I didn’t envy Chris Stephens…
... Along with other members of the Work and Pensions committee, he was tasked with questioning the Secretary of State Therese Coffey MP on the department’s plans to help people dealing with spiralling living costs. A bored and irritated-looking Coffey shrugged her way through vague answers.
When pressed in this way, members of the UK Government’s cabinet give the impression that they’ve never joined the dots between their policies and skyrocketing energy prices or food insecurity. Coffey had the air of someone with no appreciation for the millions of lives she is directly and indirectly responsible for. Every time I think food bank use can’t possibly increase any more, it does. The Trussell Trust handed out over 900,000 parcels between May and October 2021, a third of which went to children.
I recently met with Scope, a charity fighting for disability rights, and was staggered by some other facts and figures they threw at me. That the UK Government spent £120 million between 2017 and 2019 fighting PIP and ESA claims. That in Scotland, in the same time period, 64% of PIP and ESA tribunals were overturned in favour of the claimant.
What a complete waste of time for everyone involved, particularly the claimant who may have been waiting months on a hearing with little or no income.
If you’re unfamiliar with the health assessments for disability benefits such as PIP and ESA, you may be surprised to know they’re carried out by healthcare professionals but there’s no guarantee you’ll be assigned one with expertise in the relevant area. Scope told me about one constituent who was assessed by someone who had never even heard of their condition.
Supporting letters from doctors won’t necessarily be taken into account so, with all the evidence in the world, you could still find yourself staring down the panel of zero points at the end of your assessment. If you want to keep fighting, need to keep fighting, you appeal. After that, it’s a tribunal.
My office deals with cases like this and it’s frustrating for everyone involved. The waiting times, the concern for the constituent, the expectation that people can survive on fresh air while awaiting a decision.
The Scotland Act 2016 gave the Scottish Government responsibility over certain benefits and the Adult Disability Payment will replace PIP for disabled people of working age in Scotland this spring. It’s a positive step but one complicated by the UK Government’s refusal to hand over all social security concerns.
Instead, they’re being drip-fed to Scotland and some benefits won’t be handed over at all. But once fully operational, Social Security Scotland will administer 14 benefits, support 1.4 million people and provide £3.5 billion in payments every year.
Well aware of the reputation the current health assessments have, the Scottish Government set up a social security panel last year with members from all across Scotland who have recent experience of the benefits system.
I’m delighted to hear the number of people attending face to face assessments will vastly reduce; Social Security Scotland will simply contact the health and social care professionals already familiar with the applicant and their circumstances with no private sector involvement. The DWP’s current contract with private health assessment companies is worth £2 billion over the next five years.
No system is perfect but I believe this will be a huge step forward in how we talk about disabled people and their needs. ■
The charity Scope works to achieve a society equality and fairness for disabled people