The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has admitted it is helping equality experts devise a way to assess the overall impact of spending cuts on disabled people, even though ministers have repeatedly claimed such a project is impossible.
Disability News Service (DNS) revealed last week that the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) was working with the Treasury and other “key” departments to develop a way of assessing the cumulative impact of spending decisions on different equality groups.
The commission believes its project will promote “equality and fair financial decision-making” in next year’s spending review, and try to ensure that the potential for spending decisions to widen or close equality gaps is “given proper consideration”.
The project is, in effect, devising a way of carrying out a cumulative impact assessment (CIA) of spending decisions on disabled people, something MPs and disabled activists – including the Pat’s Petition campaign and, later, the WOW petition campaign – have been demanding from DWP since at least 2011.
DWP has now confirmed to DNS that it is working on the project with EHRC, the Treasury and other government departments, even though a string of work and pensions ministers have previously ridiculed the idea.
Mark Hoban, at the time the Conservative minister for employment, said last July that a CIA would be “so complex and subject to so many variables that it would be meaningless”.
Esther McVey also dismissed the idea, telling DNS that the information gathered would be “incoherent and inconsistent”.
And Mike Penning, her successor as minister for disabled people, told MPs last week that a CIA was not possible because there were “no real results that can be broken down and are reliable enough to show the effect on disabled people”.
But this week, a DWP spokeswoman admitted that it was one of the departments working with EHRC and the Treasury on the CIA project, although its views about such assessments were “unchanged”.
She said: “DWP does know about EHRC’s work in this area – we and other government departments have representatives engaging with EHRC on their project.
“There is no contradiction between, on one hand, government departments being willing to engage with EHRC on their work to determine what they will want to recommend in this area and, on the other hand, our view (shared by the authoritative Institute for Fiscal Studies) that results cannot be reliably disaggregated for disabled people.”
She added: “We look forward to reading the final recommendations from EHRC after they complete their still on-going assessment of their evidence on this issue.”
But Dame Anne Begg, the Labour chair of the Commons work and pensions select committee, who has repeatedly called for DWP to carry out a CIA, said: “It sounds as though they are trying to find a way of doing what DWP said was impossible. It’s something that should have been done all along.”
But she said what would be crucial would be how any research was used by the government in making future spending decisions.
Dame Anne said she believed work and pensions ministers always knew that such research was possible.
She said: “They simply didn’t want to do it, so they were just looking for excuses not to do it.”
She added: “I think part of the reason DWP was resistant to having a CIA was that if they had found out that all their welfare reforms were having a disproportionate and negative effect on the income of disadvantaged groups, they would have had to do something about it.”
Pat Onions, the founder of Pat’s Petition, also welcomed the decision to carry out the CIA research.
She said: “We called for this in our petition launched in 2011 and the need for an impact study has grown ever more urgent as new reforms have come so thick and fast.
“As people and families affected by these cuts we knew right off how the impacts would cut deep. That’s why we campaigned as early as we did.
“Common sense tells you that fully assessing anything first is vital and a necessity for safety.”
But she said that even if a CIA was carried out now, it would be too late for many people.
She said: “Disabled people are now in crisis and urgently need immediate damage limitation.
“Real families are affected already by these changes, and they need action now. Real people with real lives, not statistics.”
11 April 2014