The information commissioner has told the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to release vital information about its decision to scrap the work capability assessment (WCA), which the watchdog says will impact millions of disabled people.
DWP has refused to release its written assessment of how the decision to abolish the WCA will impact disabled people and other groups protected under the Equality Act.
But the information commissioner has decided that the department should release the equality impact assessment (EIA) because “the public is entitled to scrutinise a decision such as this at an early opportunity”.
Disability News Service (DNS) has been seeking the information from DWP since March, when the move to end the WCA was announced in the spring budget, with details included in the government’s new Transforming Support white paper.
Under the government’s plans, disabled people who cannot work will only be able to qualify for a new health element of universal credit if they also receive personal independence payment (PIP), disability living allowance, or, in Scotland, adult disability payment.
This would also mean that it would be left to DWP’s over-worked work coaches – who will usually have no health-related qualifications – to decide if a disabled person should carry out work-related activity.
The WCA will not be scrapped until after the next general election and not until 2026 “at the earliest”, DWP told the watchdog.
In a decision notice on DNS’s complaint about the failure to release the EIA, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) said it “considers that DWP has failed to consider the strength of the public interest in the timely understanding and scrutiny of the decision to remove the Work Capability Assessment”.
It said there was “a particularly strong public interest in disclosure of information relating to disability benefits reform”.
It noted that the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) had estimated that scrapping the WCA could see an increase of £390 a month in benefits for 320,000 disabled people, but a fall of £390 a month for 520,000 disabled claimants.
It also noted that IFS has stated that scrapping the WCA “could help more people into paid work, but it comes with the risk of requirements being inconsistently applied and the potential for hardship if they are applied inappropriately”.
DWP told ICO that the policy was “still in the development phase”, despite having announced that the WCA would be scrapped after the next election, and it claimed that there were “still a number of policy decisions to be made”, including how it would support disabled claimants who do not receive PIP.
DWP said it accepted that the information requested by DNS “could benefit claimants and stakeholders to help them understand what a reformed system may look like” but “considered that this would be based on incomplete and in development information, and therefore this would limit the value of the information”.
DNS had told ICO that the WCA has been “closely linked to the deaths of hundreds of disabled people” and that the plans to scrap it could lead to further deaths of disabled claimants.
The information commissioner concluded that DWP “has not provided compelling arguments regarding how the specific policy named would be undermined by disclosure of the disputed information”.
A DWP spokesperson said: “We are aware of the decision notice from the Information Commissioner’s Office and we are currently considering our position.”
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