left. I remind Members that
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interventions should be short and remind those in the Public Gallery that they should listen in silence and not interrupt the debate. I call Duncan Hames.
Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): Given the number of Members wishing to speak, I am happy to forego the opportunity. Thank you for calling me, Mrs Riordan, but I would prefer to listen to other speakers who are clearly keen to take part in the debate.
Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): I will take the opportunity to speak, but for the reasons the hon. Member for Chippenham (Duncan Hames) gave—the number of Members who want to speak—I shall be brief.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex) on securing the debate, but more importantly on the work that he has done over almost a year in highlighting the problems of Atos and the work capability assessment. Like many Members, I came to the debate today with a dossier of cases from my constituency of people who had suffered in the process, and not only that which involves Atos. Let us be clear: not only Atos is at issue, but how the system operates, how it is being put into effect and how Atos is asked to carry out its work. There are certainly major deficiencies in the organisation, but it is not only Atos with which we need to be concerned.
Given the time, I will make just a few points. Many applicants find the experience of going through the WCA process terrifying. There is plenty of evidence, especially in the cases of those with mental health issues, that the process does not take account of the particular circumstances of those who suffer from conditions that may vary from day to day, as my hon. Friend made clear. Inevitably, any process, under any system, will lead to stress and tension for many people, but what makes it worse is that the process is felt by many applicants to take away from their dignity as human beings. It does not lead to proper consideration of their personal circumstances and they believe, notwithstanding what the Government and the contracts say, that it is a method of keeping down the cost of benefits. I know that that is not in the policy or the contracts in any sense, but in a climate where there is a feeling that the Government are trying to drive down costs at any expense, it is inevitable that many of those who apply for benefit will feel that way. Those subjective feelings are borne out by the high rate of successful appeals.
The high rate of successful appeals, which hon. Members have pointed out, leads one to conclude that there must be people who do not appeal or even apply for benefit who would have been successful or been entitled had they done so. It is essential that the process is right first time. That is partly the responsibility of Atos; it is also the responsibility of Government. What must be ensured is that all available evidence is used at the earliest possible stage in the process. We are all familiar with cases in which the medical evidence from GPs and consultants is overwhelming, yet the applications are unsuccessful. It is only at appeal that such people receive the right decision. It is also important to reduce unnecessary reassessments, as there have been cases where it is overwhelmingly obvious that a reassessment should not be carried out. I would like to know what the Minister is doing about that.
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I make this final comment to the Minister. He may be leaving his post today, but I seriously hope that in his new role he will ensure that the backlog of appeals is dealt with speedily. That is important for individual applicants and for the system. Until that backlog is dealt with we will not get out of this vicious circle in which new applications are put in at the end of the appeal process and the process starts again. That should be a priority for the Minister to address in his new role.
Katy Clark (North Ayrshire and Arran) (Lab): I am delighted to have the opportunity to contribute to the debate, because many constituents have contacted me about this issue over the past few weeks. For a number of years many constituents have been in touch with my office with concerns about Atos. The publicity over recent weeks has meant that many people not directly connected with the process are now aware of the problems. I ask that the Minister listen not just to what is said today, but to the concerns raised over a long period.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex) on securing the debate and on all his work on the issue. It is not just MPs who are expressing concern. All those involved, whether in representing claimants—organisations such as Mind—or the professionals involved in the process, such as the PCS trade union or the British Medical Association, are expressing concerns and taking the view that the process is fundamentally flawed. I also ask the Minister to recognise the anger Atos caused by sponsoring the Paralympics. Many feel that is an insult to the people going through this process.
A year or more ago, many of the constituents contacting my constituency office were doing so about new employment and support allowance claims. The problems seemed to come largely from the Atos medical assessments. As has been said, constituents who get in touch with their MPs are almost invariably successful, either at the initial reconsideration or the appeal stage. When constituents approach MPs with a credible claim, invariably that person is successful at appeal. However, there has been a change and the constituents now getting in touch are mostly those transferring from incapacity benefit and being put on the work-related activity scheme. That basically means they get only contributions-based benefit for one year rather than the permanent help they would get if they were put in the support group.
That is quite different from the previous situation. Apart from the financial implications of being means-tested after a year, it involves reassessments, attending interviews and the requirement to look for a job. Most of us are aware of many constituents in extremely difficult medical situations who are being caused huge stress. I ask the Minister to listen to what is said today and make serious changes to the current position.
Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I congratulate the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex) on bringing this matter to the House. The issue affects us all as MPs. With benefits changing now and in the future, the impact on our constituents is greater than ever.
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I want to focus on one thing, as I am conscious of the time. I will give an example of how the Atos system does not work when it comes to basic knowledge of the interaction involving the applicant who is appealing against the decision to refuse incapacity benefit or ESA to those who are wheelchair-bound and have severe mobility problems. They are asked to attend the appeal on the third floor of a building in the centre of town. The first question the receptionist will ask is, “Can you leave this building on your own if there is a fire?” That is a very important question, but the fact is they could not do so, so they have been asked to attend an appeal tribunal that cannot take place. They go home and join the back of the queue once again, having to wait perhaps another six or eight months. They are then asked to attend an appeal that takes place about 45 to 60 minutes away by car, going through traffic, pain and other problems to get where they want to be.
