HC Deb 29 November 1999 vol 340 cc10-2
5. Mr. David Borrow (South Ribble)

If he will make a statement on the progress being made by his Department in improving the accuracy of testing for eligibility for disability living allowance. [99065]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Hugh Bayley)

We are making progress on work to ensure the correctness and reliability of awards of disability living allowance. We are doing so in consultation with organisations of and for disabled people.

Mr. Borrow

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. I recognise that there will always be cases in which the decision on eligibility is debatable. However, a number of constituents have sought my help in the past 12 months because of perverse decisions or recommendations by doctors carrying out medicals for DLA eligibility. My concern is that the Department should monitor doctors' performance in carrying out such medical checks. Will my hon. Friend ensure that the number of cases in which perverse decisions are made is reduced, because the unwarranted removal of DLA eligibility creates a great deal of distress and hardship for constituents everywhere?

Mr. Bayley

My hon. Friend makes an important contribution. Let me reassure him and the House that the Government's approach to DLA and other benefits is to change the delivery system so that the decisions are right in the first place, and continue to be right thereafter.

We have made significant changes to the way in which the medical services operate since they were contracted out to Sema just over a year ago. We monitor the performance of medical board incentives and doctors, doctor by doctor. When performance strays from the norm, follow-up management action is taken with the doctor concerned.

We are also introducing more rigorous training for medical services doctors and more rigorous tests before such doctors are employed. I hope that my hon. Friend is reassured that we recognise the problem that he describes and are taking action to deal with it.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

But is there not a conflict of interest here? Doctors obviously want to remain on the panel, but if they find in favour of applicants too often they might find themselves off the panel.

I share the experience of the hon. Member for South Ribble (Mr. Borrow). In a recent appeal, a young gentleman suffering from multiple sclerosis was refused DLA because he said that he probably could walk 102 yd, or whatever the silly distance was. The whole system and the forms are weighted against people who suffer from an illness that is partly physical and partly not. Will the Minister urgently consider the need to review the initial forms?

Mr. Bayley

I reassure the House that doctors employed by the Benefits Agency have never been remunerated according to the decisions that they make. Such a system has never existed, and will not exist in the future. Doctors must make the best clinical judgment. There is no pressure on them to err in the claimant's favour, or against the claimant's favour. When we review doctors' performance, through the review that I mentioned in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Mr. Borrow), management action is triggered as a result of variation from the norm in either direction; discussions about a doctor's clinical practice then take place.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

Does not the Minister appreciate the real distress caused to many people with disabilities when they are reassessed despite the manifest difficulties that they have? What proportion of appeals is allowed? Will he give me an absolute assurance that the initial assessment process is not used to reduce the number of benefit recipients to those who are sufficiently articulate or well advised to appeal successfully?

Mr. Bayley

The assessment process was agreed with disabled peoples' organisations, and with those organisations that represent and speak for disabled people. They wanted a self-assessment system. The form used is a long one, but it allows people applying for benefit to put their own views. That is the primary basis on which the award is made.

When this Government took office in 1997, 59 per cent. of appeals were successful. Although the proportion has now fallen to 48 per cent., it is still too high and the Government must go further. We are, however, moving in the right direction, and we are doing so in consultation with bodies that represent disabled people.

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the disability benefits system works better when disabled claimants understand it more clearly? Will he join me in paying tribute to the work of local disability information and advice line organisations, which provide advice to disabled people?

The Government have introduced much excellent legislation on behalf of disabled people, and have changed the benefits system for the better. Will my hon. Friend consider working with local organisations to set up or support information seminars? Such seminars, which would have to be held in more than one locality in a region, would help disabled people to understand the system. Would that not save time spent on fruitless appeals and on the other problems described earlier?

Mr. Bayley

I agree that local disability information and advice workers have an extremely important job. In fact, on Friday evening in Birmingham, I spoke at the conference of the Alliance of Disability Advice and Information Providers. My hon. Friend will know that I recently made a couple of presentations in the House to inform hon. Members of what the medical service of the Benefits Agency is doing to improve the quality and consistency of decisions. I shall certainly consider taking those presentations out on a roadshow with voluntary bodies up and down the country.