HC Deb 04 March 1998 vol 307 cc994-1015

11 am

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

Many hon. Members have approached me to say that they want to participate in the debate so, despite the fact that I have briefings from organisations and individuals with which I could detain the House all day, I shall try to condense my remarks. This is a matter that interests all of us as constituency Members of Parliament and which we would wish to debate constructively.

The benefit integrity project was established after a survey of 1,135 people claiming disability living allowance, the report of which was published in January 1997. Forty interviewers carried out about 30 home visits each of adult or child recipients of disability living allowance. That project was undertaken when people were giving voice to fears about social security fraud. I, too, detected an undercurrent of feeling on the subject. However, snapshot assessments were made of individuals and little expertise was involved in the adjudication.

There was no follow-up of the 1.5 per cent. of cases that were designated confirmed fraud in the 1997 report. No prosecutions were made and no benefits were stopped. That suggested that people who were receiving disability living allowance were doing so because of their needs and that they were not doing so fraudulently, as the then Government feared.

Indeed, on 13 January 1998, when Baroness Hollis of Heigham, the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, first reported on the BIP findings, she said in another place: I am happy to confirm that the benefit integrity project has revealed no cases of confirmed fraud."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 13 January 1998; Vol. 584, c. 936.] That finding was based on the receipt of about 30,000 replies from disabled people.

I therefore believe that at this stage we should be considering not the fraud issue, but the needs issue—the needs of the people involved.

More than 40,000 people have since been interviewed. According to a parliamentary reply that I have received, the chief executive of the Benefits Agency estimates that, in the financial year 1997–98, savings of £15.8 million may be made. Subsequently, 311 appeals have been received; as yet there are no figures on success rates.

As part of the benefit integrity project, another 400,000 people are to be interviewed in the next four years. My deepest concern is that fear and distrust have emerged in the community as a result of the project. Individual cases have been highlighted on television and in newspapers. I shall not rehearse all those cases, but every case that is highlighted sends a tremor of fear through other individuals who may be in similar circumstances and there is genuine anxiety that the project is Treasury led, not needs led.

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford)


Mrs. Ewing

Although I hear Conservative Members saying yes, I remind them that the Conservative Government established the benefit integrity project.

All this is set against the background of an overall review of the social security system, but people who are in receipt of disability living allowance feel that they have now been singled out for a specific review.

I remind the House that many other important benefits—such as housing benefit and income support—hinge on disability living allowance. If at any time DLA is discontinued, those other benefits are discontinued and although, after a review or an appeal, the disability living allowance may be backdated, those other items of support to families are not backdated, so a great deal of distress results.

There can be a sudden drop in household income—and we must all budget according to our household income. This is a very difficult situation for many disabled people to be in. The review and appeal procedures are long and complex. Every hon. Member must have been involved in many such cases. We hope that our intervention will speed things up for the person involved, but I often wonder about the people who do not approach their Member of Parliament.

Other people are worried that, for them, reassessment may mean a return to residential care. We have all worked hard to try to ensure that care in the community works. Many people who, after being institutionalised for years, have emerged and rely on care in the community, are being reassessed. They fear that they may have to return to permanent residential care.

My excellent local citizens advice bureau in Moray experienced a threefold increase in inquiries about disability between 1996–97 and 1997–98. I am sure that that increase is mirrored elsewhere. It is a sign of the anxiety that exists. I worry about what is happening in places where there are no welfare rights workers, citizens advice bureaux, or people to whom people can turn.

The basic aim of disability living allowance was to give dignity and decency to people who suffer from disability, which comes in many different forms. I want, in a constructive speech, to make some proposals to the Government. First, I want to comment on the important issue of the assessment mechanisms.

In reply to a parliamentary question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for North Tayside (Mr. Swinney), the Secretary of State for Social Security said of decisions resulting in reduction or removal of entitlement to DLA: there will always be additional evidence to support the decision"—[Official Report, 9 February 1998; Vol. 305, c. 76.] Interestingly, I found in my mail today a letter, dated 2 March, from the Secretary of State, in which some of these issues are raised. Immodestly, I should like to think that the prospect of the debate may have stimulated the writing of that letter, but I hope that this important letter has been circulated, not only to all hon. Members, but to representatives of voluntary organisations who are deeply involved in this crisis.

Having had only about 15 minutes to look through the letter, I ask the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, the hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham), who is to reply to the debate, to ensure that we have a detailed expansion of that letter. I also ask him to confirm that there will definitely be guarantees for those who want to ensure that medical evidence is submitted when decisions are taken that may result in reduction or removal of entitlement, because many of the issues pertaining to DLA are cocooned by the issue of medical entitlement. Assessment seems to take little account of day-to-day changes in the condition of many disabled people. In response to a letter from my hon. Friend the Member for North Tayside, Peter Mathison of the Benefits Agency stated: The additional information may be factual medical evidence from a GP, hospital or other health care professional, a full medical examination by a qualified medical practitioner or information from a carer. The most appropriate source of additional evidence will be used in light of the individual circumstances of the case. That does not guarantee a full medical assessment, which is what I seek.

Claimants do not always receive clear advice on issues pertaining to the project, such as the information that they may have advisers present. They may be advised that someone may be present but a claimant could take along a next door neighbour, a family member or a friend and not necessarily someone with the knowledge to advise them on how to respond to questions and state exactly what is being sought. It is not made clear that people can have access to previous claim forms against which they can compare their present circumstances to see whether there has been any change. In most cases, there is a deterioration. People also have a right to delay an interview until a more suitable time.

Information should be clearer for people who are being reassessed, whether it is provided in forms or by agency representatives who visit them. There are many public service advertisements on television; perhaps the Government could examine the clarity of the advertising on this subject. The training for visiting officers could be improved. We should aim for best standards and best training. Some people receive only half a day's training while others are trained for up to four days. In a letter to me, the chief executive of the Benefits Agency stated that there was no requirement for visiting officers to have medical knowledge.

Adjudication officers must look beyond the bald statements that sometimes appear on forms and they should always err on the side of the claimant rather than on the side of reducing benefits. It has been suggested that a disability benefits task force could bring together the expertise of voluntary groups. Over the past two days, I have met representatives from no fewer than nine such groups. Their expertise, with that of welfare advisers, could be brought to the heart of the Department of Social Security and to the heart of government. The people in those voluntary groups deal with people's day-to-day problems.