There are clear problems in the basic knowledge of the scheme. Whenever an elected representative makes a complaint about that to the relevant bodies, whether Atos or the Minister responsible in Northern Ireland, they take it on board and seem to respond. That is great, because we think we have won the battle for the constituent and the system in future. However, it does not work that way. Guess what happens? Next time, someone else in a wheelchair with severe mobility difficulties encounters the same problem. I want to illustrate that with an example, because we have a system that has failed my constituents again and again.
There has to be a grassroots change in how the system works. That is what the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West is saying and why we are all here today. There are many people who fall into the category. It is assumed that if someone is not able to walk they can sit and do a job. That is unfair for many people because the problems they have with their back or the difficulties severe mobility they have mean they cannot stand or sit on a regular basis. I am very conscious of these issues and want to raise them. I hope the Minister will give a positive response. We need change or accountability—either one or the other, or indeed both.
Dame Anne Begg (Aberdeen South) (Lab): Congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex) on securing this important debate. This is my first time speaking after my extended absence and therefore a good subject.
The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Chris Grayling): On behalf of everybody in the room and in the House, I welcome the hon. Lady back to the House. We are delighted to see her in such good shape. We were sad to hear of the difficulties in the long period of recovery she has had to go through. She is very welcome.
Dame Anne Begg:
I thank the Minister for being gracious. He may not be quite so gracious by the time he has heard what I have to say. I do not think that the Government have grasped how disastrous the ESA assessment system is. It is not something that can be fixed by a few tweaks here and there; we tried that with
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the Harrington review. What we have heard today in the Chamber—and in the “Dispatches” and “Panorama” programmes filmed in June this year—suggests that not much has changed. The people complaining are not just the usual suspects, not just the radical crips, the workshy or those who want money without being assessed. They are ordinary people, most of whom worked hard all their lives until the sky fell in and they lost their job because of an illness or an acquired disability.
It is not enough for Government to say that the genuine claimant has nothing to fear. In too many cases, genuine claimants are not scoring any points in their initial assessment. There is something fundamentally wrong with the system and the contract that Atos is delivering. When the British Medical Association votes at its conference to say that the work capability assessment is not fit for purpose there is something wrong with the system. When GPs are reporting an increased workload, not just as a result of providing reports but as a result of treating patients whose condition has worsened as a result of their WCA experience, there is something wrong with the system.
When my constituent, who has lost his job because he has motor neurone disease, scores zero on his WCA and is found fully fit for work, there is something wrong with the system. When that same constituent appears in front of a tribunal and in less than five minutes is awarded 15 points, there is something wrong with the system. When people with rapidly progressive illnesses are not automatically put in the support group, there is something wrong with the system. When some people would rather do without the money to which they are absolutely entitled rather than submit to the stress of a WCA, there is something wrong with the system. When someone with a severe illness has to fight for a year through an appeal to get the correct benefit, only to be called in almost immediately for another assessment, there is something wrong with the system. When the recall and assessment happen the following year, and the following year, there is something wrong with the system. When people feel so persecuted, there is something wrong with the system. To top it all, they lose their contributory ESA after only a year if they are in the WRAG group.
When up to 40% of appeals are successful and there is no penalty for the company carrying out the assessments, there is something wrong with the contract. When so many appeals result in an award of ESA support group status when the original assessment was no points, there is something wrong with the contract. When there is no penalty for a high percentage of wrong decisions, there is something wrong with the contract. When there is no incentive for assessors to get the assessment correct first time, there is something wrong with the contract.
Jonathan Reynolds (Stalybridge and Hyde) (Lab/Co-op): I am pleased to be called in this debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex) on securing the debate and on giving a superb speech. I wish to add my voice to those concerned about the operation of the WCA by Atos, and to highlight specific concerns in relation to people with autism.
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I accept that we have a problem in the UK with the number of people who are not in the labour market owing to illness or disability. I asked the Library for a comparative analysis across the EU. Although it is hard to make such an analysis given the differences in scope, eligibility and recording of information, the European labour force survey clearly shows that the UK has a much higher proportion of the population aged 20 to 64 outside the work force owing to illness or disability. It is 6.1% in the UK, against an average of 4.3% in the rest of the EU. I think we know why that is. From the Thatcher Government onwards, people were put on the incapacity benefit rolls to hide the true scale of unemployment. There are people who were dumped there in the 1980s who have been there ever since. That is why I do not have a problem with the principle of a medical assessment; otherwise the Government can too easily push people into inappropriate benefits to massage the unemployment figures. Equally, I do not have a problem with three classifications: fit for work, unfit for work; and the possibility of work, but not in the short term, because someone has been out of the labour market for so long.
