People with Disabilities: Access to Services - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 12:28 pm ar 16 Mai 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Baroness Browning Baroness Browning Ceidwadwyr 12:28, 16 Mai 2024

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Hughes of Stretford, on bringing this important debate to the Floor of the House today. I declare my interests, both in the register and as having close relatives who are in receipt of disability benefits and for whom I have some responsibility.

Today, I will focus on disability benefits. I am of course aware of the current consultation on PIP, which I will respond to in writing, in respect of those on the autism spectrum with learning disabilities and with mental health issues. However, I want to put on the record my ongoing concerns about the process of claiming disability benefits, the ethos surrounding the system, and the impact this can have on people, many of them already vulnerable.

These are some of the problems they face. There are lengthy forms, exceeding 20 or 30 pages, which put many people off applying in the first place. Many need help to fill them in, and there are often time limits, so finding that help becomes a pressure. Then there is the ability of the DWP to have applications assessed by qualified people with a working knowledge of the medical conditions they are assessing. It is dire. Do not take my word for it: as we have heard, the appeal rate for PIP is 70%—that is 70% granted on appeal. Only last year, a form that I assisted with was rejected. We asked for reconsideration, and when it came back, having been reconsidered, it had been awarded at an enhanced rate. What the person who looked at it in the first place was thinking about, I really do not know.

The questions are geared mainly to narrowly defined physical conditions, with each question scoring points, leaving out the complexities of autism, mental health and learning disabilities and giving few opportunities for people to explain in any detail how their lives are affected. They lose on points. This arbitrary points system is not flexible to take account of fluctuating conditions, good days and bad days, or degeneration. Complex conditions involving more than one disability do not stand a chance.

Despite paper forms, there is a presumption that applicants will then communicate via the internet or phone. Some will, but not everybody. I know several people on the autism spectrum for whom making a phone call to a stranger, or receiving one, is quite traumatic. There are long waiting periods, often without any money at all, and there is a problem with answering letters, even signed-for ones. We have heard that even children and young people starting cancer treatment can wait in excess of 20 weeks without any money at all.

All this builds anxiety and stress. It should be remembered that this is disability, not capability for work. PIP, for example, is a benefit that applies to people who are in work as well as those who are not. We are talking about disability, but somehow the debate seems to have moved to whether people are capable for work. I do not know quite where that has come from.

It is a given that many unemployed disabled people would like to work, and I support any initiative that supports that, but disability brings with it myriad extra costs, even for people who are working, and this whole process brings such a level of anxiety and distress. It is time the whole process was reformed. In doing so, the DWP should be as concerned about safeguarding the health—particularly the mental health—of claimants as it is about assessing them. I say that because even the very process of engaging in the benefits system can result in extreme outcomes.

I pay tribute to a former colleague of ours in this House, Lord Newton, Tony Newton, who was also a colleague in mine in another place. He got up out of his hospital bed to come here and speak on this subject. I also pay tribute to the much-missed late Lord Field, Frank Field, whom again I served with in both Houses. He was a champion in this area. On 25 September 2019, he tabled this Written Question in the House of Commons:

“To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, how many inquests relating to benefits claimants who have ended their life by suicide her Department has submitted evidence to since 2013; and in how many inquests it was ruled that the policies of her Department were partly responsible for the deceased person’s state of mind”.

Noble Lords will be familiar with the reply from the Department for Work and Pensions:

“Unfortunately, the information requested is not held centrally and is therefore unavailable without incurring a disproportionate cost”.

Frank—being Frank—then approached the National Audit Office and asked it to investigate what was going on with the suicide rate among benefit claimants.

As a result of a report by the Comptroller and Auditor-General, some progress was made at the DWP. I reassure my noble friend that I am aware that it has made progress, but the point is this: in what other area of disability would anybody or any department—least of all a government department—have to collate information about suicide rates that resulted from their own activities? That surely is unacceptable and I say to my noble friend: I know that the Government want to modernise the benefits system for disability, but it requires absolute root and branch reform.