Perhaps the Minister can advise me on exemptions. Many organisations have told me that there is evidence that people who should be exempt from review have been reviewed. I have a list of the exemptions. What criteria can be established to ensure that people on the exempt list are not subjected to further review? Is there a possibility of extending the exempt list? I have received from the Cystic Fibrosis Research Trust a request for its clients to be considered for exemption. I need not go into detail, but all hon. Members will appreciate that people with cystic fibrosis fluctuate between well-being and illness. That is also the pattern of many other illnesses, and I hope that that can be considered. I should like to know how the criteria for exemptions are established and how they can be expanded.

I intend to be brief because other hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for North Tayside wish to take part in the debate. I have highlighted only a few of the problems that are associated with the benefit integrity project. My final recommendation is, I think, endorsed by the vast majority of the organisations that work with disabled people. It is that the project should be suspended, at least for a time, to allay the fears of those who are most vulnerable and to give us all an opportunity to try to ensure that the disability living allowance is targeted at those who need it most so that no one has to endure the fear that is endured by many of my constituents.

I understand that the representatives of the Disability Benefits Consortium met the Prime Minister on 16 February to discuss that issue and that it was stated that it would be considered. Perhaps in responding to the debate the Minister will say whether the Department is considering the suspension of the project and whether we can expect an early announcement on that.

11.15 am
Mr. Terry Rooney (Bradford, North)

The debate is long overdue. I am sure that every hon. Member has been inundated with letters and telephone calls. It is important to understand how we reached the present situation. When disability living allowance was introduced in 1992, it was generally regarded as good news for disabled people because it included lower immobility and care components. I pay tribute to the former right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea, Sir Nicholas Scott, for his work in that arena. The new arrangements ensured that, in the first year, there were some 700,000 new claimants. Each year since there have been about 300,000 new claimants. That is a tribute to the scope of the benefit, but it constitutes a tremendous work load.

Hon. Members who were here in 1992 to 1994 remember the chaos over disability living allowance. There were massive delays, backlogs and complaints about claims not being processed. Hotlines were set up so that hon. Members could get through to the Benefits Agency, although the public could not. At one stage, about 800 temporary staff were drafted in from social security offices to try to deal with the problems. Care in the community was introduced in 1992; that led to a huge number of people being taken out of institutional care and placed in the community. Because they were no longer in institutional care, they were entitled to disability living allowance.

Because of all those factors, the Benefits Agency was grinding to a halt and somewhere along the line there was a ministerial nod and a wink to the effect that unless claims were patently invalid they should be approved simply to get rid of the backlog. That is part of the reason for the current problems. It cannot be overstated that the problems with disability living allowance relate to management and departmental error and not to disability fraud. The problem has been around for a long time and it has not been addressed either by the former Government or, so far, I am sorry to say, by the present Government.

By the end of last year, there were some 4 million claimants for disability living allowance and attendance allowance compared with 1.7 million under the old 1991 scheme. In one sense, the system has worked because the benefit has gone to many more people. I hope that it has done some good.

Of course, the previous Government panicked. In 1995, they said that the number claiming invalidity benefit had rocketed and that something had to be done about it. They introduced incapacity benefit as a way of cutting benefits for the sick, but they knew that they could not do the same with disability living allowance because there would be an outcry. They had to look for a way to curb the growing number of claimants without causing an outcry. Using some dubious evidence from the National Audit Office, combined with some reasonable evidence from the Department, they decided that there were significant errors in the system and set up the benefit integrity project to deal with them.

No training was provided for the people who were sent to visit claimants, but claimants were assured that the visiting officers were not the decision makers. That is correct, because decisions are taken by an adjudication officer—but he makes his decision based on the information on the claim form, which is the information extracted from the claimant by the visiting officer. The claimant has no idea how what they have said will be construed. Generally, the claim form is filled in by the visiting officer—the claimant simply signs it—so in fact the visiting officer has a significant input into the final decision. The failure to provide any training for visiting officers was criminal.

DLA is a self-assessment benefit, and some would say rightly so. If one third of the working population have self-assessment for their tax contributions, perhaps it is right for claimants to have some element of self-assessment for what they claim, but the capacity for error is enormous. Very few of us are sufficiently medically skilled to describe how an affliction of disability affects our daily lives. We would be hard put to do that. Many of my hon. Friends have afflictions, but I shall not talk about them today.

There is enormous room for error because people are not necessarily able to determine how their condition has changed over the years—whether for better or for worse. There are clear cases of people who should receive benefit for life, but the very nature of disability means that some people will get worse or better. It is virtually impossible for an individual to judge when he has crossed the line between entitlement and disentitlement.

Where should we go from here? A number of actions are required. I welcome the two announcements made by the Government during the past month. They go a long way, but we need to go much further. The claim and renewal forms need to be redesigned to make them much simpler and clearer so that claimants can more easily determine their entitlements. There is an argument for shorter award periods. One matter of concern is the number of lifetime awards that have been found to be wrong in some respect. A review period of, perhaps, two years might help to prevent many of the problems that have recently been prevalent.

There needs to be significant investment in staff training—and not only for visiting officers. I know that some people dispute the figures, but if they are correct some 50,000 cases have been wrongly assessed. That raises serious questions about not only the management of the unit, but the people making the original decisions. The evidence is that the training programme has not been good enough.

It is important to have people in local offices so that they can give advice and liaise with local disability groups. They can talk to claimants and try to get around the problems. That would be far better than the present remote operation at Blackpool, which deals with people only by mail or telephone. The personal touch can sort out many problems.

We need an absolute commitment that the project is not and never has been a cuts-led exercise. The purpose of the exercise should be to ensure that people get their entitlement. I have not heard anyone dispute the qualifying criteria for disability living allowance and I hope that we never change them, but there is a major problem with matching the entitlement to the criteria. The exercise should be about getting that right.

We should recognise that much of the problem lies within the DLA unit, not with claimants. Fraud is not an issue in the payment of DLA. There will always be the odd case of fraud, but fraud is not causing the problems with over or underpayment; the problem is departmental errors—and responsibility lies first with the DLA management unit, but also with us, as parliamentarians, for not getting it right in the first place.

