The government has confirmed that it is pushing ahead with plans to test how it might be able to merge two disability benefit assessments into one, despite comments from a minister that appeared to suggest that no such plans were being discussed.
The plans were originally sketched out by work and pensions secretary Amber Rudd at a high-profile speech in April.
Rudd had said the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) would test introducing just one assessment to decide eligibility for both employment and support allowance (ESA) and personal independence payment (PIP).
She said in her speech: “We will therefore explore how a single assessment could improve the experience of those who apply for PIP and ESA/universal credit at the same time.”
Last week, these DWP plans were confirmed by the Tory peer Baroness Buscombe, who had been asked if the government had “opened consultation on merging PIP and ESA assessments”.
Responding on 29 April to the disabled Liberal Democrat peer Baroness [Celia] Thomas, she said DWP was already working on the new test, and that ministers were looking for ways to address concerns about “the feeling of duplication across the current assessment processes”.
She said: “By testing the feasibility of a single assessment for ESA/universal credit (UC) and PIP we can seek to understand if it will improve the assessment process for our customers, and ensure that they still get the right decision.”
But her answer came just five days after the minister for disabled people, Justin Tomlinson (pictured), appeared to tell fellow MPs, during a debate to mark 10 years of the work capability assessment (WCA), that there had been “a bit of confusion” about the government’s plans and that there would not be a single assessment after all.
He said: “The view was that it ultimately would be a panacea whereby people would go for one single assessment for PIP and for the work capability assessment.”
Instead, he said, for the “very few people” who apply for both benefits at the same time, the government’s plans would merely see those people having “both of the assessments on the same day instead of having to come in on the Monday and then again on the Wednesday”.
But DWP has now made it clear to Disability News Service that testing of a single assessment will be going ahead.
A DWP spokesperson said: “The minister [Justin Tomlinson] was referring to the integrated service for PIP and work capability assessments, which will be introduced from 2021.
“The service will reduce the need to submit information multiple times, and some people may be able to have both their assessments on the same day.
“This is not about creating a single assessment. Under the integrated service, customers will still attend separate assessments for ESA/UC and PIP.”
But she added: “Separately, we are undertaking a small-scale test to explore the feasibility of a single assessment for PIP and [ESA/UC] for the small number of people who are applying for both benefits at the same time.”
Many disabled campaigners have warned against merging the assessments for ESA and PIP into one single assessment.
One disabled activist, Lisa Egan, has launched a parliamentary petition – which has nearly 7,000 signatures – calling on ministers to abandon their plans for a joint assessment because PIP and ESA are “different benefits with different purposes” and “have very different eligibility criteria”.
Her petition says: “Merging assessments would cause huge harm, especially for PIP claimants in work or planning to move into work.”
She told Disability News Service: “At the moment, people who are in receipt of both benefits have the slight safety net of still receiving one benefit if they have the other one taken at reassessment and have to wait months for an appeal to get it back.
“If both get taken at the same time, that would be an incredibly difficult situation to survive.
“If our social safety net was functioning safely, this might not be such a dangerous proposal.
“But our social security is not secure, and this plan could cost a lot of lives.
“You would have thought they’d learned from universal credit that merging unrelated benefits doesn’t work.”
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