My concerns and objections relate to the way the Government are allowing Atos to conduct the test. Like other colleagues, my observations are heavily based on the experiences of constituents who have come to see me. It is not sensible, prudent or fair to have a test in which 40% of appeals against decisions are successful. That is a waste of money and it causes unnecessary distress. The Government need to hold Atos to account for an assessment that is clearly not working as it should. Atos is not coping with the complexity of the cases that are seen, and it is clearly struggling to deal with people with complex conditions, particularly those with less visible symptoms. Some specific problems are particularly evident: the Royal National Institute of Blind People has reported that the descriptors against which blind and partially sighted people can score points are primarily those based on navigation and communication, with no account taken of other barriers that blind and partially sighted people might face in obtaining work.
I am one of the vice-chairs of the all-party group on autism, and I remind the House of my declaration of interest in relation to my son. For people with autism, such face-to-face assessment can often be extremely problematic. People with autism face problems with communication that other people would not see. They may misunderstand questions that are asked, find it hard to answer questions, and fail to pick up on inference and assumption. For example, when asked, “Can you travel to work on a bus?”, they may say yes, but not explain that they can use only one bus route, planned with the help of a support worker, provided that the bus is not late or a different colour from usual, or that no other factors have arisen.
In addition, the testing of some people is too frequent. I have a constituent with a degenerative disease who passed one assessment, but failed another within a year. As his condition was degenerative, it was surely medically impossible that he had got better. It does not make sense. At the extreme end, I have heard accounts of people in the support group being tested again after as little as three months. The worry that that causes is
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exacerbated by the freak results that an assessment can produce. I have another constituent who was deemed fit for work despite having a broken back.
The Government need to listen to the feedback that is coming in across the country about the very real problems in the operation of the WCA. Crucially, they must begin to hold to account private companies with important Government contracts when they do not deliver for the taxpayer. The quality of life of thousands of people depends on getting this right, and that will soon be even more the case given that Atos has won the contract for the personal independence payment assessment. Let us not get into the usual party political rhetoric and stereotypes that tend to mark welfare debates. Let us focus on meaningful changes that will improve many people’s lives.
Nick de Bois (Enfield North) (Con): I have a small contribution to make to the debate. All MPs watch closely and listen carefully to charities, as I do in my constituency. I meet charities regularly and I am always seeking to handle cases in which it appears that odd decisions have been made, and with which I am uncomfortable. I will always pursue such cases, like any good MP, if someone feels that the system is not working correctly.
I rise to speak today to make a point. In all my time and in all my dealings I have never lost sight of what is fundamentally driving the WCA. We are asking what people can do and encouraging and helping people who have been ignored by the system. We seek to find what they can do and not what they cannot do. Many people in this Chamber will agree with that premise.
However, I will turn specifically to the statistics. If we look only at the statistics, it is easy to get a distorted picture. It is recorded that 55% of new claimants have been found fit for work; that is a good thing. I accept that appeal levels appear somewhat high. When we hear that 40% of those who are found fit for work appeal, we have to remember that 38% of them have a decision overturned. To put that in perspective, of all the claimants, overall we are talking about 15% fit-for -work decisions being overturned. I am not saying that that is satisfactory or that that is necessarity a good thing. However, I am determined to make a point.
Anne Marie Morris (Newton Abbot) (Con): Although it is a good idea to help people who can work, we need to look at providing a more flexible work opportunity. There are permanent job opportunities, but there is nothing flexible such as working from home for those who have mental health problems, which would help to achieve what the Government want. To make the system work better and to save taxpayers’ money, the people who will never be able to work again—people who have very serious problems with blindness or mental health problems—ought to be in an exclusion category so that they do not get reviewed.
Nick de Bois: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. My point—my argument—is that if we stick to the headline statistics, we start to get into a debate that dwells on statistics. If we are going to do that, I am keen that we dig down and analyse them correctly before we make sweeping judgments.
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I am pleased that the Government, along with the specialists, the occupational therapists and Professor Harrington, have not sat back since coming to power, and have not failed to review the process. They have reviewed it twice, and Professor Harrington has been asked to review it a third time. That is right, but it should not detract from the overriding principle that the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex) highlighted. It is right that we should encourage and help people back to work where possible. After all, they were not assessed for a long time and it would be wrong to ignore them, because many have returned to work and will continue to do so. [Interruption.]
Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Moor View) (Lab): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex) for securing this debate, which has not come a moment too soon for many of my constituents. The principle that people should be supported into employment when they can work is the right principle. The problem is that the system is not achieving that. It is causing untold grief and serious concern to many vulnerable people. There are several issues. Will the Minister explain why there is still confusion between ESA and JSA? Cases have been brought to my attention of constituents being passed back and forth, with both the relevant Departments feeling that the benefit is not the right one. A constituent of mine was claiming JSA and was notified by her hospital that she had to have an operation on her wrist. She was told by the jobcentre adviser to claim ESA instead of JSA, because no one would employ her for five or six weeks. She was then refused ESA, because she scored no points, and was left in limbo, with no money. That is not acceptable.
That incident occurred over a relatively short period, but some of my constituents have had to wait up to 18 months for a tribunal decision. When seeking updates on progress one was told that no update was available, because there was no one in the area to hear her case. Consequently, other benefits to which people are entitled are not given to them. A constituent applied for cold weather payments and was told that because her position had not been resolved she could not claim them. She might have frozen to death in the meantime, during the bad weather, while a decision was reached.
