Disabled activists have reacted angrily to the government’s decision to plough ahead with tightening eligibility for its new mobility benefit, despite its plans receiving the backing of only a tiny minority in a public consultation.
Only five individuals out of the 1,142 organisations and individuals who took part in the consultation agreed with the government that the walking distance criteria for the new personal independence payment (PIP) should be set at 20 metres, rather than 50 metres.
This decision to tighten the eligibility criteria for the PIP mobility component from 50 metres to 20 metres sparked a judicial review earlier this year, which forced the Conservative disabled people’s minister Esther McVey – since replaced by fellow Tory Mike Penning – to carry out a consultation on the proposed changes.
This week, Penning published his response to the consultation, and made it clear that the walking distance criteria would remain at 20 metres.
Steven Sumpter, who with two other disabled activists is spearheading the legal case challenging the government’s decision, said on his blog that DWP had “ridden roughshod” over the consultation responses.
“They explain that the overwhelming majority of responses were against them, they acknowledge all the objections, and then they carry on as before.”
He said he and his lawyers would be examining the DWP document “very carefully” before deciding their next move.
Karen Ashton, from Public Law Solicitors, who is representing Sumpter, said: “We are looking very carefully at the decision but we have not yet come to a final conclusion and advised the clients whether that decision is challengeable.”
If it is, they could amend the existing legal action – which is currently on hold – or bring a fresh judicial review.
The government insists in the consultation response that it wants to “target support on those with the greatest need” and create a benefit that is “financially sustainable” and “modern”.
But respondents said that losing their Motability vehicle – which would happen to those on the scheme if they did not secure entitlement to the higher rate of the mobility part of PIP – would “give them a significantly reduced quality of life”, increase their social isolation, prevent them working and have an impact on their family life and their mental and physical health.
Disability Rights UK accused DWP of holding “a sham consultation” designed to head off the judicial review.
It warned that “many disabled people unable to walk more than 50 metres will lose their support, their Motability car and perhaps their job and [we will]see thousands of disabled people become institutionalised in their own homes”.
It added: “Disability Rights UK is appalled by this assault on our independent living and ability to contribute to society.”
It pointed out that replacing working-age DLA with PIP will see the number of people receiving higher rates of mobility support plunge by 428,000 from 1,030,000 (if DLA had not been reformed) to just 602,000 by 2018.
DR UK said evidence showed that many of those who can mobilise for more than 20 metres (but less than 50) face the same “extra costs” as those who can only mobilise up to this distance.
The document also shows that 548,000 of the 892,000 working-age people who were receiving the higher rate of the DLA mobility component in February 2013 will not receive the enhanced mobility rate of PIP.
Jane Young, coordinator of the We Are Spartacus online network of disabled campaigners, said the decision was a “huge disappointment”, while the consultation “appears to have been a cynical exercise to obey the letter but not the spirit of the legal duty to promote equality for disabled people” and so avoid a defeat in court.
She said: “This is just the kind of decision we’ve come to expect from a government that wilfully refuses to acknowledge the real effects of their policies on people who are sick, disabled or poor.”
But she welcomed Penning’s promise to strengthen the guidance for PIP assessors so they can judge what a claimant can do “safely, to an acceptable standard, repeatedly and in a reasonable time period” across all the assessment activities, his one concession to campaigners and to the judicial review.
PIP regulations state that claimants who can move more than 20 metres can still receive the higher rate, if they cannot do so “safely, reliably, repeatedly and in a reasonable time period”, a concession introduced earlier this year by McVey after concerted pressure from campaigners.
Young added: “I hope to use my positive working relationship with DWP officials to try to ensure the guidance is strengthened in the most effective way, so that all claimants who struggle to walk more than 20 metres are awarded the enhanced mobility component.”
Another leading disabled blogger and activist, Sue Marsh, said on her blog that the coalition and the mainstream media had ignored disabled campaigners, even though the government had “slashed” the criteria by 60 per cent.
Members of the Disability Benefits Consortium (DBC) said they were “extremely disappointed” by the government’s failure to listen to “reasoned arguments” and accused it of choosing short-term financial savings “over the independence of disabled people”.
Claire Nurden, co-chair of the DBC, said: “We have been overwhelmed by the response we’ve had from disabled people who are terrified about what this rule will mean for them.
“Many will be at risk of losing their jobs as they’ll be unable to get to work. Others will not be able to get to medical appointments, or will have to leave education – they will, quite literally, be trapped in their own homes.”
Kate Green, Labour’s new shadow minister for disabled people, said Penning had “ignored the overwhelming view of those responding to the consultation”.
She said: “Many disabled people can walk a few metres, but if those who can walk just 20 metres lose their support, they’ll struggle to be able to do anything outside their home.
“The cruel effect of this policy is that thousands of disabled people could lose their Motability vehicle or specially adapted wheelchair which helps them to get out and about.
“It’s typical of this out of touch government to ride roughshod over the views of experts and disabled people, and not even bother to listen to the evidence about the overall impact of its policies.”
24 October 2013