Government ministers have broken their high-profile promise to slash all waiting-times for the new disability benefit to less than four months.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) refused to comment yesterday (Thursday) on the broken promise that – by the end of 2014 – no new claimant would be waiting longer than 16 weeks to be assessed for the new personal independence payment (PIP).
In fact, new DWP figures released this week show that although the average waiting-time for a PIP assessment has fallen from 30 weeks to 14 weeks, one in 11* of those who have lodged a new PIP claim since the benefit’s launch in April 2013 is still waiting to be assessed, and has been waiting longer than 16 weeks.
This suggests that, by 25 January, just under 50,000 claimants (49,545*) have been waiting longer than 16 weeks for an assessment.
And the figures also suggest – although again these numbers are not included explicitly in the DWP tables – that 57,552* claimants had been waiting longer than 16 weeks by the end of 2014, the deadline set last June by Iain Duncan Smith, the Conservative work and pensions secretary.
His promise was repeated by Mark Harper, the Conservative minister for disabled people, in November. Both pledges were reported in the official Hansard record of parliamentary proceedings.
Duncan Smith told MPs last June: “By the autumn, no one will be waiting longer than six months, and before the end of the year, no-one will be waiting for more than 16 weeks, which brings things back into line with where we were expecting them to be.”
This means that Duncan Smith missed meeting his pledge by nearly 60,000 disabled people, all of whom had been waiting longer than 16 weeks for vital support to help them with their extra impairment-related costs, such as accessible transport, dietary supplements, mobility aids and heating.
A DWP spokesman said: “Your observation that there are some individuals whose claims are still in progress and who have waited more than 16 weeks is correct. Clearly your interpretation of what the minister meant differs from his own.”
He added: “In a system which deals with such a large number of customers, there will always be complex and vulnerable cases, and it is right that these are dealt with properly rather than rushed.”
But when the spokesman was asked why ministers would not comment on the broken promise, he said: “I have acknowledged that your observation about individuals waiting for more than 16 weeks is correct and the Hansard script speaks for itself.”
He refused to comment further on the missed target.
Harper gave evidence to the Commons work and pensions committee this week on progress with implementing PIP, but MPs did not ask him why he had missed the target, although the new figures were only passed to the committee on the morning of the hearing.
MPs on the committee also failed to ask Harper why Capita had suddenly announced that it was set to make a fifth of its assessment staff redundant, despite there still being tens of thousands of new claimants waiting more than 16 weeks to be assessed, and recruiting many of the staff only last summer to clear the huge claims backlog.
It is unclear from the new DWP figures how the backlog is split between the two assessment providers, Capita and Atos.
Harper was asked by Conservative committee member Nigel Mills for the length of the current longest wait for an assessment, but he failed to offer an answer.
This week’s new PIP figures show that from 8 April 2013 to 31 December 2014, more than 523,000 new claims had been referred to the assessment providers Capita and Atos Healthcare for an assessment.
But the two companies have delivered only about 388,000 assessments (74 per cent).
It is only since August last year that Atos and Capita have begun to clear the backlog of claims, a queue that in September 2014 reached more than 175,000.
The very latest figures, up to 25 January 2015, show there were 97,900 claims still waiting to be cleared by Atos and Capita.
The new figures also show that 49 per cent of new claims have been successful, a similar percentage to under the old system of disability living allowance (DLA), which PIP is gradually replacing for working-age claimants.
Labour MP Sheila Gilmore asked Harper if he had analysed whether the entire PIP reform process had been worthwhile.
She said: “It has upset people, it has distressed people, it has worried people, it has put people through delays which could have been predicted.”
Harper said he believed the reforms had been necessary, and that spending on PIP and DLA was now expected to be “broadly flat”, rather than there being an “unsustainable” growth in spending.
And he said PIP was designed to be better at dealing with the needs of those with mental health and other fluctuating conditions, and cognitive impairments, and helping those with the most severe needs.
But the committee’s chair, disabled Labour MP Dame Anne Begg, said the atmosphere of the reforms had been “poisoned” because many disabled people thought that “the reason the government was introducing the new benefit was to take their money away from them”.
She added: “A lot of the aspiration for PIP could have been achieved through reforming DLA… but the government chose instead to bring in a new benefit.
“Was it worth all this upheaval for existing claimants, do they end up with a better outcome as a result than they would have done just by reforming DLA?”
Harper said that was not a “fair characterisation” and the government had made “considerable progress” in improving the PIP process, but added: “Do we still need to continue improving the process? Yes, we do.”
*These figures do not include PIP claimants with terminal illnesses, who are dealt with far more quickly under “special rules”
30 January 2015