The minister for disabled people has added fresh confusion to the government’s planned social security reforms after apparently misleading a second parliamentary meeting about proposals to merge assessments for disability benefits.
Last year, the government confirmed it was pushing ahead with plans to test how it might be able to merge assessments for personal independence payment and “fitness for work” into one.
The government confirmed that it was “testing the feasibility of a single assessment for ESA/universal credit and PIP” in April 2019, only five days after Justin Tomlinson (pictured in 2019) dismissed the idea.
Now, 19 months on, Tomlinson has added to the confusion, and appears to have misled MPs for the second time by suggesting again that there are no such plans.
Vicky Foxcroft, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, had told a joint meeting of the all party parliamentary group for disability (APPGD) and the United Nations all party group, that many disabled people were concerned about the idea of merging the two assessments, because a single report could lead to the loss of both benefits.
She said: “When I was speaking to disabled people and disabled people’s organisations, there was quite a lot of fear over popping it all into the same assessment.
“Their worries and fears are that the system is set up to not give them the support they need… and therefore if there was only one assessment that would be it, and they would lose out on everything overnight.”
But Tomlinson told the meeting a few minutes later that he was bemused by the reference to a single merged assessment.
He said: “I am not sure what Vicky was talking about, single assessments… it’s not something we are looking to do.”
In fact, the policy was announced by the then work and pensions secretary Amber Rudd in a speech in March 2019, and then confirmed by Baroness Buscombe – at that time a junior work and pensions minister – in an answer to a written question on 29 April 2019.
Just days before Baroness Buscombe’s comments, Tomlinson had suggested to MPs that there were no plans for a single assessment, even though he was later contradicted by his own department.
DWP declined this week to clarify the current situation with its single assessment proposal, and whether Tomlinson would put the record straight and apologise.
But a DWP spokesperson said in a statement: “The government is committed to continuously improving the experience for customers.
“With the claimant’s permission we are exploring how we can better use evidence from previous assessments and obtain quality medical evidence to simplify the assessment process.”
Tomlinson also suggested at the all party parliamentary group meeting that he had put in an “ambitious” bid for funding from the Treasury to modernise the Access to Work system, which he said was outdated and used technology “that even Betamax turned down”.
And he said the forthcoming work and pensions green paper would strengthen the ability of disability benefit claimants to get the “supportive evidence” they need for their applications.
He said: “We know that if you have good quality evidence, your ability to access benefits will be quicker, it will be easier, and it is more likely to be right first time.
“So we have to do a lot more work with the NHS to get that consistency and speed into the system.”
He also said the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) needed to go further in ensuring that advocates, both formal and informal, were involved in the complex process of claiming benefits.
Disability News Service (DNS) submitted a question to Tomlinson during the online meeting, asking for his views on DNS research which showed the government had breached disabled people’s rights 17 times in the first four months of the pandemic.
DNS asked him whether this was a record the government should be ashamed of, and what steps he had taken to address those breaches, but the question was not chosen to be put to him by the APPGD chair, the SNP’s Lisa Cameron.
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