On Monday I spoke in a debate discussing the performance of the Department of Work and Pensions.
The current Government inherited a mess of a welfare system – too many people were claiming different forms of benefits in an incredibly complicated system. This led to lower value for money and too much error and fraud.
I believe that the system should be there to support those in need who cannot take care of themselves, not those that don’t want to take care of themselves. We have of course seen a huge fall in unemployment since the 2010 election – from 4.9% to 2.8%, something which our reforms to the welfare system and the economic recovery have helped deliver.
A significantly simpler benefits system, easy for everyone to understand, was the only way out of the mess. It is pivotal to install greater faith in the system.
The Work Capability Assessment has been getting better over time. We’ve seen long delays in the PIP system which are slowly falling, and are seeing people getting higher awards because the assessments have improved.
I hope that when we let the new WCA contract that we learn from the problems of too little money, too much volume and too slow a pace. We need to get these contracts right because we need people to have faith that the assessments produce the right answer.
My contribution to the debate is below:
Opposition Day — [3rd Allotted Day]: DWP: Performance – 30th June 2014
Nigel Mills MP: We are talking about chaos and waste in the welfare system, but I can think of no bigger risk than for a new country to try to produce a new welfare system at top speed. Who knows what damage will be done in that situation? I therefore cannot agree with the closing remarks of Dr Whiteford.
If we want to know what chaos in a welfare system looks like, we can look back four long years to 2010, when far too many people claimed too many different benefits for far too long, at too great a cost to the taxpayer. The incoming Government had to tackle that situation. I normally agree with the Work and Pensions Committee Chair, who is wise and learned on such issues, but I do not think she was right to imply that the solution to the risks and unknown problems of welfare reform—she was right about those—is to do nothing. We have been bolting on new and enhanced bits to the system for decades. She says, “Let’s leave it like that. If we bolt on a few more bits and make a few tweaks, we can sort it all out,” but at some point a Government had to bite the bullet and say, “We need a new system. We have to make it simpler and clearer for people to understand what they are claiming. We need to make it easier for people to know when they need to notify the Government of changes.” Fundamentally, the Government needed to make it easier to administer the system. We could not continue with people claiming six different benefits at the same time, not knowing what they were doing. That was not fair on them or on the system. That is what led to the huge amount of fraud and error that this Government and the previous one have been trying to tackle in different ways without getting the number down by very much. The only way out of the mess is a simpler benefits system that everyone can understand.
We must all accept that progress on universal credit has not happened at the speed that the Government planned and that we would all have liked, but what was the alternative? Was the alternative for the Government to press on and say, “It would be bad news to slow down. Let’s press on at full speed and hope we get it right”? That would have been a complete disaster and a terrible political decision to take. It would have risked people not getting the benefits to which they are entitled. In the early days, they might have got more than they were entitled to, before finding that they had to pay it back a few months later. That situation would have been unacceptable. We saw that with tax credits and were right to learn from the mistakes. The Government are right to say, “Look, we have problems with the system. Let’s slow it down and trial it properly. Let’s get it right before we put millions of people through it and risk making their lives even harder.” That was the right decision.
I note that the motion does not mention the positive things that the Department has done. It does not mention that unemployment is down—by 31% in my constituency in the last year. It does not mention the pension changes, which are huge steps in the right direction. Nor does it mention the child maintenance reforms. I shall not suggest that they will work perfectly first time—that would be a brave claim after the history of the last 20 years—but the system now looks fairer and tries to encourage the right behaviour, not the wrong behaviour.
The welfare reforms are very important and we need to get them right. We need people to have faith in the welfare system. What we hear on the doorstep is that people do not believe that the system is fair. They do not believe that the people who get benefits actually deserve them, but we all know that most people who get benefits are entitled to them, they claim the right amount and they try to work the system properly. The only way to change the public perception so that people see that the system is fair is to get it right, drive out the errors and complexity, and show that it is fair.
As part of that, assessments need to work. It is clear that the Atos contract was failing miserably. It was too tight a price and the company was forced to try to go for volume rather than quality. We need to go in the right direction on that. I also accept that the PIP assessments started out too slowly. The contractors were trying to get them right, but they were taking far longer than it was thought they would. What did we want the contractors to do—rush the assessments or have unqualified people perform them? That would not have been a sensible approach.
Heather Wheeler MP (South Derbyshire, Conservative): Does my hon. Friend agree that the important thing about the PIP assessments is that they are done correctly? Interestingly, some people are getting a higher award because the assessments are being done properly now.
Nigel Mills MP: My hon. Friend is right. We both represent Derbyshire, a region that was in the initial phase of PIP, so we have seen how the system went wrong at the start. I would be the first to blame the contractor for some of the mistakes that were made, the speed at which the assessments were done, and how hard it was to get any information. That is now improving slowly, and I commend the Minister for making real changes that are helping.
I sincerely hope that when we let the new work capability assessment contract, we learn from the problems of too little money, too much volume and too slow a pace. We need to get these contracts right because we need people to have faith that the assessments produce the right answer; otherwise, we will be in a right mess and have no one who can deliver these assessments in a way that is trusted. We need the next contractor to be supported to get this right. It needs to perform and we need to help it perform. We need to watch the next contract award carefully to make sure that it is got right. We all want a welfare system that is fair and seen to be fair, but if we cannot achieve that it will be a disaster for our society.