I spoke in the debate on the cumulative impact of the Government's changes to the social security system. It has caused real misery and hardship for many of my constituents. It's time the Government woke up to this reality and commissioned a cumulative impact assessment.
I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) and for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) on securing this important debate.
On a daily basis, my office sees at first hand the horrendous and appalling impact that the Government’s changes to the social security system have had on some of the most vulnerable people in my Aberavon constituency. Many of my constituents who come to my advice surgeries are at their wits’ end, worried that their benefits are going to be stopped and that they will not be able to pay their rent or put food on the table for their children. We have seen hundreds of vulnerable constituents put through the humiliation of shambolic health assessments that cast doubts on their physical disabilities or mental health issues. Following that humiliation is the awful uncertainty and fear of the appeals process, which we almost always win.
Some people have been awarded no points following PIP or ESA assessments, when it is quite clear that they are struggling with a disability, or when information has been inaccurately recorded. This has eroded confidence in not only the assessment process but the whole system. Universal credit has landed people in rent arrears for the very first time. Some people’s experiences are simply harrowing.
In one case, a woman who had suffered with a degenerative disc condition for 27 years, along with depression and anxiety, waited for more than a year for her ESA assessment, only to have it cancelled on the day. A month later, she was assessed, but the anxiety and stress of the wait, followed by the degrading assessment itself, led to a mini-stroke two days after the assessment. She now has high blood pressure, which puts her at risk of a further stroke. Despite all that, she was put into the work-related category. That decision was overturned following a mandatory reconsideration. She is not alone in having had to go through this process. In Wales in 2017, 75% of PIP decisions and 74% of ESA decisions were overturned on appeal. This high rate is symptomatic of the fundamental flaws in the initial assessment process. If the correct decisions were made from the outset, a lot of the misery, worry and suffering would be avoided.
When we raise these problems with the Government, we get the same response time after time: they do not recognise these big problems and will carry on regardless. They are like an ostrich with its head buried in the sand. But that is indicative of the Government’s track record: they carry on until they are shamed into doing something about it. What can be more shaming than when a United Nations poverty envoy says that changes to social security have meant that
“great misery has also been inflicted unnecessarily, especially on the working poor, on single mothers struggling against mighty odds, on people with disabilities who are already marginalized, and on millions of children who are being locked into a cycle of poverty”?
That was published in his report.
It is appalling and inexcusable that this is happening in a G7 country. Our social security system is there as a safety net for the most vulnerable people. Right now, that safety net is failing. MPs, the EHRC and the United Nations have all called on the Government to conduct a cumulative impact assessment. If the Government are so confident that they are doing the right thing, they have nothing to fear over commissioning this assessment. Ultimately, the Government must stop burying their head in the sand over this and wake up to the reality that their punitive and callous policies are causing misery and hardship to hundreds of my constituents and hundreds of thousands of people across the country.