For a process that’s supposed to help people with disabilities get the extra support they need in order to be able to live their lives as well as they possibly can, Personal Independence Payments (PIP) and their assessments cause a great deal of stress and anxiety.
Often, people in receipt of PIP are those who suffer with long-term illness or disabilities. I know this first-hand from my work as a GP in my constituency of Stockton South. Many recipients of PIP are socially isolated, and can struggle to participate in everyday activities.
Since I entered Parliament last year, I continue to practice as a GP, albeit on a smaller scale. I now see many of the same patients who came to me as a doctor, who come to my constituency surgeries with stories of how the system is letting them down.
The assessment process can be intrusive and humiliating, and many people with less visible disabilities are denied access down to the nature of the assessments. This is no secret – research has shown that in the final quarter of 2016, more than 60% of PIP appeals were successful.
Countless constituents have contacted me, asking for help with their appeal. My caseworkers spend most of their time dealing with issues with PIP or problems with the Department for Work and Pensions. This is a sign of a fundamentally flawed system, which punishes those who are the most vulnerable, rather than helping them. People are left for months, without vital emotional or financial support, waiting for their appeals to be heard.
I recently asked the Secretary of State for Justice if he will set a target for the maximum time limit for people to wait for a personal independence payment appeal to be heard, and received the following reply:
‘The Ministry of Justice is not planning to set a target for the maximum time limit for people to wait for a Personal Independence Payment appeal to be heard. This is because waiting times fluctuate geographically owing to a number of factors including venue capacity, the volumes of benefit decisions made locally, the complexity of the case and the availability of panel members. Furthermore, the listing of appeals, including consideration of whether a hearing should be expedited, is a function of the Tribunal’s judiciary. We are however working on measures to improve the capacity and performance of the Tribunal, including the appointment of additional judges and panel members.’
I don’t think it is unreasonable to set a target, and that target should be considerably less than the one year that many of my constituents are currently facing.
What is unreasonable is for someone with dementia to be asked to recall how their condition affected them a year earlier. What is unreasonable is making someone with extreme anxiety wait for months on end for a date to arrive through the post.
One of my constituents recently told me “I personally experience a great deal of physical pain at times and often suffer from what is referred to as: Fibromyalgia Fog, which is frustrating periods of memory loss, confusion or absent mindedness. These factors combine to make life very difficult at times, especially when there are few outwardly recognisable signs of the condition which can make it quite a lonely experience.”
The Department for Work and Pensions should be working across government to deliver a holistic system, which is structured around helping people, and avoids punishment. Health should play more of a role in the conducting of assessments, with properly trained assessors who are able to recognise less visible health conditions. But the least our government can do is to commit to a target for appeals. Waiting longer than a year for an appeal can have a deeply negative effect on someone’s health. A seemingly never-ending wait for justice is unacceptable for some of the more vulnerable members of our society.