The announcement of billions of pounds of cuts to the government’s new disability benefit is a discriminatory attack on people with mental health problems, will push many of them further into poverty and isolation, and will put lives at risk, say disabled activists.
Protests about the cuts to personal independence payment (PIP) have already been announced, with one due to take place outside parliament on Tuesday (7 March), the day before the spring budget.
Disability News Service is also aware of discussions among at least two groups about possible legal action over the cuts.
Work and pensions secretary Damian Green (pictured) said he had made the decision to amend regulations to tighten eligibility for PIP because of two tribunal decisions that ruled against the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
One ruling found that PIP claimants who need support to take medication and monitor a health condition could be scored in the eligibility assessment in the same way as those needing support to manage treatment therapies such as dialysis.
Green’s plans to reverse this ruling are likely to see almost 1,500 PIP claimants either lose all of their PIP daily living payment or see it cut.
The second ruling found that PIP claimants who need to be accompanied on journeys because of the risk of experiencing overwhelming mental distress could be scored in their assessment in the same way as those who cannot navigate a journey because of a visual or cognitive impairment.
Green’s decision to reverse this second tribunal decision will see an estimated 164,000 claimants either lose all of their eligibility for the PIP mobility component or see it reduced.
The new regulations are likely to be voted on in parliament later this month, after an objection – known as tabling a prayer motion – was raised by the Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Bakewell.
Ministers stressed that the decision to tighten the criteria will not result in any claimants seeing a reduction in the amount of PIP that has already been awarded by DWP, although it will affect future new claims and reassessments and those still to be transferred across to PIP from disability living allowance.
The government’s decision to reverse both of the tribunal rulings will mean £3.7 billion is cut from spending on PIP and related benefits over the next five years, and £910 million a year by 2021-22.
Ministers claimed that the “urgency” of addressing these tribunal rulings meant that they had decided not to consult their own benefits advisors, the social security advisory committee (SSAC), although SSAC will now reportedly discuss the changes next week.
But it is not the first time that DWP ministers have targeted people in mental distress for cuts to their disability benefits since the 2015 election.
In September, DNS reported how the department had secretly made major changes to guidance given to “fitness for work” benefits assessors that made it harder for claimants with experience of severe mental distress to be placed in the employment and support allowance (ESA) support group, and potentially put thousands of lives at risk.
There was anger among disabled campaigners after the latest DWP announcement, at what has been seen as a further cut to spending on disability benefits, despite DWP’s insistence that it was merely a “clarification of the criteria”.
Denise McKenna, co-founder of the Mental Health Resistance Network (MHRN), said the daily living change would discriminate against people trying to manage their mental health conditions at home so they can stay out of hospital.
And she said the change to the mobility criteria was “quite disgraceful” and showed the government “does not understand the disabling and debilitating nature of mental distress”.
She said it would increase the isolation of people with mental health conditions, with many of those in London already having their free travel Freedom Passes withdrawn by local authorities.
She said: “It will push people much further into poverty. It will aggravate the already existing problem of isolation for people with mental health problems.”
She said this could lead to people taking their own lives, because isolation was often a factor in such deaths.
McKenna said: “It may cause some people to disengage from services because they may not be able to go backwards and forwards to where they need to go.
“With the closure of mental health services, people have to travel further to access them.”
Many people with mental health problems who have been placed on community treatment orders have to visit their community mental health team regularly for injections of anti-psychotic drugs, she said.
This group of people is growing because of the closure of acute mental health wards, and unaccompanied public transport will not be an option for many of them, she said.
McKenna added: “It shows total contempt for people with mental health problems.
“It is going to affect people with the most severe mental health problems and it seems this government is in complete denial that there are mental health problems that debilitate people.”
Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) said DWP’s “underhand” decision to impose the cuts had again shown its “contempt” for the judiciary.
A DPAC spokesperson said: “It has become increasingly obvious that disability benefit entitlement is no longer based on need, but on how much the government is prepared to pay.
“Disability tests, whether for ESA or PIP, are fine-tuned to give the results the government expect in terms of expenditure, which determines the number of people entitled to disability benefits.
“The legality of changing the law in such a way needs to be addressed as it is a key pillar of our constitution that parliament makes the law and the courts interpret it.”
DPAC is holding a protest on Tuesday afternoon (7 March), outside parliament.
Another protest is being held shortly after noon tomorrow (Friday) by Norfolk-based Equal Lives and DPAC Norfolk, outside the Wymondham constituency surgery of local MP George Freeman, who chairs the prime minister’s policy board.
Freeman said in a BBC interview at the weekend that the DWP move had been in response to “bizarre decisions by tribunals that now mean benefits are being given to people who are taking pills at home, who suffer from anxiety” and that the government wanted to ensure that money was given to “the really disabled people who need it”.
