In the June 2010 Budget the Government announced its intention to make changes to Disability Living Allowance (DLA). The budget document indicated that this was intended to save £1 billion per year by 2014-15. On 6 December 2010 the then Minister for Disabled People Maria Miller made a written statement launching a consultation on abolishing DLA for people of working age and replacing it with a new benefit - Personal Independence Payment (PIP). Children and pensioners would not be affected. This was then legislated for through the Welfare Reform Act 2012. Although my party voted against this, the Tory-led Government were able to push it through with the support of Liberal Democrat MPs. Since these changes were announced many constituents have contacted me with concerns.
On 19 February 2012 the Work and Pensions Select Committee, of which I am a member, published a report which set out a number of detailed concerns. I made a speech on this issue in the House of Commons chamber on 20 June and I spoke again in the Commons antechamber Westminster Hall on 25 October.
The regulations that determine how the new benefit will work in practice were published on 13 December. This includes the descriptors which will determine eligibility, more on which below. There have been some improvements following the initial drafts, but many concerns remain. The new Minister for Disabled People Esther McVey, set out these changes in a statement and additional details are available on the DWP website.
This is a cut
Although the Government claims that these changes will make the system ‘better’, it was clear from the outset that the primary driver was to save money. As I mentioned already, the projected ‘savings’ – which amount to 20% of the current DLA budget – were announced in the June 2010 Budget, before the consultation on the need for changes even began.
Who will be affected
In my speech on 20 June I highlighted a report published by the Learning Disability Alliance Scotland, which took the proposed test, as then drafted, and ran workshops with about 135 people with learning disabilities to see how it would work in practice. It found that 12% of DLA recipients would not be awarded PIP. Given that there are 24,500 people with learning disabilities in Scotland, nearly 3,000 could be at risk of losing their entitlement.
Daily Living element
DLA is currently made up of lower, middle and higher rate care components and middle and higher rate mobility components. These become Daily Living and Moving Around elements under PIP. One of the main changes is the absence of an equivalent lower rate care component under PIP. This change is likely to hit people with mental health and learning disabilities, along with some partially sighted people.
I am aware that a number of organisations initially expressed concern about how many people with hearing loss might lose out as a result. Thankfully it appears that some improvements have been made to previous drafts of the regulations, as reflected in this statement by the deaf-blind charity Sense:
The criteria that will be used to assess people for PIP show some improvements from previous drafts. Importantly individuals can now ‘score points’ for both hearing and visual impairments, rather than one or the other. This is an area that Sense has campaigned hard on. People will be assessed on their abilities to speak, hear and understand as well as their ability to read and understand signs, symbols and words.
Moving Around element
To determine whether a person is eligible for a particular component of PIP, and at what rate, the assessment will look at their ability to undertake certain activities. The regulations issued for consultation list 12 different activities – 10 to assess people the Daily Living element of PIP and 2 for the Moving Around element. For each activity, there are a number of “descriptors”, each with an associated points score. If several descriptors within an activity could apply, the appropriate choice would be the one which applied for the greatest proportion of the time.
The design of the getting around descriptors mean that those with mobility issues are likely to lose out. Currently being unable to walk for over 50 meters would qualify claimants for the enhanced mobility component of DLA. Under PIP only claimants unable to walk for more than 20 meters will qualify. This reduced distance was introduced after consultation closed and was a big change from the original draft. The Government has said that there will be no further consutltation and they intend to put this lower distance into the final regulations. This is likely to mean that 212,000 fewer people will be entitled to support from the Motability scheme, which will in turn affect people’s ability to go to work and live independently.
There is also an issue around what counts as a ‘familiar journey’ which could lead to many people only qualifying for the lower rate. One particular example someone gave at a meeting was of what happens to someone who is blind when there are unexpected changes to street layout (which may be due to an emergency so no warning would be given) or public transport stops running (again perhaps because of bad weather).
I am also concerned that if people take steps to ‘adapt’ to their condition, they might be deemed to require less financial assistance. I do not believe the DWP has given sufficient reassurance on this point.
The Government also claimed that reassessments could be used to ensure that people were given all the help they could get. In my view an assessment process designed to determine eligibility for a benefit is not well placed to signpost people to other help. There are very few references to this in the recent regulations so we must assume this has justification has now been dropped.
I am concerned that there is no scope for exempting certain conditions from reassessment once maximum entitlement has been awarded. The Government’s current line is that they don’t want make blanket rules or label individuals by their impairments and that these matters will be determined on a case-by-case basis. This is despite the fact that there are a number of conditions such as Motor Neurone Disease which are progressive, for which there is no cure, and with which it is hard to see what reassessment can achieve other than unnecessary anxiety. I submitted a written question asking whether the Government will collect data on award lengths by condition and got a positive response on 25 February 2013. Hopefully this will show whether progressive conditions are being given the longest possible award lengths. If they are not then I will take this up with the Government at the time.