There are many incidents of poor claim handling by Atos. I am sure that every hon. Member in the Chamber has dealt with tens of them. A constituent recently came off contribution-based ESA. He was assessed by an Atos nurse who advised him that he needed a wheelchair but at the same time assessed him with no points. Another constituent had a major cancer operation. The GP’s report said that she was
“currently in wheelchair, not fit for travel”,
but it took three goes to get a home visit for her. Eventually, she was given a wheelchair, received disability living allowance and had home adaptations. Then Atos said it wanted to see her, and insisted she should come,
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with the threat that if she did not her money would be stopped. She had to cancel a hospital appointment to do so. That is not acceptable.
I ask the Minister whether independent assessments can be considered at the front of the process, not the back. That would, I am sure, save untold numbers of appeals in due course, as well as saving my constituents untold misery. They feel—particularly those with multiple issues, including mental health issues—that the medical advisers who are asked to assess them do not fully understand their cases. The Government should be ashamed of the slump in Atos’s performance that my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West has highlighted. It has had an unacceptable impact on disabled people, particularly in my constituency.
Hywel Williams (Arfon) (PC): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex) on securing the debate, because there can hardly be an MP who has not had a constituency case involving Atos and the work capability assessment. The Members present in the Chamber are only a small sample of the people who have had to work with that system.
From my casework I find that the faults in the system fall into clear categories. First, as to the form of the assessment, there is insufficient information. That is a particular problem for decision makers, who are trying to take reasonable decisions without enough information. Information is also lost or disregarded. There are persistent complaints that Atos is working to targets to fail people, and about continual reassessments. Missed appointments are another issue. A couple of weeks ago, a constituent of mine stayed in all day, and the doctor did not turn up. I turned up, by the way, and wasted a couple of hours of my time. My constituent will not complain, because he is scared to do so. He does not want the attentions of the Atos doctor again, thank you very much.
As to the content of assessments, to give a snapshot of something we have already heard about, it is unsubtle—it consists of ticking boxes, and it does not work well with intermittent conditions. There are questions about the competence of Atos staff to assess mental illness, for example. In another constituency case, apparently, the doctor involved was not allowed by the medical authorities to work with patients or perform any form of medical intervention, apart from undertaking Atos assessments.
There has, I concede, been some improvement since the Harrington review. However, it is interesting to consider the nature of the mistakes that the system produces. For example, I was told by my local citizens advice bureau that since April it has launched 62 appeals, of which it has won three and lost two; the rest are still pending. That is a common experience for MPs. Incidentally, as a Welsh MP, I have been told that appeals in Welsh are taking longer, and I would like some response on that issue.
Atos should be put into special measures. It should report frequently—monthly, perhaps—on the number and percentage of cases that lead to appeal and to a change in the decision, and also on the number and percentage of revolving-door appeals. Most importantly for the public debate, we should have some qualitative information about people’s experiences. I think that that would influence the public debate on disability and
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benefits in a positive way, given the current climate fostered by some newspapers and commentators, and by Government policy.
John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): Yesterday, I met constituents who have gone through the system. They call themselves victims of Atos, and I promised them that I would briefly set out the experience that they described. The assessment was exactly as others have said. Applicants are often met by an assessor with no expertise or specialist knowledge of their condition; it is a tick-box exercise—my constituents completely agree with the BMA about that. Despite the Harrington recommendations for improvements, the test bears no relationship to the real-world challenges that people with disabilities face. There is no recognition of fluctuating conditions, as has been said—particularly in connection with mental health. The procedure largely ignores the assessments and advice of applicants’ own GPs.
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
In addition, the process even ignores previous Atos assessments. A constituent of mine was employed by Royal Mail, which used Atos to assess capability for work, and was assessed as not being capable. My constituent then retired and applied for benefits, and following another Atos assessment was found capable of being re-employed in the same type of work.
The fly-on-the-wall exposés by television programmes have exposed the pressure exerted on assessors to fail people. If people are assessed as capable of working correctly, they are then regularly harassed with challenges that they are unable to cope with, and they lose their benefit as a result. If they succeed at the assessments, they are harassed with reassessment after reassessment. We have heard the appeal statistics, but most of my constituents must wait six months or longer for an appeal. Those who have support—and I do support them; I represent people now at appeals—win. However, there is a lack of support, because of cuts in local government support for advice centres, and Government cuts so many people are not supported.
The result? To be frank, it is financial hardship. People are living in poverty because they lose their benefits. In addition, there is emotional stress, breakdowns, and, as Mind points out in its briefing, self-harm and suicide. Why do the Government defend the company? Why have they awarded it the personal independence payments process?
I share the disgust of many disability groups about Atos being allowed to sponsor the Olympics. That is a disgrace. I support Disabled People Against Cuts, and the Black Triangle campaign, which organised the protest against Atos sponsorship. I am calling for an inquiry into violence against people with disabilities who protested last week at the Department for Work and Pensions, and elsewhere. A few months ago, I tabled an early-day motion calling for Atos’s contract to be withdrawn, and for the establishment of a new system; 103 hon. Members have signed that early-day motion. Surely after that, and following debate after debate and the protests on the streets, the Government must reassess the role of Atos, and establish a new system based, as my hon.
