Assessors could get access to benefit claimants’ medical records, says Gauke

Welfare assessors could be given access to claimants’ medical records in a bid improve the service, the Work and Pensions Secretary has told MPs.

David Gauke also said that meetings between claimants and assessors may be “recorded and audited” to ensure the advice provided was of “suitable quality”.

Tory MP Helen Whately (Faversham and Mid Kent) had asked about the benefits of recording Personal Independence Payment and Employment and Support Allowance assessments.

Mr Gauke replied: “We are looking at that, I think (Ms Whately) makes an important point in terms of the need for independent audits of assessments to ensure that the advice provided by the decision makers is of suitable quality, fully explained and justified.

“Recording is part of the various options that we have in terms of making those improvements.”

Conservative MP Justin Tomlinson (North Swindon) said: “The vast majority of successful appeals are because of late additional evidence. What further consideration is being given to sharing data between the two different assessments and to automatically access health records were the claimant is willing in advance of an assessment?”

Mr Gauke responded: “He is absolutely right that is the reason why the majority of overturned decisions are reached.

“We continue to look at … the assessment process of PIP and ESA.”

Labour presses ministers for Universal Credit poverty estimate

Welfare ministers have refused to estimate how many children will be lifted out of poverty as a result of Universal Credit.

Labour MPs claimed during work and pensions questions that the benefit would increase the number in poverty.

Universal Credit (UC) dominated the session in the Commons, with warnings that new claimants will also struggle over Christmas.

Shadow work and pensions secretary Debbie Abrahams cited a recent Child Poverty Action Group report which said cuts to Universal Credit would put a million children in poverty by the end of the decade.

She said: “One of the original objectives of Universal Credit was to reduce child poverty. In 2010 the Government said UC would reduce child poverty by 350,000. This was revised to 150,000 in 2013.

“But last year ministers failed to produce a figure in answer to my right honourable friend the member for West Ham.

“So what are the Government’s current estimates on how many children will be lifted out of poverty as a result of UC?”

Work and Pensions Secretary David Gauke responded: “Universal Credit gives people a better opportunity to work, it gives single parents greater support and gives parents greater support.

“On child care, and I come back to the example I just gave a moment or so ago, someone who was previously on income support not able to get help with child care, now able to get help with child care and is getting on the employment ladder thanks to Universal Credit.

“That’s what Universal Credit is delivering.”

Ms Abrahams said the Government’s refusal to give an estimate was “disappointing”, adding: “We have already had the Child Poverty Action Group-published data last week which is predicting a million more children will be pushed into poverty as a result of UC cuts.

“When will the Government admit that UC is not fit for purpose or the challenges of a new labour market and stop the rollout of UC.”

Mr Gauke dismissed the criticism and claimed Labour wanted to take the country back to an old system that “did not work”.

Labour backbencher Ruth George (High Peak) said: “Today is exactly six weeks until Christmas Day.

“If anyone applies for Universal Credit today, they will have to make do on just two weeks of Universal Credit until after Christmas.

“What assessment has the minister made of the impact on those families and their ability to let their children enjoy Christmas?”

Minister Damian Hinds said the Government was improving its timeliness on UC and advances were available.

He added: “And the other thing I would say, in the run-up to Christmas when there are many temporary work opportunities available, actually Universal Credit works much better for people, in being able to access those opportunities, particularly on the verge of the festive season.”

Labour former welfare minister Frank Field MP said the rollout of UC in his Birkenhead constituency would mean food banks would need “10 tonnes more food”.

Labour MPs Tracy Brabin (Batley and Spen), Ian Mearns (Gateshead) and Helen Hayes (Dulwich and West Norwood) also raised the issue of rent arrears for tenants in areas where UC has been rolled out.

“I think we have to be really careful not to scaremonger on this,” minister Caroline Dinenage said in reply.

“The National Federation of Arms-length Management Organisations report says that three-quarters of their tenants who started claiming Universal Credit were already in arrears.

“And research shows that after four months, the number of claimants in arrears has fallen by a third.”

Labour former welfare minister Stephen Timms said there were “serious concerns” about glitches with Universal Credit because the IT does not work properly, with claims being made and “vanishing into the ether without trace”.

Mr Hinds said the figures from the Child Poverty Action Group had only identified one case, but reports were taken seriously and ministers would pay attention to any glitches.

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