11.25 am
Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) on bringing this important and timely debate to the Floor of the House. There is obvious concern, across the parties, about constituency cases.

As a member of the all-party disablement group, during the past few months I have been twice to see the Secretary of State on this issue. I reiterate the request to the Secretary of State, made today by Lord Ashley, the chairman of the group, for a moratorium on the benefit integrity project. Although the Secretary of State has announced some changes during the past few weeks, there is still a great deal of confusion—not only among those who have had their claims assessed, but among those who are literally waiting for the knock at the door. Many people with lifetime benefit are anxious about the future. Although they have the words, "lifetime benefit" written on their benefit books, we have not yet been able to get an assurance from the Secretary of State that the benefit will be for life.

A moratorium is needed to give the Government time fully to revisit the way the project works. When disability groups visited the Department last September, at the Secretary of State's invitation, to discuss the benefit integrity project, they thought that they would have an input into how the policy would be implemented. Instead, they found that the project was already under way. Although they had a great deal of expertise and advice to offer the Government, they were too late to make that vital input into the way the policy would be implemented.

I want to raise a few of the issues that worry people who are subject to scrutiny. It is a fact that people are entitled to see the original documentation that they filled in when they first made their claim. I advise all my constituents to ask for the necessary paperwork either to be sent to them or to be brought to their homes if they are to receive a home visit. To date, among those who have written to me expressing concern about the way their cases have been handled, I have yet to find one person who has been offered that documentation.

There should be an obligation on the Benefits Agency to ensure that people are aware of their rights so that they have the opportunity, in advance of an interview, to look at what they wrote when they filled in the original application form many years ago. They are not voluntarily being given that opportunity, and that is wrong.

The Secretary of State has now said that the decision on whether a benefit is to be taken away or reduced will not be made arbitrarily on the basis of information provided by the claimant but that there will need to be some further input. It has been suggested that general practitioners should have an input. I would not disagree with that, but it presents some problems.

People with very long-standing disability—such as those with chronic arthritis who, sadly, usually do not enjoy a significant increase in their mobility for the rest of their lives—may be seen by their general practitioner only occasionally. Very often, an occupational therapist is the person who can best identify the state of their mobility and what, practically, they can or cannot do. I hope that we shall not create an arbitrary system in which a GP who may occasionally see someone in a surgery for five minutes is asked to submit evidence when the most appropriate person to submit evidence is an occupational therapist who has a much closer working relationship with the claimant.

I have asked the Secretary of State—and have now received a written reply from Peter Mathison, the chief executive of the Benefits Agency—about people who, since the project began, have lost the mobility component of their disability living allowance, which was often used to fund their agreement with Motability. To my certain knowledge—in my constituency—three people have had to return their car because they cannot afford to make the payment. According to Mr. Mathison, there will be no retrospective examination of the cases of those who have already been through what has been an absolutely harrowing experience.

Re-examining those cases would be a matter not only of restoring benefits, because some of the people involved have now had to take legal advice—adding to their anxieties—to try to restore their benefit. They will also have the problem of determining how to find a deposit for a car if their benefit is reinstated. I urge the Minister to deal, in his reply, with those very real practical problems.

If the Secretary of State has recognised that there are problems with how the integrity project is being conducted, she must surely accept the need to examine the cases of those who have lost benefit since the scheme began and to determine how they should be compensated, particularly when they have suffered the loss of a vehicle. Even if some of those people receive tomorrow the good news that the benefit is to be restored, it would be a very long time before they could save up a deposit to get another car. Such practical problems lead hon. Members on both sides of the House to ask the Minister yet again, please let us have a moratorium while these issues are sorted out.

The hon. Member for Moray mentioned training, which is critical. If the Secretary of State is now admitting that GPs and others with professional medical advice should have an input into dealing with these cases, surely it cannot be right that someone with absolutely no medical training—indeed, with only a few hours training on how to tick the boxes on a form—can go into someone's home and remove a benefit that is critical to their everyday well-being.

I welcome this debate and hope that it will give Ministers another opportunity to reconsider very genuine and reasonable requests from hon. Members on both sides of the House. The all-party disablement group heard at our most recent meeting with the Secretary of State that finalisation of the benefits review and of the benefit integrity project is unlikely for some months, which simply means that the agony will be prolonged for those who are waiting to discover whether they can retain their benefit.

We have asked for a moratorium not because we do not want to eliminate fraud—of course we do—but because the Government have gone helter-skelter down one path with one objective. There must be a balancing of fairness and justice for those who have already suffered great pain and mental anguish about how the project has been conducted and for those who are waiting for their turn.

11.33 am
Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South)

There are several reasons why I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to speak in this debate: because my constituency has a higher than average number of disabled and elderly people; because of the concentration of benefit offices in and around my constituency, including the disability living allowance offices at Warbreck house, which have already been mentioned in the debate; and because of the number of complaints that I—like many hon. Members—have received in my surgery about the operation of the benefit integrity project.

I feel as though I have a two-way mirror on the project's operation. Like many hon. Members, I see its impact on recipients, who may have lost benefit or had it reduced, but I also see it also through the eyes of many of my constituents who are employees at the disability living allowance offices. It is important that tribute is paid to their hard work and dedication—often in very difficult circumstances, as hon. Members have said. I would not wish this debate or subsequent debates to turn into a Department of Social Security staff-bashing exercise, but significant aspects of the project's operation give me great concern.

The principles behind the review are unimpeachable. Who could be for fraud or against the incorrect awarding of benefits? I should, however, remind the House—as others have already—that Baroness Hollis said that the benefit integrity project has so far uncovered negligible evidence of fraud in DLA claims, yet benefits have been cut or reduced in between 15 and 18 per cent. of the cases that have been examined, eventually resulting, we are told, in cuts or reductions in 34,000 of the 400,000 cases that will be examined. The figures are startling and it is perfectly reasonable that we should more carefully examine the project's operation.

I do not want to repeat what hon. Members have already said, but the project has training deficiencies, particularly for adjudication officers, who often have to make critical decisions based on second-hand information. Moreover, the forms are complex, amount to 30 pages and often pose a significant barrier for the people who fill them out, whether the visitor or the claimant—who may well be elderly and possibly confused. The forms complicate the task of obtaining correct information.

