The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has caused confusion after refusing to say if a newly-announced trial will test the idea of merging assessments for its two main disability benefits.
Justin Tomlinson (pictured), the minister for disabled people, announced this week that DWP would be trialling the use of a new single “digital platform” to help deliver assessments for both personal independent payment (PIP) and employment and support allowance (ESA), and the equivalent of ESA under universal credit.
Such a move was first suggested 12 months ago by the then work and pensions secretary Amber Rudd.
The new system would aim to ensure that people in receipt of more than one disability-related benefit do not have to provide the same information multiple times.
But ministers have also spoken previously of testing whether they could merge the processes for PIP and ESA (the work capability assessment) into a single assessment.
Both the assessments have been blighted by years of criticism and repeated links to the deaths of claimants.
Only last week, Disability News Service (DNS) reported how a disabled man took his own life after describing how a paramedic ignored the “sheer amount of pain” he was in during a face-to-face PIP assessment, leading DWP to remove his benefits and plunge him into poverty.
And in January, DNS revealed how Errol Graham starved to death after DWP wrongly stopped his ESA, leaving him without any income, when he failed to attend a work capability assessment.
Ministers have stressed that a single, merged assessment would only be used for claimants who were applying for both benefits at the same time, and they have promised that claimants could continue to choose to have separate WCA and PIP assessments.
Work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey confirmed that she was pushing ahead with Rudd’s plans for a single assessment for some claimants last October, when she gave evidence for the first time in front of the Commons work and pensions committee.
But even though there was no mention in this week’s announcement of a single assessment covering PIP and ESA, it was widely reported that the trial would include a merged assessment.
Despite the confusion, and repeated attempts from DNS to clarify whether the trial would include testing a single, merged assessment, DWP’s press office refused to answer questions about Tomlinson’s announcement.
Instead, a press officer just pointed to the minister’s statement and the department’s press release.
She refused to say if there would be any testing of a single assessment.
And she also refused to say if any single assessment would still be entirely voluntary, as previously promised by ministers.
Disabled people’s organisations have raised grave concerns about both a potential single assessment (“risking people losing everything in one fell swoop… a nightmare scenario”) and the integrated, digital platform (“You can’t merge two badly constructed processes and expect to come up with one fit-for-purpose approach.”).
The trial announced this week will not begin until August 2021, in an as yet unnamed part of the country, before a national rollout.
It will be conducted by DWP itself, rather than being outsourced to one of its discredited and much-criticised contractors: Atos, Capita and Maximus.
Tomlinson said the trial would begin at the same time as new contracts to deliver the PIP and work capability assessments in other parts of the country.
DWP yesterday added to the confusion over Tomlinson’s announcement by refusing to provide links to legal documents he had promised would be published on Tuesday.
Tomlinson had said that these “Prior Information Notices” (PINs) would “advise the market” that DWP was tendering contracts to deliver PIP and WCA assessments from 1 August 2021.
But the DWP spokesperson had been unable to provide links to these PINs by noon today (Thursday).
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