Iain Duncan Smith was responding to criticism from his Labour shadow that the implementation of personal independence payment (PIP) had been “a fiasco”.
Labour’s Rachel Reeves spoke of one constituent who she had referred to a food bank because he had been waiting for assessments for PIP and employment and support allowance, and a couple who she referred to a food bank because the husband had been waiting 10 months for a PIP assessment.
She told Duncan Smith – in an opposition day debate on the performance of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) – that his plans to introduce the new universal credit were “widely off track”, the work capability assessment had “almost completely broken down”, and the “unfair and vindictive bedroom tax” was costing “more money than it saves”.
Reeves said Duncan Smith had “something like a Midas touch: everything he touches turns into a total shambles”.
But Duncan Smith refused to apologise for the problems with PIP, although he said the delays faced by some claimants was “unacceptable”.
He said: “On PIP, I will simply say that we did not rush it. We have kept control of the level and scale of the roll-out.
“As we have learnt what the difficulties are, we have made changes, working with the providers.”
He promised that, by the autumn, no-one would be waiting longer than six months for their PIP claim to be dealt with, and by the end of the year, no-one would be waiting more than 16 weeks.
But the disabled Labour MP Dame Anne Begg, who chairs the Commons work and pensions committee, said the government had “bitten off more than they can chew” on welfare reform because they had forgotten how difficult, costly and complex it was.
Paul Maynard, the disabled Conservative MP, said it was “fair to say that many people are still waiting too long” for their PIP assessments, but the government was “seeking to do something about that”.
Another disabled Conservative MP, Robert Halfon, insisted that the government’s welfare reforms were about “ending dependency, establishing a ladder of aspiration, and social justice and redistribution”.
He said: “Unemployment is down by one third in my constituency, with youth unemployment decreasing by 30 per cent.
“There is renewed confidence in the local economy, and businesses are creating jobs. The number of apprenticeships in the town have increased by a staggering 83 per cent.
“What is happening in my town is not unique; it is happening up and down the country.”
Anne McGuire, Labour’s former minister for disabled people, who has a long-term health condition, said her party had called for “many months” for a cumulative impact assessment of the government’s welfare reforms on disabled people.
She said: “What we have here is a cumulative disaster area of a ministerial team, which introduced major change projects without suitable testing.”
Her Labour colleague Debbie Abrahams said DWP was in “absolute chaos”.
She said: “The welfare reforms have been nothing short of catastrophic.
“Not one of the projects, from the introduction of universal credit to the revision of the work capability assessment and the replacement of DLA [disability living allowance] with PIP, has been delivered with even a modicum of competence.”
And Kate Green, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, said the implementation of PIP had been “another tale of disaster – it was not piloted, there were misleading statements on Atos’s bids, and there are long delays in decisions.”
She said Duncan Smith had “presided over disaster and chaos” and had “his head in the sand”, while his department was “on the brink of meltdown”.
She said: “We have heard about anxiety, fear and hardship among those who rely on social security, namely most of us at some point in our lives.”
1 July 2014