Siobhain has spoken in parliament about the need to reform ESA and PIP assessments. In her speech she drew on the important work of Merton Centre for Independent Living
, which has conducted extensive research into the intrusiveness of ESA and PIP assessments.
You can watch the speech here or read it below.
'I thank the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) for securing this important debate. I will focus on some of the logistical issues around PIP that could be improved at local level, drawing on the experience of the excellent Merton centre for independent living in my constituency.
Merton CIL is a user-led disabled people’s organisation that delivers a range of services to disabled people across Merton. The practical experience and casework of its members has brought together a range of issues in relation to both ESA and PIP that demonstrates how disabled people are facing a significant and unfair disadvantage when accessing the benefits to which they are rightly entitled. Disabled people have been disproportionately hit by welfare reform, with the cumulative cuts to benefits and social care affecting them, on average, 19 times more than non-disabled people.
Merton CIL’s experience has shown that PIP assessment centres are amazingly inaccessible. Some of my constituents in Mitcham and Morden in south-west London have been asked to travel as far as Deptford and east London to get to their assessment centre, journeys of about two hours each way, which is unacceptably difficult for many disabled people, many of whom pass their local centre en route to faraway destinations. Even the local centres in Wandsworth and Croydon are difficult to get ?to, because many disabled people in south-west London lack transport links. Unbelievably, some centres have no disabled parking, and others are not accessible for wheelchair users. Most have cramped and unpleasant waiting areas. All that demonstrates a lack of consideration and thought into practicalities. It is imperative that all PIP assessment centres should have an audit of accessibility and should be fit for purpose for use by disabled attendees.
Research has also shown that the practice of overbooking appointments for assessment centres is commonplace and is based on the assumption that some people will not turn up, but the practice causes great distress and inconvenience to those who do. Shockingly, an assessor told Merton CIL that she had 20 assessments on her list per shift but that she expected to do only six in the time available.
Many of my constituents have had to wait hours to be seen, or have had their appointments suddenly cancelled less than an hour beforehand. Many disabled people need to wait a substantial length of time even to get an appointment, and then to be kept waiting for hours on end, or to have a last-minute cancellation, after weeks of preparation and after getting someone to provide transport and to attend the appointment is completely unacceptable.
Finally, and perhaps most worryingly, inaccurate assessments for both PIP and ESA are widespread, making the wrong decisions and causing a lot of pain to individuals who are entitled to those benefits. PIP works on a points system, and Merton CIL has witnessed many assessments in which people are assessed as having zero or very few points, with the result later being overturned in tribunal. For some of my constituents, their assessments were so far removed from their lived experience that they felt sure that their notes had been mixed up with someone else’s.
Some of the disabled residents to whom I have spoken say that they have felt intimidated by aggressive assessors. Meanwhile, Merton CIL advocates who have attended appointments with residents have sometimes been prevented from asking questions or taking notes, in direct contravention of DWP guidelines. It is crucial that providers address that at local level by working with individual centres and staff.
There is a range of other ESA-related problems, such as the practice of arranging unnecessarily frequent repeat assessments, the unfair and sudden stopping of ESA payments and the difficulty of successfully contacting the DWP to correct issues. We all know of the terrible pain and hardship that come with the appeals process, and it cannot be acceptable that two thirds of people applying for PIP and ESA are being forced to undergo a lengthy appeals process in order to access a benefit to which they are entitled.
I hope the Minister will address some of the basic practical issues with the administrative process and with access to assessment centres in order to ensure that every centre is reasonably accessible by public transport and has disabled parking. People should expect to be seen when they receive an appointment.
I am sorry that I will be unable to be here for the Minister’s speech, but I wish those practical issues to be addressed.'