He later apologised if his comments had “inadvertently caused any offence”.
Mark Harrison, chief executive of Equal Lives, said Freeman’s comments were “crass and ignorant and belong in the last century”.
He said the PIP cuts will “result in more disabled people becoming prisoners in their own homes”.
He added: “I suggest George reads the UN inquiry judgement on the grave and systematic violations of disabled people’s rights by his government and then implements the recommendations.
“I really don’t understand why disabled people are being singled out in this way for more cuts to our independence and living standards.
“What happened to this government’s commitment only made last year that cuts to PIP would not go ahead and there would be no more welfare cuts?”
Professor Peter Beresford, co-chair of Shaping Our Lives, said: “The government’s rationale of returning PIP to its ‘original meaning’ is its latest justification for its abiding determination to cut back support for disabled people.
“It wants to take more than £3 billion out of the support budget and from disabled people’s pockets because it is committed to a residual welfare state.
“No matter that rapidly changing demographics in the UK and beyond mean that there are more disabled people as a proportion of the population and in absolute numbers, this government with its belief in ‘nudge’ non-intervention and the ‘small state’ only sees one road for public spending on support and that is to reduce it.
“We must have a strategic understanding of and response to this backward-looking ideological strategy which is both appallingly damaging to our society and to disabled people who want to contribute to it.”
Disabled researcher Stef Benstead, from the Spartacus Network, said the government’s attitude was “disappointing and worrying” and “suggests an ignorance of illness and disability that is not acceptable”.
She said: “PIP was brought in allegedly to transfer money from physically ill people to mentally ill people.
“To then say that PIP is failing because it is giving more money to mentally ill people – the very thing it was designed to do – is an inconsistency that suggests that the government’s true focus, whatever it pleads to the contrary, is cuts not care.”
Liz Sayce, chief executive of Disability Rights UK, called for the government’s decision to be “urgently reconsidered”.
She said: “It is not what impairment you have that matters, but the impact of that impairment.
“And we are not here talking about a little anxiety – but about ‘overwhelming’ psychological distress, for instance people who literally cannot leave the house because of severe agoraphobia or schizophrenia.
“Disabled people have a right, under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, to participate in the community on an equal basis with others.
“We need policies that consistently, across government, support disabled people to participate socially and economically.
“Restricting the very investments that support people to live independent lives, to manage their own health conditions, to go out and contribute to their communities, is a false economy. And it restricts disabled people’s rights to equal participation.”
A DWP spokeswoman said ministers were amending just one of the assessment criteria for the PIP mobility component and “someone who has a very high level of needs associated with psychological distress can still be awarded the highest rate of payments based on the overall assessment”.
And she insisted that it was “not a change to the policy”.
She said: “Recent legal judgments have interpreted the assessment criteria for PIP in ways that are different to what was originally intended.
“We’re making amendments to clarify the criteria, to restore the original aim of the policy and ensure support goes to those with the highest costs associated with their disability.”
She added: “At the core of PIP’s design is the principle that non-physical conditions should be given the same recognition as physical ones.
“That is why we developed the assessment criteria in collaboration with disabled people and independent specialists in health, social care and disability.
“The changes are working – there is a higher proportion of people with mental health conditions receiving the higher rates of both PIP components than the DLA equivalents.
“More than two-thirds of PIP claimants with mental health conditions get the higher daily living award, worth £82.30 per week, compared to 22 per cent under DLA.
“There is also a higher proportion of PIP claimants with mental health conditions claiming the mobility component – 27 per cent compared to nine per cent on DLA.
“Supporting people with mental health problems is a priority. We are investing more in mental health than ever before – spending more than £11 billion this year.”
But opposition groups have also been highly critical of the DWP announcement.
Labour said its actions “undermine the judicial process” and accused the government of failing to honour the prime minister’s promise to increase suppport for people with mental health problems, while party leader Jeremy Corbyn said it was a “shameful” and “nasty” decision.
Baroness [Celia] Thomas, the disabled peer who speaks for the Liberal Democrats on disability, said: “It is astonishing the complete disregard the Conservative government have shown for those struggling in life.
“The tribunal knows what it is talking about, its rulings should not just be disregarded because they get in the way of the government’s plans for sweeping cuts across the board.
“PIP payments are meant to help give people the freedom they need to get on in life.
“It is shameful that this government feels that it can treat those with life-changing illnesses in this way.”
Jonathan Bartley, co-leader of the Green party, said the move was “ruthless and underhand” and “designed simply to cut disability benefits, regardless of the impact on people’s lives”, while Freeman’s defence of the cuts “was appalling and revealed a lack of understanding and nothing less than discrimination against people who face serious health conditions”.