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Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) suggested, on reputable, fair and equitable criteria.
Mr Philip Hollobone (in the Chair): Order. Ladies and gentlemen, please take your seats. To be frank, there are more people standing than we shall have time to hear from in the debate. The Opposition spokesman has said he requires eight minutes. I suspect that, because of interventions and so on, Members will want the Minister to have slightly longer. I propose that we begin the winding-up speeches just after five past, so we probably have time for two more speeches. I have a list given to me by the previous Chairman, and I shall take speakers in that order.
Yvonne Fovargue (Makerfield) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex) on securing the debate. It is worth reminding people that behind the statistics we are talking about are people who have wrongly been denied the money they need to live on and the support they need.
Like many hon. Members, I have dealt with innumerable cases, and I want to return to the issue of recording. A constituent who came to me wanted his Atos assessment to be recorded, because he had heard of problems in the past. He was told that there were 10 working sets of recording equipment for 140 centres, and that he would have to attend an assessment that could not be recorded, although I believe that it is his right to have it recorded.
Recording might have helped another constituent who came to me, who had been suffering from depression and anxiety, and who had an assessment. She does not cook; in fact, she has not got a cooker, because her lack of concentration means that it would be unsafe. She could barely communicate with me, but the Atos assessment said that her communication was good. She forgot to mention that she lives with her sister—she had to be reminded by her mother—so that was never mentioned in the assessment.
Those clients are appealing with the help of advice agencies, but I fear that when legal aid goes in 2013, there will be a drop in the number of appeals. That drop will not be because Atos is getting it right first time; it will be because people have nowhere else to go for an appeal and will be living without the benefit to which they are entitled. In particular, Atos needs to request medical evidence, which costs money—I have known doctors’ reports to cost anything from £35 to £200—and people eligible for legal aid can get those reports paid for, if they go to an advice agency. What will happen when that system stops?
Lastly, in the short time we have left in this debate, I want clarification on the compulsory reconsideration phase that will come in from April 2013. Will claimants still receive employment and support allowance during that period, as is vital? As we have already heard, 35% of appeals are successful, which means that those people were not fit for work—the decisions were wrong—and if they are not fit for work, they cannot meet the work search requirements. It is therefore essential that ESA continues during that period, and I want clarification about that in relation to all the groups.
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Mr Philip Hollobone (in the Chair): Order. If there are no interventions, we can hear from two more speakers before hearing from the Front Benchers. On the list provided to me, those speakers are Julie Hilling and Bill Esterson.
Julie Hilling (Bolton West) (Lab): I am so grateful to have been called, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex) on securing this important debate, because there is no doubt that Atos work capability assessments are not working. When campaign groups adopt the slogan, “Atos kills for profit”, something is deeply, deeply wrong. Any organisation that is proved wrong on 40% of its decisions is failing, and it certainly came as a real surprise to us all when Atos was given the contract for the personal independence payment. Of course, we want to help into work disabled people who are able to work, but removing benefit from those who cannot work is heartless, cruel and just plain wrong. Assessments should take notice of medical reports, whether from GPs or specialists, and of prognosis and treatment programmes, and they must take better account of fluctuating conditions and mental health issues. I want to ask the Minister two questions: how many people have died between being rejected for ESA and their appeal, and how many people have committed suicide?
Time is short, so I shall give only two examples. Aaron, who came to me last week, was injured in a bomb blast in Afghanistan in 2009. The explosion broke virtually every bone in his body, and he suffered a crushed-leg injury. Despite immediate medical care, his injury resulted in a partial leg amputation—below the knee—in 2010, and he has had several other surgical procedures. He originally received disability living allowance, but after his Army discharge, his benefit was stopped. He was reassessed for benefit in November 2011 and was told that, as his walking had improved, he would no longer get it. That was a bit of a surprise to him, because he is still struggling with his transition to having a prosthetic leg as his stump is regularly infected, he has required other surgical procedures, and he is still waiting for an operation this autumn. I have a second question relating to Aaron. It is not only the Department for Work and Pensions that has failed him; what about the Prime Minister’s assurances earlier this summer guaranteeing welfare support for ex-servicemen and women injured in military conflicts?
I have been visited by the mother of someone whom I will call Tony. Tony lives alone and is struggling to have as normal a life as possible, despite the world appearing to be very difficult for him. His mother was desperately worried about him, because he has just scored zero in his Atos assessment, despite the fact that he is bipolar and has obsessive compulsive disorder and Asperger’s. Tony has really wanted to work and has tried several jobs. He tried a job as a postman, but because of his OCD he could never get out the door—he would sort the letters by address and would then have to re-sort them by size and colour. Although he has been supported by a number of employers, he found that he was unable to work. In the end, he had a breakdown and ended up
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in hospital. His consultant has said that he cannot work, and his family is now terrified about his suicide risk.