We must also examine the project's mechanisms. I can cite a specific example because my mother—who receives disability benefit because of osteoporosis—was visited by a project member. Although I was not there, I have been told that the visit went smoothly and was conducted courteously. However, as appeals have shown, something goes wrong in a significant minority of cases.

The chief executive of the Benefits Agency has been anxious to reassure hon. Members about problems with the project. On 4 January 1998, in a letter to my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney), he soothingly wrote: The onus for providing this evidence"— on DLA— lies with the customer. There has been a move away from the reliance on a medical assessment and more emphasis is placed upon a person's day to day care and mobility needs. The customer is considered best placed to know the practical effects of the disability."—[Official Report, 5 February 1998; Vol. 305, c. 798.] One might think that that is all very soothing and sensible but the reality is often different.

Many disabled people's—especially older disabled people's—pride sometimes leads them to understate, or at least to give an optimistic assessment of, their condition on a particular day, leading to an understatement of their condition on the forms. The Minister and his team should urgently examine that matter.

All hon. Members can cite specific examples from their constituencies; I should like to give only one. Since 1978, a lady in my constituency has received the higher rate mobility and care components of DLA because of serious problems, including osteoarthritis and a prolapsed disc for which she is receiving treatment at Victoria hospital, Blackpool and which entails a need for virtually full-time care.

After a home visit by the Benefits Agency in November 1997, a decision was made to award a low rate mobility component and a nil care component. That decision was made despite the fact that the lady's condition had worsened since 1994, as demonstrated by installation of a chairlift and a bedlift and by provision, by Lancashire county council social services, of weekly help.

There is an appeals process, but it is often extremely lengthy. Another constituent, who was deprived of disability living allowance, had to wait in the region of 11 months after two postponements of appeal. The appeal itself is something of a lottery and depends on a claimant's access to welfare rights advice. Furthermore, the training and composition of the tribunals is something on which the Government might have cause to reflect.

I welcome the safeguards that the Secretary of State announced to improve the accuracy of any decision on entitlement, although I note that in answer to a written question from the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) on 2 March, it was emphasised that it was not to be retrospective.

It is incumbent on us to remind ourselves why the DLA was needed. It was needed because of pressures on community care and cuts to the budget, to which the Royal National Institute for the Blind and other groups have referred, and because of the gross underclaiming of benefit in the 1980s. It is important that we do not believe that there is an enormous problem because of gross exaggeration. There may be exaggerations, but, as I said, there is limited evidence of fraud.

Ministers need to be extremely cautious about the progress of this project. Hon. Members should bear in mind the Child Support Agency fiasco. It was set up with the best intentions, but, far from catching the malingerers, it has often snared the innocent and, for that matter, the conscientious in its zeal to meet targets. Our welfare review may not be cuts driven, so it is rather rich of Opposition Members to remind us of the problems involved in this project when they were instrumental in putting it in place, but we should nevertheless have examined a little more carefully the bill of sale that we inherited from the previous Government. Perhaps we should have looked a little more closely at the country of origin before proceeding with the project quite so enthusiastically.

I urge the Government to review the project with the optimum care. I leave it to them to decide whether a moratorium is appropriate, but I warn Ministers that we are engaged in a very complex and delicate assessment of welfare reform. Our cuts may not be Treasury driven, unlike those of the Opposition, but it is extremely important that the wells of welfare reform are not polluted by a project that has been capricious in its operation and questionable in a significant minority of cases.

11.42 am
Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester)

Like other hon. Members, I welcome the opportunity to debate such an important issue. All of us who hold regular surgeries recognise that there is great concern among disabled people. As my party's spokesman on disability, I have spoken to many people involved with this matter and I know that there is also great concern among the charities working in this sector.

I agree with the hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) that we have the beginnings of the type of fiasco that we experienced with the Child Support Agency. As the number of appeals increase, and as the delays in managing those appeals grow, I am beginning to realise that unless the Government do more than simply tweak the issue, we shall have another CSA-type crisis on our hands. Having said that, the debate so far has been constructive, and I will make some suggestions about how the crisis can be solved.

I begin by welcoming the announcements that the Secretary of State has made over the past couple of months to the effect that she has recognised the need for a review. The letter that hon. Members received this week is certainly welcome. The Secretary of State tells us that the benefit integrity project is not some sort of fraud drive", and that clarification is certainly welcome. We are also told that fraud is not rife in disability living allowance claims—something which many of us knew, although it is nice to have it in writing. The letter also states that the Government want to listen to the experiences of claimants. Many in this sector have been concerned that the Government were not listening, so we welcome unreservedly the Secretary of State's announcements in that respect. However, they do not go far enough.

At the moment, the Government are just tweaking at the edges of the project, but I believe that it needs to be halted. If the project continues as it is, it will end in a mire of inefficiency and injustice. The tragedy is that the BIP is undermining much of the good work that the Government are beginning to do elsewhere in the disability sector. It is creating a sense of mistrust.

I will draw the House's attention to four key areas of concern with the project. The first relates to the title itself. The name "benefit integrity project" implies a lack of integrity among claimants. This is not just window-dressing; there is a genuine concern that the thrust of the title is disrespectful to the people being reviewed. Clearly, disabled people want forms to ensure that there is value for money and that fraud is squeezed, but they are outraged by some of the labelling in the right-wing press which suggests that they are cheats. The very title of the project itself fuels that suspicion.

Secondly, the project is not being handled with the sensitivity that I am sure the Government wish. The level of errors within the project is alarming. I have had evidence of amputees being asked whether their condition has improved, as if the missing limb had grown back but they were keeping quiet about it. As of mid-February, the Department's own figures show that more than 400 severely disabled people, including 30 who are terminally ill, have been asked to take part in the project although they are clearly members of the groups that should never have been approached to do so.

The third concern relates to mobility. As the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) rightly pointed out, people who lose their car if the benefit is cut have major problems replacing it if their appeals are successful. However, it is not only the finding of a deposit that causes difficulties. There are two other factors that the Minister needs to bear in mind. People who are successful on appeal and get a car back have to spend considerable sums on it because they get a new car that needs to be adapted for their disability. In addition, they cannot claim back the costs of being housebound or of having to find other forms of transport while they were without a car.

Fourthly, the complexity of the forms also causes concern. I know that there have been moves to deal with this matter, but the forms are still too complicated. Indeed, the chief executive of RADAR—the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation—told me yesterday that it took him a whole weekend to fill out his own DLA form even though he understands the system and is used to filling out forms.

