The government’s own benefits advisers have called on the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to assess the overall impact of its far-reaching programme of welfare reforms on disabled people, a task ministers have repeatedly claimed is impossible.
A study published this week by the social security advisory committee (SSAC) says that such an assessment can and should be done, even though it accepts it would be difficult.
MPs and disabled activists – including the Pat’s Petition campaign and, later, the WOW petition campaign – have been demanding since at least 2011 that ministers carry out a cumulative impact assessment (CIA) to find out how disabled people have been hit by the totality of the government’s welfare reforms and cuts.
The SSAC study says the impact of the coalition’s welfare reforms on disabled people is “particularly important”, because households receiving disability-related benefits are likely to be claiming a combination of benefits, so those reforms could “successively reduce household income”.
And, it adds, those claimants receiving disability-related benefits are less able to enter work, or move to lower-cost housing, as a response to cuts in social security.
The committee’s report, The Cumulative Impact of Welfare Reform, lays out three ways in which DWP should be able to carry out such research.
It suggests further analysis of figures already produced by the Treasury to assess the impact of changes in the chancellor’s budget on households with different income levels, so as to assess the cumulative impact of welfare reform on “vulnerable” groups such as disabled people, with the findings published within six months.
It also suggests producing a range of case study examples, as well as further social research, such as surveys, interviews and focus groups.
The study says DWP should consider “mitigating” any impact its research reveals the reforms have had on “vulnerable” groups, such as disabled people.
Paul Gray, who chairs the committee, said its members believed that “maximum efforts should be made on an ongoing basis to evaluate the overall impact of this reform programme”.
He said: “We believe that more can and should be done to identify and evaluate the interaction between elements in the welfare reform agenda, particularly as they affect vulnerable groups.”
The report accepts that such research would be difficult, but Gray, a retired civil servant who was previously DWP’s second permanent secretary, says: “The inability to produce the perfect study should not prevent the highest priority being given to producing the best possible combined analysis as these reforms are progressively implemented.”
Pat Onions, founder of Pat’s Petition, welcomed the new study.
She said: “Disabled people and carers have been worried that all the changes taken together were affecting the same group of people repeatedly.
“Reforming the welfare system at the same time as NHS reform in England, reduction of local authority budgets for social care and many other services, including blue badges and the Independent Living Fund and the end of legal aid [for some cases], always sounded like a recipe for disaster.
“No one would make wholesale change on this scale without assessing the impact. We have always questioned why they are prepared to run this experiment on disabled people.
“We ask the government to stop this massive programme of piecemeal change until they can review the impact of all these changes, taken together, on disabled people and their carers.”
Ian Jones, a co-founder of the WOW campaign, said more than 104,000 people signed the WOW petition, which called for a CIA of the government’s welfare reforms and a “new deal for sick and disabled people”, while a motion supporting the e-petition was passed in the Commons in February.
He said: “The WOW campaign believes that this government’s refusal to listen to its people and their representatives brings parliament into disrepute.
“The WOW campaign believe that the real reason for this refusal is that this government are scared of the public’s reaction when it becomes clear that they have targeted sick and disabled people with a disproportionate share of the austerity cuts made necessary by the ‘criminal’ actions of some UK bankers.”
He said the campaign would continue to try to convince the government to “do the right thing”.
Kate Green, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, said the report was “really important”.
She said: “They are absolutely right to say, as I have said, that there is no reason whatsoever not to try to carry out a meaningful impact assessment of the cumulative effects of policies on – among others – disabled people.
“They do say it is particularly complex and I agree with that, but that is not a reason not to make the attempt.”
She added: “Disabled people have really borne the brunt of government policies on spending cuts and changes in policy in the last few years and I think it is particularly important therefore that the cumulative effect is properly assessed and understood.
“I think it can be done. It needs to be done.”
So far, DWP has refused to say whether it accepts the findings of the committee or if ministers still believe that a CIA cannot and should not be carried out.
At least three 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 Disability News Service (DNS) that the information gathered would be “incoherent and inconsistent”.
And Mike Penning, her successor as minister for disabled people, told MPs last month 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”.
DNS has already revealed that – despite the claims of its ministers – DWP is now helping the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the Treasury to develop a way of assessing the cumulative impact of spending decisions on different equality groups.
1 May 2014