Jenny raises local cases in debate over DWP disarray.
Jenny Chapman MP raised the impact of delays, mishandled assessments and deeply unfair sanctions on vulnerable people in Darlington during last night's Commons debate over the shambolic performance of the Department for Work and Pensions.
Jenny Chapman (Darlington) (Lab): It is a pleasure to contribute to the debate and to follow the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills). I agree with a couple of the things he said; I agree that the programme has had a bumpy start, but I disagree that the bumpy start is over. I also agree with him that we need to get things right in order to build confidence in the benefit system. For many reasons, that confidence is not as high as we want it to be, and one of those reasons is the corrosive language that we often hear about people who claim benefits.
Darlington is in the North East, but unemployment there is consistently lower than the regional average. People in my constituency work hard, and they want claimants to be challenged and people to demonstrate why they need benefits, but the system is not working. I shall give a few examples of real case studies. They are still live cases that have been raised with the Department, but they have not been resolved. I would like an assurance from the Minister that we will get a better service from the Department when things go wrong. They go wrong frequently, and despite what the Secretary of State said at the Dispatch Box earlier, we are not getting an adequate response from him or his officials.
One case involves a woman who was advised to claim DLA in April 2013. She had a medical and waited to hear what would happen next. She was told she would have to have a medical, but she had already had one. She was told that PIPs were replacing DLA so she would have to claim all over again. In June 2013, she received a letter referring to a letter she had been sent in May, but she had not received that letter. She asked about progress in September 2013 and she was told that her claim was with Atos for internal audit. In October 2013, she raised the issue with me, because she had no money and had to go to the food bank to feed herself and her five-year-old son. She was unable to pay her rent and her gas, electricity and water bills. I contacted the PIP office in October and again in November. It said that it was having trouble getting Atos to respond to its queries. In February this year she finally got her PIP payment. It took nearly a year to resolve, but we got there in the end. Other people are still waiting.
A young man with autism desperately wanted to work, so he volunteered for help from a training provider—Avanta—which then sanctioned him for not complying because he did not understand what he was meant to be doing. Three months later, that case is still not resolved.
I received an e-mail from someone who suffers from various diagnosed mental health problems. He has been found fit for work by Atos so he decided to stop taking his medication. After all, as he said, Atos had said that he was cured. He was later sectioned having been found in a distressed state.
I am not revealing the names of these people as they have asked me not to do so, but their cases give a flavour of the problems that my colleagues and I frequently deal with. Another person had an appointment for an Atos medical in Thornaby on 27 June. Thornaby is a perfectly good place, but it is tricky to get there from Darlington on public transport. It takes at least two bus journeys and the building has stairs and is not properly accessible. My constituent has spondylosis, tennis elbow and sciatica after years of working as a labourer. He telephoned Atos and was told that his GP had to fax a letter explaining why he needed a home visit. He asked Atos to give him a later appointment so that he could get there on time. Because the Thornaby site is so difficult to get to, Atos seems to think that if people can get to their appointment, it is proof that they are fit to work.
In another case, the jobcentre agreed that a constituent, who has a wife and two kids, could do a part-time care course, but he was sanctioned—incorrectly—for being on a full-time course. He has no money for food or rent while that is being sorted out. In the end, he was offered a job, conditional on his completing the course, which only had a month to run, but the job centre had sanctioned him for being on the course.
The response from the Department on PIPs is dreadful. It can take 12 to 16 weeks to get an appointment for a face-to-face assessment, and 21 to 26 weeks from date of claim to a decision being made. That is six months, and that is not acceptable. We need to know how long it will take. The whole system is shambolic. My complaint is not that constituents are being challenged or assessed or asked to demonstrate why they should receive ESA or PIP: it is that the delays, the poor administration and the lack of answers when cases are raised are unacceptable.
The debate ended with MPs voting on the motion put forward by the Labour Party, which criticised the failure of the Government to manage welfare reform fairly or effectively, and called on the DWP to publish:
(a) the risk register and other documentation relating to the delivery of Universal Credit as a Freedom of Information tribunal as ruled it should,
(b) the time in which it will guarantee that disabled people will receive an assessment for PIP and
(c) a full risk assessment showing the potential impact of delays, delivery problems, contract failures and underperformance on (i) people receiving or entitled to benefits, (ii) departmental budgets and spending plans and (iii) the Government's welfare cap.
The outcome of the vote was 225 in favour of the motion, 310 against.
Follow the link to read the Department for Work and Pensions: Performance debate in full.