The government has confirmed that sick and disabled people who will soon be spared reassessments for out-of-work benefits will still face repeated testing for personal independence payment (PIP).
Work and pensions secretary Damian Green’s one key announcement during this week’s party conference in Birmingham was that people with “the most severe lifetime conditions” would no longer have to face repeated assessments to determine their eligibility for employment and support allowance (ESA).
He said the government’s duty was to support those disabled people who cannot work, and “sweep away unnecessary stress and bureaucracy which weighs them down”.
Green (pictured, delivering his speech) added: “If someone has a disease which can only get worse, making them turn up for repeated appointments to claim what they need is pointless bureaucratic nonsense.”
The announcement was widely welcomed, although disabled campaigners said the change would do nothing to change the essential unfairness and inflexibility of the work capability assessment (WCA) process.
They also said that the same group of working-age disabled people now set to be exempted from repeated WCAs should also be given an opt-out from PIP reassessments, a call backed by the Green party co-leader, Jonathan Bartley.
But a Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) spokeswoman confirmed that such claimants would still have to face repeated PIP assessments, even if exempt from further WCAs.
She said: “PIP is an independent benefit, completely separate to ESA/universal credit, with processes adapted for its claimants.
“Award rates and their durations are set on an individual basis, based on the claimant’s needs and the likelihood of their needs changing.
“Regular reviews for PIP claimants are a key feature of the benefit, and ensure that benefit payments accurately match the current needs of claimants.”
When DNS attempted to clarify this response, another DWP spokeswoman added: “PIP is a separate benefit to ESA, and reassessments will continue as part of current policy.”
A third spokeswoman then confirmed that Green’s announcement, and the change in policy, applied only to ESA reassessments and not to PIP.
DWP has also provided some details about which ESA claimants will be exempt from repeat WCAs.
A DWP spokeswoman said the criteria would be based on identifying claimants who have a condition that is: lifelong; severe (in “functional terms”); “often progressive and incurable”; with “no realistic prospect of recovery”; and results in high and “minimally fluctuating” care needs, “such that it would be unreasonable to expect the individual to undertake any form or amount of work or work-related activity”.
The exemption will only apply to claimants in the ESA support group – for those with the highest barriers to work – and not to anyone in the work-related activity group (WRAG), while the same criteria will apply to those who claim the equivalent of ESA through the new universal credit.
She said DWP would be “working with stakeholders” to develop those criteria, and it was “too early” to estimate how many people will be affected every year.
Disabled People Against Cuts said the move could potentially “save tens of thousands of disabled people a lot of stress, fear and uncertainty about their financial security”, but questioned why it had taken eight years for DWP’s “geniuses” to “work out there is no point in reassessing people who cannot get better”, and also called for it to apply to PIP re-assessments.
A DPAC spokesman said the announcement showed that the “fightback against the atrocities of austerity is starting to work”.
He said: “The Tories have realised that they now have gained a terrible reputation as persecutors of disabled people and their worst fear of widespread public revulsion [at this] is actually beginning to happen.”
Both the Liberal Democrats and Labour promised at their annual party conferences last month to scrap the WCA.
Sue Bott, deputy chief executive of Disability Rights UK, welcomed the announcement, and said: “We have long argued that such assessments are a waste of money and put disabled people with progressive conditions through unnecessary stress.”
But she added: “However, what is really needed is a complete overhaul of ESA alongside an improvement in support for disabled people who are looking for work.”
And she said plans to cut £30-a-week from new WRAG claimants from next April needed Green’s “urgent attention”.
Green also talked at length in his conference speech about the need to “tackle attitudes, not laws”, suggesting no change in his department’s reliance on encouraging employers to employ more disabled people – particularly through its much-criticised Disability Confident programme – rather than punishing those that discriminate.
He became the latest minister to praise Britain’s successful Paralympians – and their “celebration of what people can do” – and pointed to the example of Molly Hyndman-Cunningham, a disabled student who had just given a speech to the conference on her own experiences of work.
The second-year law student, who has a part-time job in Boots, had talked about the challenges of coping with her condition, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, and of how much she enjoyed being part of a team at work.
She told delegates: “I think it is essential that more people with disabilities are given the opportunity to work.
“I now feel reintegrated into society. It has improved my confidence and self-worth in a way I never thought was possible.”
But Hyndman-Cunningham also said that neither her university nor her employer knew about her impairment, so it was not clear how her experience demonstrated positive employer attitudes, as Green appeared to suggest in his speech.