A Conservative MP has told his own government that disabled people’s trust in the disability benefits assessment process is “severely lacking”.
Elliot Colburn was introducing a debate on three parliamentary petitions that between them have been backed by tens of thousands of disabled people and allies, each of which focused on flaws in the assessment process.
He told MPs on Monday that it was “absolutely time for reform and change” and that personal independence payment (PIP) claimants saw the assessment system as “confrontational and judgmental”.
He highlighted one case in which a disabled person with a mobility impairment was found ineligible for PIP after being assessed by a dental hygienist.
Colburn repeated the call that has been made repeatedly over the last decade for claimants’ doctors and medical specialists to “play a more central role” in the early stages of a disability benefit application.
Labour’s Sir Stephen Timms, chair of the Commons work and pensions committee, said it was “absolutely clear” that PIP assessments “are not working well”, and he called on the government to accept more of the recommendations made in his committee’s report on disability assessments, which was published in April.
Among the recommendations that were not accepted was the committee’s call for all assessments to be recorded, unless the claimant opts out.
Sir Stephen said: “We will get to the bottom of why [something “fundamental” is wrong with the system] only if assessments are routinely recorded, so that when things go wrong it is possible to look at what actually happened in the assessment and try to learn from the errors to get things right in future.”
The SNP’s David Linden, a member of the work and pensions committee, said the government’s approach to assessments was both “ineffective” and “inhumane”, and “favours evidence provided by the assessor rather than the claimant”.
He said the system also “operates on the presumption of scepticism” and “perpetuates a cycle of despair and frustration”.
Marion Fellows, his party’s disability spokesperson, compared PIP assessments with the system introduced by the Scottish government for its adult disability payment (ADP).
She said ADP had been designed in partnership with disabled people, which has been “crucial to designing an improved service that is very different from the DWP’s system”.
She said the ADP system was “starting from a position of trust”, with the Scottish government assuming that disabled people are applying “because they need it, not because they are trying to con somebody in the system”.
And, she said, it had “removed the burden from individuals to provide supporting information, so the onus will instead be on Social Security Scotland to collect the information it requires.
“The Scottish government have put an end to the anxiety of undignified physical and mental assessments, to private sector involvement and to the stressful cycle of unnecessary reassessments.”
Vicky Foxcroft, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, said PIP claimants were facing “difficult, stressful and sometimes humiliating assessments, followed by weeks or months of uncertainty as they await the outcome”, while many face even more “stress and uncertainty” as they appeal unfair decisions.
She said: “Many of the disabled people I have spoken to during my time in this role have told me that they live in fear of the government reducing or taking away their benefits.”
She added: “If we are to restore trust in the DWP and create a system that is fit for purpose, we must work closely with disabled people.
“They can tell us what changes, big or small, could make the process easier and less humiliating for claimants.”
Tom Pursglove, the minister for disabled people, described some of the improvements the government was introducing to the PIP assessment process.
They include matching specialist assessors to claimants’ primary health conditions, while most assessments are now carried out by telephone “to alleviate some of the stress associated with travelling to and attending observational assessment”.
And he said DWP decision-makers now have more time to “proactively” contact claimants “if they think additional evidence may support the claim”.
He said DWP’s Health Transformation Programme would “create a more efficient service and a vastly improved claimant experience, including speedier management of claims and improved trust in our services and decisions”.
The programme is also introducing the option of applying for PIP online and being able to upload medical information digitally.
Some claimants can already apply online, and he said DWP plans to make this available across England, Wales and Northern Ireland in 2024.
Pursglove said the average length of the end-to-end journey for new PIP claims had fallen from 26 weeks in August 2021 to 13 weeks in April 2023.
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