Social Justice

Disabled people face 'harrowing' and 'inhumane' benefits assessments, MPs warn in Westminster debate

MPs from across parties said that their constituents have faced "undue stress and misery" because of disability benefits assessments

Disability symbol on ground

The disability benefits assessment process can be "traumatic". Image: Unsplash

Disabled people face “harrowing and sometimes traumatic experiences” at the hands of the disability benefits assessment process, MPs from across parties warned the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) in a parliamentary debate. 

Speaking in Westminster Hall on Monday (4 September), the MPs shared experiences of their constituents and called on the government to reform the assessment process for the disability benefit personal independence payment (PIP).

David Linden, the Scottish National Party MP for Glasgow East, said: “The British government’s approach to disability benefit assessments is not just ineffective – the theme that has been developed today – but inhumane.

“Under the current regime, the application process removes the reality of people’s lived experience as the very foundation on which the system has been defined. It favours evidence provided by the assessor rather than the claimant.”

He added that MPs, regardless of party, “know that these issues cause undue stress and misery to people across our four nations”.

The Big Issue has previously spoken to disabled people who feel that the system is “designed to catch them out” and it can cause “psychological trauma”. 

Conservative MP Elliot Colburn, a member of the petitions committee, said while opening the debate: “Applicants should not be made to feel that the system is against them even before they’ve begun to engage with it. 

“They should not feel as if an assessor is trying to catch them out, and they should definitely not feel that being successful in gaining PIP support is not worth the emotional, mental and physical costs which many have described in the assessment and applications process.”

Charlotte Nichols, the Labour MP for Warrington North, said: “The sense of interrogation that many of our constituents feel when going through a process that can be very degrading. 

“In the case of one of my constituents the assessor dropped a pen, and when my constituent bent down, picked it up and handed it to the assessor, that was used against them in their assessment. Such stories are not uncommon. We need urgent and radical reform to make sure that people are not treated like criminals for trying to seek help with their living costs.”

The DWP rejects almost 90% of initial challenges over benefit decisions, but official statistics show 68% of claimants win their case when appealing the decision at tribunal, during which officials have more time to consider an individual’s case. 

Sir Stephen Timms, Labour MP and chair of the work and pensions select committee, urged the government to introduce an ‘opt-out’ system for recording PIP assessments – so that all are recorded unless a claimant opts out. This is in line with recommendations made by his committee earlier this year, which the government has already rejected. 

“The great majority of appeals against the refusal decisions that come out of assessments are upheld,” Timms said. “Surely that shows that something fundamental is wrong. We will get to the bottom of why that is only if assessments are routinely recorded, so that when things go wrong it is possible to look at what actually happened in the assessment and try to learn from the errors to get things right in future.”

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It comes after the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) submitted a damning report to the United Nations (UN) warning that disabled people face “psychological distress”, poverty and “avoidable deaths” in some instances because of failures of the DWP and its disability benefits system. 

Linden added: “I will be honest: I am no stranger to hearing about dehumanising experiences that my constituents have endured as a result of this system. I sit week in, week out at surgeries across the east end of Glasgow in places like Baillieston, Parkhead and Easterhouse, hearing the same harrowing and sometimes traumatic experiences that people have had to endure at the hands of the disability benefits assessment process.”

Vicki Foxcroft, the Labour MP for Lewisham, said: “If we are to restore trust in the DWP and create a system that is fit for purpose, we must work closely with disabled people. They are the ones who can tell us how it feels to have their ability to carry out tasks scrutinised by an assessor who may have no previous knowledge of their condition. 

“They are the ones who can truly describe the amount of stress involved in taking the DWP to tribunal over an unfair decision. They can tell us what changes, big or small, could make the process easier and less humiliating for claimants.”



The debate came hours after ministers put questions to the DWP in the House of Commons, during which the minister for disabled people, health and work Tom Pursglove referred to reforms for disability benefits assessments set out in the Health and Disability White Paper. 

Pursglove said: “Through the white paper reforms, we have advocated for a number of tests and trials, including one that focuses specifically on better capturing fluctuating conditions. The government is committed to working with charities and those that are interested, including disabled people, to ensure we get those reforms right.”

Responding to the MPs who raised concerns in the debate, he added: “There is no doubt that issues including reforming assessment processes, the role of medical evidence in decision making and other such aspects of the system are vital to the government and to people across our society, including disabled people and people with long-term health conditions. 

“I am pleased to be able to say something about the current situation, the steps the government are taking to improve matters, and our quite extensive reform plans, some of which we touched on at DWP questions. I would argue that significant work is already under way.”

But some MPs raised fears that these reforms will not go far enough. Timms said: “The government has recognised the need to transform the system, including in their white paper. I welcome many of the reforms that have been announced – including in respect of the testing of the use of specialist assessors – but the problem is that they are going to take years to implement. We need to take further action, given the gravity of the problems that we have already heard about in the debate.”

Colburn concluded: “There is a lot to chew over and a lot to think about. It is clear that a lot of live discussions are going on, so I am sure that we will be back talking about these issues. The minister had a grilling earlier as well, so I am sure that this is only the beginning of many conversations. 

“I hope that the lived experiences of our constituents have been heard loud and clear, and I thank those who were willing to share their stories with us so that we could bring them to parliament today.”

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