Disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) have raised grave concerns about a series of reforms to the disability benefits assessment system announced by work and pensions secretary Amber Rudd.
Rudd secured broadly positive coverage of her reforms from the mainstream media this week, but disabled campaigners have told Disability News Service (DNS) of their concerns, particularly about her plans to simplify the system.
DPOs and grassroots disabled activists said the plans amounted to “minor tinkering” when the system was instead in need of a radical overhaul.
The most striking announcement by Rudd was that her Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) plans to test if it can assess eligibility for both the extra costs benefit personal independence payment (PIP) and the out-of-work disability benefit employment and support allowance (ESA) through a single face-to-face assessment, at least for those disabled people who apply for the two benefits at the same time.
It plans to do this through an “integrated” service, supported by a new digital system, which will deal with both PIP and ESA (and universal credit) assessments, and will begin to go live from 2021.
It hopes this DWP-owned system will allow a greater number of assessment providers than the current three companies – Atos, Capita and Maximus – to come into the market and “compete” to provide assessments.
But the changes will also mean DWP extending the contract of Maximus – the unpopular and discredited provider of work capability assessments (WCAs) – by 17 months to the end of July 2021.
Rudd’s speech (pictured) was delivered on Tuesday at the offices of the disability charity Scope on the Olympic Park in east London.
A DWP spokesperson later told Disability News Service (DNS) that there were no plans to move to a single set of eligibility criteria across the two benefits – one of the many concerns raised by campaigners – and that the announcement was not a step towards moving to a single disability benefit covering both extra costs and out-of-work payments.
She said the new digital platform would “enable much greater information sharing between the two assessments” and that it would be “rolled out carefully – learning as we go”.
But Catherine Hale, lead researcher and project manager of the Chronic Illness Inclusion Project (CIIP), told DNS: “In theory, the idea of a single digital platform could simplify the claimant experience.
“But we’ve seen with universal credit how the idea of an ‘integrated’ digital system has been a Trojan horse for cuts to disability premiums.
“We are worried that the proposed integration of PIP and ESA will be a way of further eroding the premiums that recognise the extra costs of long-term unemployment, by stealth.
“And we’re concerned that linking PIP eligibility to work capability will take us further away from the principle that PIP is intended to compensate for the financial penalty of disability, which exists both in and out of work.”
Al Morrison, communications and media officer for Inclusion London, who was at the speech, said: “There’s a lot we could say about yesterday’s announcements, but our overwhelming feeling is that these are not solutions.
“We feel this is minor tinkering of a system that is completely flawed and needs to be overhauled, with a social model-based approach to assessments.
“Until that happens, the benefits system and assessments process will continue to be punitive and hostile.”
She added: “We can’t understand why the contract with Maximus has been extended either.
“It’s brutally apparent that this private contractor works for profit and not in the interests of disabled people.”
Last month, it emerged that Maximus appeared to have no written policy on how to protect the safety of people claiming ESA, despite years of evidence linking the WCA with deaths and serious harm.
Linda Burnip, co-founder of Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), said that “rolling both assessments together, risking people losing everything in one fell swoop, is a nightmare scenario.
“The right way forward would be to end repeated reassessment and bring in lifetime awards for PIP until such time as both totally failing assessments are scrapped and replaced with something fit for purpose.”
Ken Butler, benefits policy advisor for Disability Rights UK (DR UK), was another who called for wholesale reform rather than the minor changes proposed by Rudd.
He said: “Assessments for both ESA and PIP are flawed and poorly administered. The current figures for successful appeals on both benefits make that quite clear.
“You can’t merge two badly constructed processes and expect to come up with one fit-for-purpose approach.
“Without a wholesale change of design of the assessment process, huge numbers of disabled people will continue to be denied benefits they are entitled to – that’s the change we need.”
Rosa Morris, who has personal experience of the WCA and last year completed a PhD examining the assessment process and disability benefits, said Rudd had failed to acknowledge that “both assessment processes for PIP and ESA are unfit for purpose and create additional harm.
“My personal experience of the WCA and my academic research, added to my current work supporting people with PIP and ESA claims, shows a system which views disabled people’s experiences of their bodies and lives as contentious, is not motivated by wishing to support them, and is instead focused on reducing claimant numbers.
“It is currently unclear what any integration of the assessment processes will look like in practice, but there is a real danger of PIP ending up integrated into universal credit, where it could be at risk of conditionality and sanctions and no longer be a universal non-means tested benefit designed to address additional costs and unrelated to employment status.”
Caroline Richardson, a disabled researcher and member of the Spartacus Network of campaigners, said Rudd’s announcement suggested that the two very different benefits “have effectively been merged in the minds of the DWP”.
She said: “I have fought hard to keep the distinction, and that disabled people who are well can work, but sick people who have apparent functionality cannot work, and that the benefits are for different purposes and therefore should have very different testing criteria.
“Repeatedly I have heard MPs, media and even disability organisation conflate and confuse the two benefits.
