Disabled peers have called on the government not to push ahead with new regulations that will make it even harder for people to claim out-of-work disability benefits.
Lord [Colin] Low, Baroness [Rosalie] Wilkins, the Countess of Mar and Baroness [Celia] Thomas were deeply critical of the regulations that are set to further tighten the controversial work capability assessment (WCA).
The government’s own benefits advice body – the social security advisory committee – has already recommended that several of the changes should be postponed until the government has evaluated the results of pilot projects in Aberdeen and Burnley that have been using the WCA to reassess claimants of old-style incapacity benefit (IB).
The changes to the WCA – which tests eligibility for the new employment and support allowance (ESA) – were recommended by an internal review carried out under Labour.
But government figures show the changes will increase the proportion of new claimants found fit for work and so ineligible for ESA from 66 per cent of those who complete assessments to about 73 per cent.
Campaigners have argued repeatedly that the WCA is not fit for purpose, and have called for major improvements before the government starts to reassess about 1.5 million IB claimants, a process that is due to begin next month.
Baroness Wilkins, a Labour peer, said the changes introduced through the regulations were “premature” and that disability organisations had expressed “serious concerns” about them.
She said: “The cost of people having to go to tribunals when their assessment needs to be overturned is enormous in terms of stress, worry and consequent ill health, but it is also a waste of time and money for the country.”
Baroness Thomas, a Liberal Democrat peer, said there was “puzzlement” as to why the government was pushing ahead with the changes when the pilot results had yet to be evaluated.
Lord Low, a crossbench peer, said the number of disabled people able to qualify for ESA would “drop dramatically” if the new regulations were introduced, with whole groups of disabled people excluded from claiming ESA.
The Countess of Mar, another crossbencher, said she was “deeply unhappy” with the changes, which she said would prove “hugely costly, both financially and emotionally, to claimants”.
She and other peers questioned why the government could not wait until it received further advice later this year from its independent expert Professor Malcolm Harrington, who is now examining how the WCA deals with people with mental health conditions, learning difficulties and fluctuating conditions.
Lord Freud, the Conservative welfare reform minister, insisted that the regulations would improve the WCA and increase the number of disabled people provided with “unconditional support”, and were part of a process of “continuous review and refinement” of the WCA.
He said the Department for Work and Pensions had carried out “rigorous testing” of the changes and had used that to make “further refinements”.
Meanwhile, the Commons work and pensions committee, chaired by the disabled Labour MP Dame Anne Begg, is seeking evidence for a new inquiry into the reassessment programme.
It will look at how decisions are reached, the timescale of the programme, the WCA itself, the appeals process and what happens to claimants after they have been assessed.
The deadline for written evidence is 14 April.
17 March 2011