Identifying vulnerable claimants and assessment timetables
I’m also concerned that the DWP currently has no plans to use information held on people’s existing DLA claims to help identify vulnerable claimants who might need more support through the assessment process. Furthermore existing DLA claimants will not transfer automatically to PIP but will instead be told to apply. If they do not do so within 28 days then their DLA payments will stop. If within another 28 days they then apply then they will be reimbursed, but if they only do so after the second 28 day period then they will be unable to get this money back. In addition claimants will be expected to attend assessments with only seven days notice. This seems to assume that disabled people can simply drop everything to attend an assessment, despite the fact that many will be in work and will find this difficult.
Claimants will have to apply for PIP The draft regulations stipulate that claimants will only have 28 days to make a claim for PIP
I am concerned that applicants will not be given sufficient opportunity to submit supporting written evidence. This is particularly important for people with conditions such as autism.
The former Minister for Disabled People Maria Miller agreed that there should be a “tiered” approach to PIP assessments during the passage of the Welfare Reform Act and in answer to a written parliamentary question from 22 May 2012. This would involve considering written evidence submitted initially, proactively gathering additional evidence if none was supplied by the claimant, and only then deciding whether a face-to-face assessment was necessary.
This would prevent unnecessary, costly and stressful face-to-face assessments for people who already have lots of medical and other evidence that sets out their disability and resulting needs in some detail. It would be particularly helpful for people with autism who find it difficult to put their experiences into words. Many also have deficits in social imagination, meaning they cannot foresee consequences of their own and others’ actions, such as not sending evidence with their initial application.
I’m concerned that at the time of writing we haven’t yet seen the guidance that will go to assessment providers Atos and Capita regarding the circumstances when paper bases assessments should undertaken. I’m also concerned that these contractors have been set a target of one month by DWP to complete the assessment process, with day 1 being the day they receive the claimant information from DWP and day 30 being the day they send their report to a DWP decision-maker. Even if they make a request for further written evidence to be sent to them, one month is unlikely to be enough time for it to be received and considered, before arranging a face to face assessment.
What this means is that the default position will in fact be that the majority of claimants, no matter what their condition or individual circumstances, will be asked to attend a face to face assessment, unless they already have a significant amount of written evidence to hand or are particularly capable. This means that less capable claimants, or those with less written evidence to hand, will be significantly disadvantaged.
One potential solution is to extend the 30 day target or at least allow for flexibility in certain cases so as to allow time for assessors to pro-actively gather written evidence and consider it before arranging a face to face assessment. I will be pushing the Government to carefully consider this proposal.
Assessments as a conversation
It will be important for the new PIP assessment to avoid the mechanistic and impersonal approach that people have experienced the Work Capability Assessment for Employment and Support Allowance. In response to the DWP Select Committee report the Government said that the assessment ‘is fully intended to be a two-way conversation between the claimant and the health professional’ and ‘will need to be as long as necessary’.
Another concern is that it remains unclear whether people be allowed to request an urgent reassessment in certain circumstances, as is currently the case under DLA.
Impact on voluntary organisations and charities
I’m concerned that the implementation of PIP could put a huge strain on stretched voluntary organisations and charities who have already had their funding cut. Esther McVey tacitly acknowledged this in a written answer from 22 February 2013.
The announcement set a new timetable for the phasing out of DLA and the introduction of PIP. From April 2013 there will be a pilot for new claimants in North West and North East. The bulk of reassessment won’t start until October 2015. This was originally planned for January 2014. Reassessments finished by May 2018. This was originally expected by the end of 2016. This amended timetable was called for by many campaigners and recommended by my Select Committee and is very welcome.
However I was surprised to read that DWP still expect 170,000 people to lose DLA and 160,000 to be awarded PIP following reassessment prior to the official start of reassessments in October 2015. This is because people will be reassessed if they have a change in circumstances or if they have a DLA reassessment scheduled during that period.
Overall by 2018, 450,000 current DLA recipients will lose all support and 510,000 will receive PIP but at a lower level from now.
I made a more general speech in a Westminster Hall debate on the impact of welfare reform on 18 December. There were 25 Labour MPs in attendance and only 3 from the Coalition parties, showing the strength of feeling on these issues amongst my colleagues.
The debate is continuing in Parliament and elsewhere. It may be that with sufficient pressure the Government will make further changes. I can assure I will do what I can to make this happen.