How can the Government restore confidence? I believe that the Secretary of State wishes to do that, and it is interesting that in her letter to hon. Members this week, she said three times, I think, that she was looking for suggestions about the way forward. We welcome that. I have some suggestions to get the project back on track.

As other hon. Members have suggested, we need to abandon the project as it stands. We then need to put in place a system of consulting disablement groups and disabled people on what they would like in peace of the review. If the Government consulted those organisations, they would find widespread acceptance of the need for some form of review, but disability groups wish to have a say about how it is carried out. As I said, a good starting point to rebuild confidence would be a more neutral title. Disabled people have won the right to more respect than the term "benefit integrity project" implies.

One of the problems with the project is that it seeks to do two things at once—to tackle fraud and to review benefits. However, it has failed to do either. Any new system should formally separate measures to combat fraud and error and measures to introduce a review of benefits. It must be possible in a new system to deal with fraud and value-for-money issues via a separate fraud unit or an efficiency drive that does not involve every interview with disabled people being fraud driven. Once we have removed the fraud and value-for-money aspect from the review process, we can set up a separate new system for reviewing benefits with a new and positive aim behind it. It should be an on-going system, not a one-off project that few claimants find easy to accept or understand. It should review benefits constantly and have a new thrust behind it.

Currently, we have a wasted opportunity. Interviews are taking place up and down the country at great cost to the taxpayer, yet they could achieve so much more. It is an opportunity to sit down with disabled people and talk about a range of issues. That is happening now, while other agencies are doing the same. It is crazy for a disabled person to be assessed three or four times for different purposes by different agencies. Streamlining that under a new review system would be a great benefit.

Any new system should ensure that reviews are conducted to ensure that people receive their full entitlement. They should not be focused, as they are currently, on the recipients of higher-level benefits. By focusing on those receiving higher benefits, one invites the assumption that benefits are likely to be adjusted downwards.

The boundary between review and advice should be shifted in the direction of advice. Reviews should be tailored much more closely to individual needs. We know that some conditions—amputations, polio and loss of vision—are not likely to improve, so the people affected do not need such frequent reviews.

Another way in which to restore confidence in the system would be to give claimants a clear date on which their benefit will be reviewed when they are first awarded a benefit entitlement. That would overcome the problem of someone who believes they have a benefit for life finding out later that it is subject to review.

The groups to whom I have spoken in the disability sector have made clear to me and, I believe, to the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State, the grief and anxiety being caused by the current process. I have heard of charities setting up helplines where staff have been talking to many callers who are often in tears. Staff go home at the end of the day shattered by the experience. It need not be like that.

Confidence in the Government's approach to welfare reform is, sadly, at an all-time low and confidence among disabled people in the benefits system is being shattered by this process. I believe that the Government can start to correct the problem today by announcing that they will halt the benefit integrity project. There is still time to do that. The project has years left to run and it is not too late to close a chapter on what was, after all, a failed Tory project in the first place. I urge the Government to recreate something positive by consulting disabled people. They should announce today an end to the benefit integrity project.

11.52 am
Mr. Phil Hope (Corby)

I welcome this timely debate introduced by the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing).

Disability living allowance is an important benefit which is needed and valued by millions of disabled people. It provides direct help to individuals to meet their care and mobility needs. We have heard that it is a complicated benefit to assess because it is based on self-assessment, not of medical evidence of disability, but of people's needs for care and mobility. We know that the system is not working well now.

As a member of the Public Accounts Committee, I received a report from the National Audit Office which pointed out that there were incorrect assessments of DLA to the tune of an estimated £499 million. The report also said—this is a little-known figure—that there could be potential underpayments of DLA of £227 million because claimants were understating their needs. We are seeing error on both sides of the argument. That being so, the Benefits Agency is not getting it right first time, on time, every time as it is intended to do. Clearly, there is a problem about the operation of DLA that needs to be addressed.

The benefit integrity project was designed to try to deal with some of those errors. It is a project which we inherited from the previous Administration and, from the outset, as other hon. Members have pointed out, there was no effort to provide the quality training and support necessary for the staff carrying out the assessments.

My consultations with local groups, such as Corby Council for the Disabled and the East-Northamptonshire Council for All Disabilities, have shown that things are not working well either in the original award of the allowance or in the way in which the benefit integrity project is working. It is unhelpful that people who are undergoing an individual process of review and are distressed by that are also picking up a negative feeling about the Government' s review of the welfare state. It is not helpful to taxpayers or claimants who need a welfare state to work effectively and efficiently in everybody's interests.

Although today's debate has been broadly constructive, we have heard from Opposition Members about people living in fear of a knock on the door in the night. That is at best unhelpful and at worst, is scaremongering by Opposition Members when the Government are making genuine efforts to put right the mess created by the same hon. Members.

There have been calls for the benefit integrity project to be suspended or abandoned, or for the setting up of a moratorium. I strongly advise my hon. Friend the Minister not to go down that route. What would we say to the 1,300 people who have had their benefits increased as a result of the project? We would have to say, "Sorry, you cannot have that increase." What would we say to the thousands of people represented by the estimated £227 million of underpayment? We would have to say, "Sorry, but there is no chance of having your benefit upgraded despite the fact that the DLA you have been awarded is wrong."

To abandon the project now, which was the request of the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten), would be to abandon those people who have not received the payments to which they were entitled, and I strongly advise against it.

We have heard a number of constructive proposals about how the project could be improved to ensure that people receive the benefits to which they are entitled and that we have a system that works in the interests of disabled people. I should like to hear some reassurance from the Minister that the conditions of entitlement to disability living allowance have not changed and that the benefit integrity project is not a cuts-led exercise, but is designed to get the right benefit to the right people. I want to know that, in future, disabled people will be treated properly and fairly, that the project will be put on a sound footing and that it will be carried out sensitively, with full and proper concern for each individual affected by it.

I welcome the new safeguards that have been introduced. I hope that we can see some real benefits—excuse the pun—coming through so that there is less error in the project and so that more people get the benefits to which they are entitled.

I should like to hear from the Minister some reassurance that consultation with disability groups is taking place at national as well as local level. Working in partnership with disabled people and with the groups and organisations that represent them is a good way in which to work.