Bill Esterson (Sefton Central) (Lab): More than 40 people have approached me with cases of being denied benefit following a WCA, or about their fear of that happening. The Member who mentioned the culture of fear among that group of people is absolutely right. A number of them have described being afraid to appeal, because the experience that people they know have had of Atos staff members has been so terrifying that they are scared to proceed. That is why some appeals do not take place, and it is artificially depressing the level of appeals.
I want to describe a few of those 40 cases. One involved a lady who had a serious operation because of cancer—what operation is not serious, following cancer?—and it took her more than a year to get her backdated pay after her claim was denied. In a second case, it took four months for a decision to be overturned after someone’s ESA claim was rejected following their heart-bypass surgery.
Colleagues have mentioned the work-related activity group; I will talk in detail about what happened to my constituent, George Mullen. Mr Mullen had one leg amputated at the age of 18, after an accident as an apprentice joiner. Despite that, he continued to work full time for more than 35 years. A solicitor told him that he would be a fool to try to get back to work, but he ended up as a successful clerk in a small business, even though he was in considerable pain. To aid his mobility for work, he did not use a wheelchair, but got about either on a false leg or on crutches. He suffered with chronic infections and abscesses at the amputation site, and he developed arthritis in his neck, shoulders and back, and in the knee and foot of his remaining leg. In spite of all that, he continued to work until he was told that he was being retired on health grounds, because there was absolutely no way his health would allow him to continue performing his job. He is on 24-hour blood-pressure monitoring, because stress pushes his blood pressure to a dangerously high level.
Mr Mullen applied for ESA as an absolute last resort. When he attended the WCA with his wife, the questions he was asked included: “Are you married? How did you travel here? How long have you been married?” There was not one question about his physical or mental condition, and no physical examination was carried out. Mr Mullen insists that he tried to offer information about his condition, but he was ignored. He was placed in the work-related activity group, but at no point was it explained that that lasts only for a year, and that ESA is then means-tested, or that if he felt he ought to be in the support group he had to appeal within a month. It came as a complete shock to have his ESA stopped when the year was up. He has applied again, and he awaits his assessment. He has had to attend counselling, because the situation has caused him so much stress. There was no explanation that, in the work-related activity group, ESA stops after a year—that is the reality that faces the
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real people who are affected. As someone said earlier, this is not about figures; it is about real, vulnerable and at-risk people in our society.
Stephen Timms (East Ham) (Lab): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex) on securing this debate about a matter of huge importance to hundreds of thousands of people, as well as on the work that he has done to highlight the problems that people face. I give the Minister my hearty congratulations on his appointment as Secretary of State for Justice and thank him for turning up to discharge his final responsibility in his old job. I am also very pleased that my right hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs McGuire) is in the Chamber because she and I have had a close interest in this issue for a long time.
The previous Government introduced the work capability assessment and employment and support allowance to provide support for people who are out of work for health reasons, but who are able to plan for a return to work. The current Government chose to take a drastic short cut by curtailing the bedding down period for the new benefit and rolling out the assessment without any improvement, even though by that stage improvements had been identified and proposed. The predictable result of that has been severe problems. Ministers are failing in their task of managing the contract with Atos, of ensuring that people who claim employment and support allowance are treated as they should be, and of reviewing and reforming the test so that it works as it should. The test needs major improvement. Two of Professor Malcolm Harrington’s reviews have reported so far—the hon. Member for Enfield North (Nick de Bois) was right—and while the Government say that they have accepted most of the recommendations, they simply have not implemented them, and that is the heart of the problem.
One simple example that shows the muddle that the Minister has got into has been raised several times in the debate. The year 1 Harrington review recommended that Atos should pilot the audio recording of work capability assessments, and a pilot of 500 claimants followed. Atos said that it was a good idea, but we have heard what has happened in practice from my hon. Friends the Members for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue), for Stoke-on-Trent North (Joan Walley) and for Airdrie and Shotts (Pamela Nash).
“we will offer everyone who wants it the opportunity to have their session recorded”.—[Official Report, 1 February 2012; Vol. 539, c. 291WH.]
He has not delivered on that pledge, and it turns out that the problem is a shortage of tape recorders. I was contacted by someone who struggled for weeks to get her assessment recorded. Eventually, Atos wrote to tell her that she could not have a recording or a rescheduled appointment. I wrote to the Minister about that and reminded him of the commitment that he had made. He said that he thought it would be unreasonable to delay the assessment indefinitely for such a reason, but that was not the commitment he gave to the House in February. I am afraid that this mess and shambles shows all we need to know about the Minister’s management
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of this process. The Government need to get a grip on Atos. I wish the Minister great success in his new job, but I wish he had put a bit more effort into this aspect of his old one.
We have also had a series of mishaps. For example, the Minister made rather farcical efforts to suppress a YouTube video giving advice to people who were claiming against their work capability assessment. It turned out that the subversives who were responsible for this pernicious video were his colleagues at the Ministry of Justice.
Perhaps the most harmful thing to the credibility of the work capability assessment has been the delay in making the changes needed so that the test can work. Professor Harrington’s first review in 2010 asked Mind, Mencap and the National Autistic Society to propose better descriptors for people with mental health conditions. They produced recommendations in November 2010, and Professor Harrington commended them to the Department in April 2011. Further recommendations went to the Department in November 2011 about changes to the descriptors for fluctuating conditions.
Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): Several announcements that have been made, including about having mental health champions, have not been rolled out to assessment centres. Atos is still being inconsistent about allowing support workers or friends to assist those with mental health illnesses who are going to assessments.
The work capability assessment must not be a snapshot of someone’s condition on the day they attend the medical assessment. By definition, that is likely to be a good day, because otherwise they would not be able to show up. The assessment needs to take account of the frequency with which they can do work-related tasks and that with which they suffer the ill effects of their condition. The alternative descriptors proposed do just that. They are now in the public domain thanks to the Grass Roots disability blog, without which we would not have known what they were, and they look like a real step in the right direction.
The Department has had the recommendations on mental health descriptors for 17 months and those on fluctuating conditions descriptors for nine months, but hardly any progress has been made in that time. On 25 June, in a written answer, the Minister said that
“we have been carefully considering how to build an appropriate evidence base around the proposed new descriptors…Terms of reference have been agreed and we aim to publish a report of the Evidence Based Review in the spring of 2013.”—[Official Report, 25 June 2012; Vol. 19, c. 54W.]
The Minister’s successor will need to get a grip on this. If that ambiguous deadline is even met—and that would be a first—it will be two years after expert guidance was received on how to improve the assessment for people with mental health conditions, and a year following the other recommendations.
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capable of working if they are in treatment? Why have the Government not changed that indicator when they could do so immediately?
Stephen Timms: My hon. Friend raises a good point that we discussed when we considered the Welfare Reform Act 2012. My understanding was that the Government had committed to make precisely that change, but it appears that that has not happened.
I want to ask the Minister two questions. First, on recording assessments—this might appear to be a minor issue, but it has been raised several times in the debate—will he stand by the commitment he made in Westminster Hall in February that people who want recordings will be able to have them? He seemed to renege on that commitment in the letter to me that was written by officials, but signed by him, about a case that I raised. Secondly, will he get these new descriptors evaluated quickly—he can urge his successor to get a move on—do so transparently, and make the changes quickly after the evaluation is completed?
The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Chris Grayling): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I know that this is an issue of great concern to many Members, as it was always going to be. I totally accept that this is a long and difficult process, and I have always said that, both in this Chamber and in the House. I will not be able to respond to every individual point. One or two hon. Members have raised individual constituency cases, and if they write to the Department, I will ensure that it addresses their specific questions.
Let me make one point in relation to a comment made by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell). He drove to the absolute heart of what we are trying to achieve, and this is an ambition that was and is shared by both the Opposition and the Government. If people can make a return to work, even if it is a different form of work from the one they did before their health issue arose—[Interruption.]
Mr Philip Hollobone (in the Chair): Order—[Interruption.] Order. Parliamentary rules state that there should be no noise at all from the Gallery—[Interruption.] Madam, if you persist in carrying on talking and shouting, I will have no choice but to suspend the sitting and clear the Gallery—[Interruption.] This is your last chance. If there is any more noise from the Gallery, I will have no choice but to suspend the sitting, meaning that no one will hear from the Minister.
Chris Grayling: If people can make a return to work, even if it is a different form of work from what they were able to do before their health condition arose, that is better for them than spending the rest of their life on benefits. That is the principle that we are working towards.
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Helen Goodman: If the Minister has read the current descriptors, will he explain what kind of work a person could do when their engaging in social contact with someone unfamiliar is always precluded due to difficulty relating to others? There are those who have reduced awareness of everyday hazards, which means that they face significant risk of injury to themselves or others, and those who are at risk of loss of control leading to extensive evacuation of their bowel and bladder. What work can these people do?
Chris Grayling: Let me pick up on that point straight off. It is all well and good for Opposition Members to stand up and rail about the system, but it is a system that was created by Labour four years ago when they were in government, and it is a system that we have consistently tried to improve.
Let me be absolutely clear. I put it on record that this is not a financial exercise. There are no targets attached to the reassessment of people on incapacity benefit—[Interruption.] The assessment that is in place for new claimants for employment and support allowance—
Mr Philip Hollobone (in the Chair): Order. If there is any more noise from the Public Gallery, I am afraid that, under the rules of Parliament, I have no choice but to suspend the sitting and clear the Gallery. I understand that people are very concerned about this issue—my constituents are concerned about it as well—but under the rules, I will have to clear the Gallery if there is any more noise. This is the last time that I will say it: if there is any more noise, I am afraid that I will have to suspend the sitting.
Chris Grayling: It is really important to emphasise that the reassessment of people on incapacity benefit is not a financial exercise and that there are no financial targets attached to it. It is about finding the right number of people who can make a return to work. It is not an exact science—it never was and never could be—but it is all about trying to help people back into the workplace if they can possibly return to it. That was the previous Government’s motivation when they established the work capability assessment. When we took office, we put in place the changes that they themselves had put in the pipeline through the internal review of the work capability assessment.
