Six disability campaigners have delivered scathing criticism of the government’s controversial new disability benefits reforms, in evidence to a committee of MPs.
The representatives of three disabled people’s organisations and two disability charities joined a Conservative disabled peer in delivering an almost completely negative assessment of the Transforming Support white paper, which was published earlier this month.
They were giving evidence as part of a Commons women and equalities committee inquiry into the government’s National Disability Strategy.
They mostly focused on plans in the white paper to scrap the work capability assessment (WCA), and to tighten the benefits sanctions regime.
Under the WCA plans, sick and disabled people who cannot work would only be able to qualify for a new health element of universal credit if they also received the extra costs benefits personal independence payment (PIP) or disability living allowance, or adult disability payment in Scotland.
This would mean that responsibility for deciding if a disabled person had to carry out work-related activity would be handed to work coaches, who would be likely to have no healthcare qualifications.
Fazilet Hadi, head of policy for Disability Rights UK, told the committee the WCA reforms were “so problematic” and the “direction of travel was all bad”, despite some apparent new money for employment support.
She said that leaving it to individual work coaches to decide what work-related activity a disabled person should carry out would leave disabled people “extremely exposed to bad practice”.
And she said there would be people who were not fit for work but would not qualify for PIP and therefore would be ineligible for the new health element of universal credit under the new system.
She said: “There could be a lot of disabled people who get regularly assessed for PIP who will live in fear of losing it because if they lose it, they then lose the health component of universal credit.”
She said that 50 per cent of PIP claims are initially rejected.
She said: “The linking of PIP, an extra costs benefit, with access to a higher rate of universal credit is so problematic.
“If you combine the greater imposition of sanctions, the failure to understand in a consistent way across the service the fitness for work of disabled people, and the link to personal independence payment, I think it’s a very, very scary prospect.
“The day of the white paper, the phones were hot with disabled people with anxieties about what was happening.”
She said the WCA would only be scrapped through new legislation after the next election, and even then the reforms would not initially affect current claimants.
But she added: “The direction of travel is all bad.”
Svetlana Kotova, director of campaigns and justice for Inclusion London, said: “We haven’t seen evidence that sanctions work in relation to disabled people and it is just so disappointing to see that again and again this is the main focus of policies to help as many of us as possible into work.”
She said there was “very little” in the white paper about “improving the workplace itself”.
Because of the number of people who currently receive extra support through the WCA system but do not receive PIP, this meant that “obviously there will be big losers and many of them will be in real trouble”.
She added: “We are really worried that people will be pushed to work and with a detriment to their health.”
The disabled Conservative peer Lord [Kevin] Shinkwin told the committee: “In effect, it is one step forward, two steps back in terms of creating concern and anxiety among disabled people, particularly on the PIP assessment point.
“I don’t think the PIP assessment was designed, intended to be fit for purpose for what it is now being proposed it should be used for.”
Fran Springfield, co-chair of the disabled people’s organisation Chronic Illness Inclusion, said: “Taking away the WCA and not replacing it with something else doesn’t make any sense to me.
“I can’t see how you can move PIP into part of universal credit, either, because PIP is a completely different system.”
She added: “We don’t think this has been properly thought out at all.
“I don’t think there has been any input into this from disabled people and this is going to make life much more difficult for those of us with invisible disabilities.
“We have to find a system that is compassionate and encourages people if they are well enough to go into work but accept that there are some people who will never be well enough to go into work, and those people deserve support and help.”
Martin McLean, senior policy adviser for the National Deaf Children’s Society, said it was “very disappointing” that there was “no recognition” in the white paper that “young people may need more tailored support”, with “an assumption that whatever was going to work for older adults… was going to be effective for young people as well”.
He said: “It’s just frustrating that disabled young people have not been considered within that because they can face the biggest barriers in terms of moving into work.”
He said disabled young people were often not aware of what support DWP offered, which “increases the risk of disabled young people leaving education and falling into long-term unemployment”.
Nil Guzelgun, policy and campaigns manager for Mind, said the charity welcomed government plans to scrap the “difficult and oftentimes humiliating” WCA but was concerned that it would be replaced instead by PIP assessments.
She pointed to a report published by Mind earlier this month, which surveyed more than 1,000 people with mental health problems.
Nearly half (46 per cent) of those who had been assessed for PIP said their benefits assessor did not understand mental health problems, compared with 36 per cent of those assessed through a WCA.
And nearly seven in 10 (69 per cent) respondents who had been assessed for PIP said going through the assessment made their mental health worse, compared with 62 per cent of those who had gone through the WCA.
She told the committee that the PIP assessment criteria were “not suitable for people with mental health problems” because of the fluctuating nature of their conditions.
She said: “We think government really needs to review urgently and improve PIP assessments so that they can be more appropriate for people who go through these assessments.”
Picture: Svetlana Kotova (above, left) and Fazilet Hadi giving evidence to the committee
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