Mr. Burns

I was interested to hear the hon. Gentleman's point about consultation. Does he believe that many of the problems we have seen over the past six months would have been avoided if, in September last year, when the disabled groups were summoned to the Department of Social Security, it had been for a consultation—that is what they thought it would be—rather than simply to be told by the Government what was happening, and what would continue to happen?

Mr. Hope

No. The problems that we have seen over the past six months would have been dealt with if the original project had not been established by a Conservative Administration, without proper training or resources, and without any partnership or involvement with disabled people.

The reassurances from the Minister will be important for hon. Members, for disabled people and for the organisations that represent them. They will show that the Government are putting the project back on track after inheriting such a mess. Disabled people and their organisations want to know that the Government will be true to their pledge of wanting to see justice and equality for disabled people in this country.

11.58 am
Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead)

Like other speakers, I welcome this timely debate and congratulate the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) on having introduced a debate on such an important subject. Its importance is shown by the number of hon. Members who want to speak in recognition of the many complaints about the operation of the benefit integrity project that have been communicated to us via our postbags and constituency surgeries.

I should correct the hon. Member for Corby (Mr. Hope), who made a disappointing and unfortunate speech. Although the initial sampling exercise in the review of disability living allowance was carried out under the previous Government, and the decision was taken to go ahead with the benefit integrity project as a result of that evidence, the project has been carried out by the current Government and the operation of the project is their responsibility. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman dismissed the valid point made by my hon. Friend the Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns)—that if the Government had consulted with disability organisations prior to carrying out the project, the results might have been very different.

Disability organisations are as keen as all of us to ensure first, that there is no fraud in the system and secondly, that people are paid the correct amount of benefit. As the hon. Member for Corby pointed out, some people are receiving less benefit than they are entitled to receive. We all accept that people should receive the correct level of benefit, and the disability organisations would be keen to work with the Government to ensure that the methodology used in the benefit integrity project will work properly. Those organisations know best what will work and how the system should operate.

It is important to point out to the hon. Members for Bradford, North (Mr. Rooney) and for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden), who commented on whether the current welfare reform was a cuts exercise, that one of the problems with the way in which the benefit integrity project is operating is that people with disabilities are made anxious on two scores. First, as my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) said, they are anxious about the possible knock on the door in connection with the project. Secondly, that feeling occurs against a background of general concern about what is to happen to disability benefits. That is a double whammy which makes people with disabilities feel great concern about their future benefits.

I mentioned the sampling exercise carried out under the previous Government which led to the estimate that incorrect overpayments were being made of slightly less than £500 million. I understand that current evidence indicates that that figure is an overstatement and I should be grateful if the Minister could confirm whether that is true. I should also be grateful if the Minister could respond to several issues that have been raised by hon. Members today and by the all-party disablement group in its two meetings with the Secretary of State for Social Security. I was part of the group's delegation on both occasions.

Our first concern relates to those who have their benefit reduced or removed and who then appeal, and the question of what happens to them while their appeal is in process. Several hon. Members have commented on the fact that the appeal process is lengthy and on the difficulties that people suffer while going through that process. The all-party disablement group requested that the rules should be changed so that claimants can retain their previous benefits until their appeal is heard, thereby preventing the hardship that occasionally results under the current rules. We also raised the question of the operation of the mobility component and the implications for those who have cars under the Motability scheme. I should be grateful if the Minister could respond on those points.

The Secretary of State indicated a willingness to have exemptions listed on the covering letter, with a box that could be ticked by anyone who fell into one of the exempted categories so that the papers could be returned immediately. I should be grateful if the Minister could confirm that that idea is to be put into practice. The all-party disablement group also raised with the Secretary of State the possibility of what was described as a "health warning" being attached to the covering letter, so that those who are completing the form are fully aware of the implications of doing so. The hon. Member for Blackpool, South referred to the pride that many people with disabilities feel and their desire to overstate their abilities on the form, but they must understand the implications and recognise that doing so may lead to their benefit being cut. The provision of a health warning would enable them to see the matter in an entirely different light.

A number of hon. Members have mentioned fraud, and I hope that we can get an unequivocal statement on that from the Minister today. There is real concern that several statements have given the public the impression, first, that the benefit integrity project is entirely about fraud and, secondly, that vast numbers of people are falsely claiming to be disabled, purely to get disability benefit. I hope that the Minister will give a categorical and unequivocal statement today that that is not the case, and that all the evidence that the Government have shows that the level of fraud is actually extremely low.

In the letter from the Secretary of State dated 2 March, which most of us received shortly before the debate started, she states: Of the 40,000 or so cases examined up to the end of last year, around 9,000 people have had their entitlement adjusted. As I understand it, that covers both upward and downward adjustment. She continues: Some cases have been referred to the Benefit Fraud Investigation Service and around 40 are currently being investigated. That is an extremely small figure. The evidence totally fails to support the impression that has been given in several statements that many people are fraudulently claiming disability living allowance, and it is imperative that a clear statement is made in the House today. We are concerned about the mechanism whereby the benefit integrity project operates, which is leading to cases of real hardship among people with disabilities who have had their benefit reduced or removed. Our concern is not vast fraud within the system, and I hope that the Minister will respond positively to that point today.

When the all-party disablement group met the Secretary of State, we specifically asked her to consider suspending the benefit integrity project. The hon. Member for Corby should realise that it is not a question of preventing those who have so far been underclaiming and underpaid from getting the benefit to which they are entitled. The point is that the way in which the system is operating is causing real anxiety and real hardship, and it is necessary that the project should be suspended for a period so that its operation can be properly assessed. In today's debate, some excellent suggestions have been made about the way in which the project could be reformed to ensure that it operates fairly and justly. Part of that process should consist of consultation with disability organisations; they understand the problems and their input can ensure that the system works at grass-roots level.

Although the Secretary of State indicated to the all-party group that she would not suspend the project, it has been reported that the Prime Minister told the Disability Benefits Consortium that he would consider suspending it. I should be grateful if the Minister could tell us which of those positions the Government will take. I trust that they will suspend the project for a period so that an independent review can be carried out and the right systems put in place. In that way, we can be sure that people with disabilities will receive the benefits that they genuinely need.