When we took office, I fully accepted that the process needed to be improved. That was why we brought in Malcolm Harrington and it is why I am absolutely clear that we have implemented his recommendations. I have regularly met and talked to Malcolm Harrington, and at no point has he said to me that the process is not fit for purpose. At no point has our independent adviser, whom I believe has the confidence of most people in the charitable sector who are involved in this work, said to me that this system has to stop or is unfit for purpose. He has made suggestions about improvements, and we have followed his advice in that regard. Our objective is to do the right thing, but of course this is not an exact science. We will never create a system that is perfect, which is why people have a right to appeal.
Stephen Lloyd (Eastbourne) (LD): Following the substantial improvements that the Government have made, does my right hon. Friend the Minister agree that the number of people who have been moved into the support set of the ESA has increased by 20%?
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Chris Grayling: It is a matter of record that since we implemented changes as a result of the Harrington process and the internal review that we inherited from the previous Government, the number of people going into the support group, including the number of people with mental health conditions, has increased. That is a good thing and I am pleased that we made those changes.
The issue of cancer has been raised. It has taken us longer than I expected to address that, because of various issues that arose in our discussions with Macmillan Cancer Support, but I believe that we are now in the right place. We will be making a formal announcement very shortly, but I have said before that I believe that we should extend to those receiving oral chemotherapy the access to the support group that is offered to people receiving intravenous chemotherapy.
Stephen Timms: The Minister will acknowledge, however, that the new descriptors that have been proposed for mental health conditions and for fluctuating conditions are nowhere near being implemented. When does he expect that they will be implemented?
It is really important to put it on record that Atos does not take decisions. In no circumstance does Atos take a decision about whether somebody receives a benefit or does not. A claimant will be asked to fill in a form that goes to Atos for consideration of whether they should be put to an assessment, or passported straight through to the benefit. Atos carries out the assessment, but the decision about benefits is taken by a Department for Work and Pensions decision maker in Jobcentre Plus. It is really important that people understand that Atos does not take decisions.
When we talk about Atos, we are talking about a team of perhaps 1,500 health care professionals, many of whom have trained in the NHS. Those professionals are carrying out an assessment that was designed by the DWP under the previous Government and that has been continued under the current Government. Atos does not take the decisions itself.
As a result of the Harrington recommendations, we have gone out of our way to address people much more directly. Rather than letters, they now receive phone calls, in which they are asked to bring forward additional evidence. A question was asked about the mandatory reconsideration phase. Effectively, that phase already happens. Every case in which the person says they are not happy will now involve a reconsideration within Jobcentre Plus. I am keen that we have that second opinion, because we will not always get things right and I want to try to see whether we can bring forward further evidence that would enable us to make the right decision before a case ever reached the tribunal service. Effort is being put in to make that happen.
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I was keen that we just did it, but Harrington said to me, “Actually, it may not work, so I really think that you should pilot it. It may prove to have a negative effect.” We therefore tested recording and found that there was little enthusiasm among those being assessed to have their assessment recorded. In the end, the conclusion was that we should make recording available on a voluntary basis, but it should not be something that we do across the board.
I do not rule out recording. If there was overwhelming evidence showing that it was necessary, I would make it available, but let me give some statistics. There are 300 claimants waiting for an audio-recorded assessment, while Atos is conducting 8,000 assessments a week. We are ordering additional audio-recording machines so that people can have their assessment recorded, if they want. They are perfectly entitled to bring their own recording equipment to an assessment as long as it can record two copies of an assessment, because they need to be able to take one copy with them and leave the other behind. That is why we have to buy what is fairly expensive equipment, and we have ordered additional equipment because there has been an increase in demand in the last few weeks.
I am perfectly relaxed about recorded assessments and perfectly happy to make recording facilities available. However, the advice that I received from Malcolm Harrington was that we should test recording. The result of the pilot was not only that there was not a need for recording, but that many people felt uncomfortable being assessed with a tape recorder running.
The right hon. Gentleman also asked about the new descriptors that were brought forward by the charities, but he is out of date. The charities have been working with us for the past few weeks on the assessment project of the package that they brought forward. The work was finished last week. The charities wanted more time to work with us because the process is complicated and we are trying to mesh mental health issues and fluctuating conditions. As I said in Westminster Hall about 12 months ago, the problem that I had with the recommendations that the charities made in the first place was that they came forward not simply with adjustments to the existing descriptors, but instead with a comprehensive reorganisation of the assessment, which would also have involved a redesign of the physical descriptors. Given that the right hon. Gentleman has carried out such projects in the DWP, he will know well that that would be a two or three-year project.
We have tried to take forward some of the suggestions that the charities made and embed them into elements such as the ESA50 form, and we are now working with the charities to road test all this work to see whether it really makes a difference. However, I am not going to embark on a major overhaul of the whole exercise based on recommendations that are not backed by evidence without our having tested them in the way in which the previous Government tested recommendations: by putting real cases against proposed descriptors and making a comparison between the outcomes of the theoretical new descriptors and the old descriptors. Such work is on track. We are pushing the charities to make progress, because I want to get the work done, and we are still on track to complete the gold standard review in the spring.