Campaigners have taken part in a vigil outside the Royal Courts of Justice, as the high court was hearing claims by a disabled woman that new benefit rules are “unfair and discriminatory”.
Regulations that came into force in March mean that people who are unable to plan or undertake a journey due to overwhelming psychological distress now receive fewer qualifying points when assessed for personal independence payment (PIP).
The new rules mean that many PIP claimants are entitled to a lower level of financial support for their mobility, and in many cases no mobility support at all.
The legal challenge against work and pensions secretary David Gauke is being brought by RF, who believes that the changes to PIP will have a “significant negative impact” on her life and on the lives of many others who experience significant mental distress.
Both the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the mental health charity Mind have submitted written evidence supporting RF’s case.
Sara Lomri, RF’s solicitor and deputy legal director of the Public Law Project, said: “[RF] has told me that losing enhanced PIP mobility means she will not be able to get the support she needs to travel.
“This will have a huge impact on her ability to participate in society and her independence.”
The court’s ruling is expected before Christmas.
Among those who took part in a vigil outside the Royal Courts of Justice on the first day of the two-day hearing was Rose*, who said the new regulations could easily affect her level of support.
She currently receives the higher rate care component of disability living allowance and the lower rate mobility component, and she said she was “constantly living in dread of being called up for my [PIP] assessment”.
She said: “My psychological distress does affect my mobility. I have severe dissociation which causes me to wander around without any knowledge of danger.
“I think it’s time for justice for us because we have been discriminated against and there is such a lack of understanding of psychological distress.”
She added: “It is criminal the way we are being treated. It is just not right. I had other plans for my life, not to live on benefits, but unfortunately I have to because of my mental health problems.
“I am shocked about how we are made to feel bad for being unwell.”
Paula Peters (pictured, front), a member of the national steering group of Disabled People Against Cuts, is still waiting to be assessed for PIP, as a long-term claimant of disability living allowance, and currently receives mobility support because of the psychological distress caused by travelling.
She said the case was “fundamentally important” to her and the many thousands of others who also need the support to travel.
Without that mobility support from DLA, or PIP, she would not have a Freedom Pass, which allows her free travel across the capital, so she can attend GP and hospital appointments, and take part in campaigning.
Without the support from PIP, many people with mental distress would be excluded from society and imprisoned at home, she said.
Peters said: “We get the mobility component of PIP for deep psychological distress because it is so vital for our mental wellbeing and being able to get to appointments, to interact with friends and family and just take part in everyday life.
“That exclusion ramps up anxiety and causes people’s depression to worsen and in my case ramps up my agoraphobia.”
Asked how much she trusted DWP on mental health issues, she said: “I don’t. I don’t trust DWP on anything.
“They are targeting mental health claimants on PIP, on ESA, on universal credit, on the Work and Health Programme.
“They are about ramping up the mental distress and causing a claimant’s mental health to deteriorate to the point where they want to give up and take their own life, and in many cases already have done, and we remember those who are not with us today.
“I think DWP are trivialising mental health. What they can’t see, they don’t believe exists.”
Denise McKenna (pictured, back right), co-founder of the Mental Health Resistance Network, who also took part in the vigil, said: “For a lot of people with severe mental health problems they cannot travel by public transport, they are having to use taxis for part of their journey, sometimes for all of their journey.
“It is very important that people should not become isolated. Isolation is a key precipitate of suicide and relapse. There could be fatal consequences.”
She said people with mental health problems were “being targeted by the government from all directions”, through cuts to out-of-work benefits and PIP, and the withdrawal of mental health services and the focus on employment in Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) services.
She said: “People with mental health problems are being targeted to get back into the workplace and [the PIP changes are] an additional barrier to getting to work.
“It is part of a huge assault on people with mental health problems. One of the things they are doing is denying the existence of mental distress. They are negating it.”
She added: “I wanted to be here today, because having been involved in a judicial review I know what an emotional roller-coaster [it can be].
“I think it’s important for people taking the judicial review to know how much it means to other people and to get support from as many people as possible.
“We recognise it is in all of our interests.”
Claire Glasman (pictured, left), from the campaigning organisation WinVisible – which supports disabled women, including those who are traumatised, such as rape and sexual abuse survivors, and refugee survivors of genocide – said the government was “discriminating against people with mental distress”.
She said that disabled women needed PIP mobility support “to be able to get out of the house and to do things in the community, see friends and get involved in groups”.
Glasman said: “It just shows they don’t care, they don’t care if people have all the benefits that they need to be able to live our lives and get out of the house.
“Theresa May makes all these announcements about mental health being a priority but we know the NHS is being cut, and women’s services are struggling through lack of funding.”
Lisa Longstaff, a spokeswoman for Women Against Rape, another campaigner at the vigil, said she was there because so many of the women her organisation worked with – including traumatised women who had been raped – had had their benefits cut unfairly.
She said: “I am here because this case is an example of many of the other cuts we have been fighting together.”
RF argues that the new PIP regulations violate article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits unjustifiable discrimination, including discrimination on the basis of disability.
She argues that people with overwhelming psychological distress are treated less favourably than those with other conditions, when assessed on their need for mobility support.
DWP has told RF’s lawyers that the new rules can be justified.
RF also argues that DWP should have carried out a consultation on the new regulations before they were introduced, whereas DWP has said that it had always been its intention to exclude psychological distress from certain questions in the PIP eligibility test, and so there was no need to carry out a fresh consultation in 2017.
But RF’s lawyers say that if those organisations involved in the original PIP consultation had been told this, they would have challenged it at the time by campaigning and lobbying politicians.
A DWP spokeswoman said the department could not comment on an ongoing legal case.
But she pointed to a statement made earlier this year by the minister for disabled people, explaining the reasons for the new regulations, and a departmental statement issued on the same day in February.
In the statement, DWP said that “people who cannot carry out a journey because of a visual or cognitive impairment are likely to need more support than someone who experiences psychological distress when they undertake a journey, for example as a result of social phobia or anxiety”.
The department added: “Recent legal judgments have interpreted the assessment criteria for PIP in ways that are different to what was originally intended.
“The government is now making amendments to clarify the criteria, to restore the original aim of the policy and ensure support goes to those most in need.”
*Not her real name