12.8 pm

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) on securing this important debate, which has drawn together views, ideas, criticisms and comments from hon. Members on both sides. I hope that the Government will feel that the debate has been useful and helpful, as we try to sort out some of the problems that have emerged with the unit.

Comments from Labour Members, from my hon. Friends the Members for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) and for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), and from hon. Members from other parties have shown that there is considerable concern in many parts of the country about the effects of the project at the sharp end. The Government have not handled it in the best way possible. There is great confusion, fear and consternation among people with disabilities and the pressure groups representing them as a result of increasing uncertainty about the Government's intentions on disability benefits and the actions of the unit. If anything positive is to come from the debate, we should have assurances from the Government that those who rely on those vital benefits will not have them cut because of Treasury-imposed spending targets.

The operation of the benefit integrity project over the past nine months is a prime example of the Government's haphazard and unsatisfactory approach to the issue. Under the previous Government, expenditure on disability and sickness benefits increased dramatically over 10 years from £7 billion a year to £20 billion. In 1992, the categories of people who could claim disability benefits were extended. The measure was accompanied by a successful publicity campaign, which increased people's awareness of the benefits to which they were entitled. Equally importantly, that was part of a process of trying to take away the stigma from claiming benefits—a problem which is particularly prevalent among the elderly and disabled people, who often do not claim the benefits to which they are entitled, out of pride or a feeling that they are begging for help. That is a misguided view. Politicians and others should do everything that they can do to remove that perceived stigma.

The hon. Member for Corby (Mr. Hope) seems to be unaware of the history of the unit. My hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead dealt with the point, but I should like to put the facts on record, because, as success has many fathers and failure is an orphan, they are being forgotten. The benefit integrity project was proposed by the previous Government, who set up a pilot survey, because it was crucial to ensure that the benefits system for disabled people was monitored and that the right benefits went to the right people. The results of that pilot survey came forward in January last year. The general election intervened before the unit, in its current modus operandi, was put into place. That modus operandi was established by the current Government, not the previous one. That should not be forgotten by a Government notorious for spinning whatever line they want to avoid responsibility for their failures.

Under the Labour Government, the benefit integrity project has been turned into a purely cost-cutting vehicle for reducing expenditure on disability living allowance. That becomes clearer after even a limited examination of the project, which is targeted only at those on the highest or middle rate of the care component of DLA and the higher rate of the mobility component. It is clear that, after examination by the project, those on the highest rates of the two components can only have their benefits reduced. There is no way in which they could be increased. Limiting the scope of the BIP to those categories illustrates that it is part of the Government's policy of trying to reduce the benefits bill.

The Government's approach to disability benefits is in keeping with their overall approach to other aspects of welfare reform. It has become increasingly clear in the past few months that the Department of Social Security is working to the agenda of the Treasury and the Chancellor, which is designed to save a war chest for the Government to spend in the run-up to the next general election. The Government pay lip service to the rhetoric of an intellectually based welfare review which will seek to address the long-term problems of an escalating welfare budget. However, all that we have seen over the past nine months is a salami-slicing exercise for benefits picked by the Treasury, which has been implemented by the Department of Social Security on the orders of the Treasury.

Mr. Hope

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Burns

No. I do not have much time.

The benefit integrity project is not the only means that the Government have used to target people with disabilities for savings on the benefit bill. In November, various proposals were leaked to the press, including the taxing, means-testing and time-limiting of certain disability benefits. There was also a proposal that the DLA cash benefit might be exchanged for care services administered by local authorities. We all understand the seriousness of the implications of such policies for disability benefits, particularly the DLA and disability working allowance. The principle behind those benefits is to level the playing field for those with benefits and those without by meeting the additional expenditure caused by the extra needs of people with disabilities. Denying someone those benefits would put them at a disadvantage and would eliminate the level playing field that we should all be seeking to create.

The leaking of such proposals and the floating of such rumours has done nothing but harm. There is still a great deal of uncertainty surrounding the issue, which the Government are doing little to allay. Only last week in the Social Security Select Committee, the Secretary of State and the Minister for Welfare Reform were unable to confirm or deny stories about the means-testing of DLA. I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity of this debate to confirm whether the Government plan to means-test DLA.

The operation of the unit under the current Government has been geared towards saving money. That has been carried out in several ways. We are grateful for the Secretary of State's announcement on 9 February of changes to the existing system. We also appreciate the letter dated 2 March, which we got yesterday afternoon, which also recognises that there have been serious problems with the administration of the system. In an appendix, it lists extra ways in which the Government hope to safeguard the operation and the work of the existing unit. No doubt the Minister will elaborate further on the contents of the letter and the Government's proposals.

As many hon. Members have said, the problem is too confused and difficult for the Government to be able to carry on with a piecemeal approach, tacking proposals on at the edges of a system that they recognise is failing. We should suspend the activities of the unit until all the piecemeal proposals and changes have been announced, and a fundamental review of the system and the aims and aspirations of the unit can be thrashed out properly. We can then start again with a system that does not spread fear, confusion and anxiety, but is targeted at the realistic and right aim of ensuring that the process is being monitored and that those who are entitled to benefits get the right amounts of the right benefits. Even if the Minister is not able to give an answer during the debate, I urge him to give serious consideration to that proposal and make an announcement as soon as possible. He should not dismiss the idea out of hand.

12.19 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. John Denham)

I welcome this opportunity to speak to the House about the benefit integrity project. I congratulate the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) on obtaining this debate on a matter of wide public interest. I also congratulate her on setting a constructive and helpful tone, which has generally been followed for the past hour and a half.

I acknowledge that the benefit integrity project has been the subject of debate, controversy and concern, much of which has been reflected in speeches made from both sides of the House. I have had a great many requests to respond in my summing up to many specific issues. I shall not be able to do so in the time available, but I give an assurance that all issues raised about the delivery of the project will rightly be given careful consideration. In the time available, I will clarify the reasons for the benefit integrity project and, equally importantly, lay to rest many of the fears about its purpose and intent. I shall look at the experience of the project to date, and set out how the Government have responded and will respond to that experience.

First, and most importantly, I want, through this debate, to reassure disabled people. The benefit integrity project is simply about ensuring that disabled people receive the right amount of disability living allowance—the amount to which they are entitled. It is not an anti-fraud drive; it is not a cuts exercise by another name; it is not part of the Government's wider agenda of welfare reform, or a precursor of it. It is concerned with disabled people and their entitlement to benefit under rules that Parliament has laid down. No rules on the entitlement to DLA have been changed. The responsibility for decision making rests with the people who have always exercised that responsibility.

