The coalition’s programme to replace disability living allowance (DLA) with a new benefit has been thrown into confusion after the government’s own telephone helpline advisers began passing out-of-date information to anxious claimants.
The Conservative minister for disabled people, Esther McVey, promised MPs in December that no current claimants of disability living allowance (DLA) with “lifetime” or “indefinite” awards would face reassessments for the new personal independence payment (PIP) before October 2015, unless they reported a change in their condition.
The coalition’s programme to replace working-age DLA with PIP is set to begin in April, with letters already being sent out in pilot areas in the north-east and north-west of England.
But reports were this week passed to members of the WeAreSpartacus online network of campaigners that existing DLA claimants were being told by Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) helpline advisers that the government would begin reassessing all current DLA claimants from October this year.
They were told that there would be no exemptions, even if they had lifetime or indefinite DLA awards, a position that directly contradicts the assurances given by McVey.
When Disability News Service rang the helpline, an advisor said the reviews would take place “sometime between October this year and the spring of 2016 for existing customers”, and that some people with indefinite awards would be assessed for PIP before 2015.
When DNS asked her to confirm that some of those being assessed this year would be existing claimants with indefinite awards, she said: “Yes. Someone could have a one-year award or an indefinite. They will all be reviewed.
“That is the instruction I have got. There is nothing to say that indefinite awards will be reviewed last.”
This matched the information that DLA claimants said they had been receiving from the helpline.
Beth Gregson, from WeAreSpartacus, said it was “simply not good enough” if call centre staff had not been briefed correctly about the changes, with just six weeks until PIP was introduced for the first claimants, and would call into question McVey’s “grip on the process”.
Gregson said she was “not at all convinced the DWP are ready to deliver or manage the process” of moving from DLA to PIP.
The number of working-age people claiming DLA and PIP, and spending on working-age DLA and PIP, will be cut by as much as 28 per cent by 2018 as a result of the reforms, with 900,000 fewer people receiving PIP than if DLA had not been replaced.
Gregson said she was “deeply concerned” about the level of fear and anxiety about the move to PIP being shown by DLA claimants on social media, as were many others who were offering support on online forums.
She said: “The government has accused us of scaremongering in the past. However, given the poor information, mixed messages and the confusing language used in letters from the DWP, is it any wonder people are scared?”
Dame Anne Begg, the disabled Labour MP and chair of the Commons work and pensions committee, said: “If they are sending out how many million letters and then the helpline is then giving out wrong information, then that is really worrying, because people are worried enough as it is.
“The government in delaying the roll-out for existing claimants [until 2015] did at least give some kind of breathing space, but they have undermined their own case if they are giving out the wrong information.”
Linda Burnip, co-founder of Disabled People Against Cuts, said she believed DWP were also giving out incorrect information about the Work Programme.
She said: “Misinformation is being sent out about virtually everything. Most things DWP are involved with just seem to be totally chaotic. Nobody seems to know what they should be doing or who should be doing it.”
A DWP spokesman said: “Adults claiming DLA now, who receive an indefinite or lifetime award, won’t be affected by the introduction of PIP until 2015 or later, unless they report a change in their existing care or mobility needs.”
He added: “We’ll pass on your feedback about your call to our operational teams.”
22 February 2013