Work and pensions secretary Mel Stride has misled MPs about new plans to slash spending on out-of-work disability benefits by removing a vital safety net that protects those at risk of suicide.
The plans, released by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) on Tuesday – and now subject to public consultation – will make it harder for disabled people to be eligible for out-of-work benefits without facing the risk of sanctions.
As part of those plans, the government is considering removing guidance that has acted as a safety net for disabled people with significant mental distress for nearly 30 years.
DWP and its predecessor, the Department of Social Security (DSS), have repeatedly attempted to weaken and even scrap the guidance over the last three decades.
The guidance states that a disabled claimant should be found eligible for the highest rate of support if work or work-related activity would create a “substantial risk” to their health.
The measure has particularly protected those currently sectioned under the Mental Health Act, with active thoughts of suicide, or who had a recent episode of self-harm that needed medical attention.
It has meant anyone facing such a risk is found to have limited capability for work and work-related activity (LCWRA) and does not have to carry out work-related activity or face potential sanctions if they fail to do so.
But one option in the consultation published this week is to “remove the LCWRA risk criteria entirely”, which would force disabled claimants previously protected by the guidance to undergo “tailored work-related activity” with “appropriate support”.
Stride failed to tell fellow MPs this week that his department has been trying to weaken or remove this “substantial risk” clause for the last three decades.
The Deaths by Welfare timeline*, published in draft form last year, shows how the Conservative-run DSS wrongly told its own social security advisers in 1996 that removing the “substantial risk” rules would have no detrimental effect on disabled claimants.
DWP was later forced to reinstate the clause after the Court of Appeal found that removing it had been unlawful.
DWP tried again to remove the clause in 2003, under a Labour government, but withdrew its proposals after objections from the social security advisory committee.
The government eventually managed to weaken the protection in 2015, telling the private contractors who carry out the assessments, in its WCA handbook, that the three indicators of mental distress “might” only give rise to a substantial risk in “exceptional circumstances” and that they should weigh “the benefits of employment” against any risk.
That change led to the proportion of claimants being placed in the support group of employment and support allowance (ESA) dropping by two-fifths in just three months.
There had been years of campaigning by disabled activists, particularly Black Triangle, to alert the medical profession to the existence of the “substantial risk” protection.
But Stride failed to tell MPs this week that the government weakened the protection in 2015 and claimed instead that the “original intention for substantial risk was for it to be advised only in exceptional circumstances”.
The “exceptional circumstances” part of the protection was only added to guidance by DWP in 2015, in an attempt to cut spending on out-of-work disability benefits.
Stride claimed: “It was intended to provide a safety net for the most vulnerable, but the application of risk has gone beyond the original intent.”
He told MPs (pictured) that any change to the WCA would not be introduced until after the next general election in 2025.
John McArdle, co-founder of Black Triangle, highlighted the importance of the “substantial risk” clause in a speech to the UN committee on the rights of persons with disabilities in Geneva last month.
The committee was hearing evidence on the government’s progress in implementing recommendations made in a report in 2016 which found it guilty of “grave and systematic” violations of the convention, with most of those breaches caused by policies introduced by DWP ministers.
McArdle said in his speech that the government was intent on removing the “substantial risk” clause by scrapping the WCA, a move announced earlier this year, which he said would be “a full-frontal assault on our disability rights and an abrogation and repudiation” of the convention.
He told Disability News Service yesterday (Wednesday) that the new plans were “horrifying”, as the clause was just as important as it was a decade ago.
He said: “To put disabled people’s lives in such predicament would be to strip them of their rights under the convention.
“People don’t need to be bullied and tyrannised into work. There are ways to help people without holding a big club over their head.”
He said he had originally campaigned to raise awareness of the substantial risk clause a decade ago because the regulation was “the only thing that was preventing hundreds of thousands of people being thrown to the dogs”.
DWP refused to say why Stride did not tell MPs about the 2015 change to guidance, and why he claimed the guidance was originally intended to be used only in “exceptional circumstances”.
It also refused to say if Stride was aware that the department had been trying to remove the “substantial risk” rules since 1996.
*Disability News Service editor John Pring is co-creator of the timeline
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