My constituent Jane suffers from Huntingdon's Disease. In September she applied for Personal Independence Payment - the benefit the government introduced following their abolition of Disability Living Allowance - which is intended to help people with the extra costs they face as a result of living with disabilities.
She had a face-to-face assessment with one of the government's contractors - Atos Healthcare Ltd - on 18 November. By the end of January her application was still with Atos. On 14 February she was told her application had now been returned to the Department for Work and Pensions, but it would be another six weeks before she got the decision. That will mean the process will have taken six months from start to finish.
If Jane gets an award, her payments will be backdated to September, but if her application is refused and she appeals, there could be further months of uncertainty.
Jane is a single parent with five children. Anxiety and depression is common in sufferers of Huntingdon's, but my constituent's state of health is worsening as a result of the delays. In her own words "I am struggling with everyday life, it's always on my mind".
Delays, delays and more delays
This is by no means the longest period of delay being reported by other PIP claimants, and it's not just a problem for Atos - already notorious for their role in Employment and Support Allowance assessments - but also for the government's other contractor Capita.
The delays are clear from the government's own interim management figures, which show that by December 2013, 220,300 applications had been submitted (excluding claims for terminal illnesses) but only 34,200 awards had been made.
Ministers stated that their expectation before the system "went live" was that processing of claims would take 12-15 weeks. It is taking at least twice as long for most.
Pilot? What pilot?
PIP has been available to new claimants since June 2013. Most of those who are currently on DLA will not go through the reassessment process until October 2015. However those whose award runs out before that date or whose circumstances change will still be called in, potentially piling delay upon delay.
There was a pilot in some parts of the north of England, but this ran for only two months before the new benefit went live nationwide. The Work and Pensions Select Committee - of which I'm a member - raised doubts about such a short pilot in advance, but our concerns were brushed off. One oddity is the contrast with Universal Credit, where the roll out has been slowed to a snail's pace.
In December the disabilities minister told the Select Committee that all assessments were being internally audited by the providers before being passed back to the DWP. That suggests a lack of confidence in the training provided by contactors - something the government should have realised was an issue when Atos and Capita were tendering for this work.
Then in February the secretary of state, Iain Duncan Smith, he argued that PIP was being rolled out "carefully" and they were adjusting the process as they went along. Given the experience of people like Jane, I'm afraid this just doesn't wash.
The reality is that disabled people are being used as guinea pigs because of the government's total failure to properly pilot the PIP application process and ensure its contractors were up to the job. IDS and his ministers should be ashamed.
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