“They are separate benefits for separate purposes and should remain that way.”
Jenny Morris, who helped write the Labour government’s Improving the Life Chances of Disabled People white paper, was another to raise fears that ministers could be moving towards merging the two very different benefits.
She said on Twitter that there had been no recognition from Rudd that PIP was an “extra costs benefit” and “nothing to do with ability to work”.
She said: “Are we on a journey to abolishing the whole idea of a benefit which is intended to fund the additional costs associated with impairment and illness?”
Another measure announced by Rudd, which again secured positive coverage in the mainstream media, was that DWP would no longer reassess PIP claimants who have reached the pension age – or at least would only give them a “light touch review” every 10 years – unless they tell the department their needs have changed.
Some campaigning organisations, like DR UK, said the measure showed a more “common sense approach” to assessments.
But Burnip told DNS: “Rudd has thrown a few crumbs to a few pensioners who are possibly WASPI women who have had years of pension entitlement stolen or have a partner under pension age who will lose thousands of pounds through universal credit rules.
“This is nothing more than an insult to them.”
Inclusion London said it could “find no rational explanation for ending frequent re-assessments of only state-pension-age disabled people” and called for an urgent review of the new policy.
Morrison pointed out that Rudd had failed to “properly address a press question asking why this change will not apply to younger disabled people too”.
Stef Benstead, another CIIP researcher and member of the Spartacus Network, said the move was “daft”.
She said: “They’re equating permanent severe illness with being over pension age… using an unreliable proxy for something that could be directly assessed. A bit like PIP itself, really.
“They also think they can design a computer system for holding PIP and universal credit/ESA info by 2021, despite the universal credit debacle.”
In a ministerial statement issued before the speech, Rudd also said that ministers were hoping to improve the mandatory reconsideration process – reviews carried out by DWP before benefit claimants can appeal a decision on their claim – to ensure that further evidence was gathered from claimants at this stage and to “make more accurate decisions sooner”.
And she confirmed a previous announcement that DWP would test a new approach that should reduce the conditions – and potential sanctions – imposed on disabled people awaiting a WCA as part of a universal credit claim.
But Philip Connolly, Disability Rights UK’s policy manager, said: “Amber Rudd acknowledged how many disabled people experience her department when she said that for some it was akin to being on trial, but her announcements fell short of the legitimate expectations of disabled people for the wholesale suspension of sanctions or the need for evidence-based descriptors in the WCA.”
Rudd also said she would commission research to examine disabled claimants’ experience of the benefits system and how to meet their needs, and that she wanted to improve DWP’s engagement with “disabled people, disabled people’s organisations, and the charities that support disabled people”.
But Inclusion London said: “We welcome the mention of co-production with disabled people, but we have little evidence that the government is committed to such meaningful engagement.
“After the UN committee on the rights of persons with disabilities made their concluding observations outlining their concerns with disability rights – stating that the government should work with disabled people’s representative organisations – it took 18 months for the minister for disabled people to meet with us.
“We know the government has arranged a number of meetings discussing the issues disabled people face where we have been excluded.
“They seem intent on engaging with charities, not disabled people’s organisations.”
Hale also welcomed Rudd’s comment on engagement, and said she looked forward to sharing with her CIIP’s forthcoming report based on research into the lived experience of chronic illness, social security and work.
She said: “We especially urge her to consider the needs of people with energy impairment.
“Our research participants felt as though the WCA and PIP assessment are deliberately designed not to take account of fatigue and energy impairment and therefore to deny their lived experience of their health condition.
“We will be making recommendations for a system that empowers people with energy-limiting chronic illness to live as fully as possible, rather than punishing them as the current system does. It must begin with listening, trust and respect.”
Rudd also announced that she wanted to set a “new and more ambitious goal” than the government’s current target of seeing one million more disabled people in work in the 10 years to 2027.
And she said she wanted to “significantly improve how DWP supports disabled people and those with health conditions”, admitting that some disabled people had told her that they “feel as though they are put on trial for seeking the state’s support”.
She insisted that her DWP colleagues were “in their jobs because they want to help people” and so DWP needed to “do more to close the gap between our intentions and your experiences”.
Marsha de Cordova, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, was dismissive of the reforms, and said: “Rudd’s announcements today are totally inadequate.
“The hostile environment that this government has created for disabled people is set to continue.
“These reforms do not address the fundamental flaws in a system that has repeatedly failed ill and disabled people, who continue to face cruel and callous PIP reassessments and an unfit-for-purpose assessment framework.
“Labour will scrap PIP and WCA assessments, which have caused unnecessary suffering to so many, and replace them with a system that treats disabled people with dignity and respect.”
Asked how Rudd responded to the claim that the changes would do nothing to address the fundamental flaws in the system, the DWP spokesperson said:“As the secretary of state said yesterday, she is committed to closing the gap between our intentions and disabled people’s experiences, and she will be guided by disabled people as we work together to provide the opportunities and support they deserve and expect.”
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