Mr. John Swinney (North Tayside)

Will the Minister say why DLA has been singled out to be checked and clarified while other benefits have not? It leads to suspicion that the Government have some ulterior motive.

Mr. Denham

As I shall make clear, DLA has not been singled out in the process of action being taken on incorrectness and other problems in the Department of Social Security.

Guidance given to decision makers on the need to take into account all appropriate evidence remains unchanged. I want to reassure disabled people. We want to ensure that benefit payments are right. We want to act sensitively and we want people to have confidence in the actions taken as part of the project.

Why was the benefit integrity project initiated? I do not think that any Member would question the need to take action across all benefits to ensure that benefit payments are made to those—and only those—who have a legal entitlement to them. As the hon. Member for Moray said, we must, of course, recognise that even establishing that somebody is not entitled to benefit has an impact on their life, so the situation needs proper and sensitive treatment.

The previous Administration initiated a series of benefit reviews to establish the extent of error and fraud across all major benefits. In each benefit, the findings of the reviews have or will lead to appropriate changes in the way in which benefits are administered and entitlement is established. Disabled people and DLA recipients have not been singled out.

Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Denham

I will not give way because I have very limited time in which to answer at least some of the points raised.

The DLA benefit review was undertaken in 1996 and published in February 1997. It reported that 73 per cent. of people were receiving it at the correct rate at the time that they were visited, meaning that 27 per cent. of people were receiving DLA at an incorrect rate. Incorrectness may have arisen for a variety of reasons, and involved under-provision as well as overpayment. In line with other benefit reviews, the DLA review reported a headline estimate of fraud of 12.2 per cent. The sample was extrapolated to produce the estimate of fraud of about £499 million that has been used.

I should make it quite clear that it would be totally wrong to suggest that the majority of people receiving DLA are doing so fraudulently. There is absolutely no evidence to support that. I should go further. Although the benefit integrity project has broadly confirmed the level of incorrectness identified by the DLA benefit review, it has not sustained the suggested level of fraud. But—this is the critical point—even if the benefit review estimate of fraud can be debated, it none the less indicates a worrying level of incorrectness.

The benefit integrity project has broadly sustained the estimated level of incorrectness and has justified the decision to proceed with the project when we took office in May. I should make it clear that the BIP was already fully designed under the previous Administration—contrary to the history described by the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns)—and we had to take some very early action to improve its design.

Hon. Members need to understand that the points that they raised about decision making relate not to the BIP, but to the fundamental nature of DLA as a benefit. It is a complex benefit. It is paid to provide help with the extra costs associated with a disabling condition. Entitlement is based on the effect of a disability, not purely on the fact that a person claiming benefit is disabled in some way. The same condition can, of course, affect individuals in very different ways. As part of the claiming process, we ask people to describe the effect of their disability on their daily life, and through an understanding of the need that they have for help with personal care and getting around, decisions are made about entitlement. The BIP uses the same process.

It is fundamental to the nature of DLA that we rely to a considerable degree—sometimes entirely—on the information that we ask people to provide about their daily lives. It is not easy for many people to describe accurately the precise levels of need which arise from their disability. That is not to say that people are setting out to mislead or exaggerate, although it is important that we recognise constraints in the assessment of DLA entitlement generally before we begin to look more closely at the operation of the benefit integrity project.

Mrs. Ewing


Mr. Denham

I hope that I can make some progress because I have some important points to cover.

I have already mentioned the difficulties that disabled people may have in recognising when to let us know that their circumstances have changed. The focus of the benefit integrity project was dictated by the findings of the benefit review, and is focused on groups of recipients who are thought to be the least likely to contact the Department about change. The House will, of course, recognise that there is a strong incentive for people to let us know when their needs increase, but less so as needs decrease, and even less if it is unclear when they should take such action.

The project results so far have underlined the need for the exercise. Up to the end of January, 55,000 cases had been examined and more than 12,000 people had had their benefit changed. Almost 1,300 people have seen an increase in their award, while some 4,000 people have moved off benefit altogether. Of the 44,000-plus cases with an on-going award of benefit that have so far been examined, 16 per cent. have resulted in change to the benefit paid. Some 48 per cent. of awards in renewal claims are being changed. In total, the level of incorrectness found, at 21 per cent., is broadly in line with the level of incorrectness found in the review. I should stress again that the project is seeking to establish current entitlement against current rules. None of the rules has changed.

In seeking to reassure the House that there is a sound basis for the benefit integrity project—the integrity, of course, refers to the integrity of our system, not to the integrity of recipients—I do not want to give the impression that we are in any way complacent about the way in which the project is being carried out or the concerns of disabled people who receive DLA. It is essential that the project is carried out properly, sensitively and with full and proper concern for each individual disabled person who might be affected by it. Although I cannot comment on individual cases raised in the debate, I accept that we do not always get it right, despite our best intentions and—I genuinely believe—the best efforts of our staff to carry out their responsibilities properly and effectively.

From the outset, the Government have sought to address issues of concern, learn from the experience of the project and tackle problems that emerge. We are determined that disabled people should be dealt with properly and fairly, and that they should have sufficient information about what is required of them and the purpose of the exercise to allow them to provide the required level of information about the effect of their disability on their need for help with personal care and getting around. Most of all, we want the decisions that are made as a result of the project about benefit entitlement to be the right decisions.

When we inherited the project designed by the previous Administration, we discovered at the outset that no effort had been made to ensure that visiting officers had appropriate disability awareness training. The present Administration introduced that.

We have had several meetings at ministerial and official level to discuss the development of the project, and have recognised that some of the individuals contacted may not have understood the level of detail required about their daily lives. That is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security announced on 9 February that a new safeguard was being introduced. Details have been sent to hon. Members.

So far, we have kept the working of the project under constant review, and we shall continue to do so. We shall also continue to meet organisations of and for disabled people. It is important to understand that the project is about ensuring that disabled people receive the right amount of DLA—that to which they are entitled. I believe that the results so far endorse the need for the exercise, and that it would be difficult for us to stop taking action to secure the proper payment of benefits.