The Government received yet another warning about its planned benefit changes this week, with the Work & Pensions Select Committee becoming the latest to voice concerns about aspects of its welfare reform programme. With criticism mounting, surely the Government has to start listening?
The Committee’s report, on support towards the additional living costs of working-age disabled people, said the assessment process for personal independence payments (PIP) – the benefit set to replace disability living allowance (DLA) in 2013 – still relied too heavily on a “medical model” of disability. This approach, it said, may not take sufficient account of the impact of social, practical and environmental factors, such as housing and access to public transport, on disabled people’s ability to participate in society and of the additional costs they therefore incur.
It warned the Government to heed lessons from the much-criticised – and subsequently re-jigged – work capability assessment for employment and support allowance, and avoid a “mechanistic, box-ticking approach” and ensure whatever is planned is “empathetic”.
The Committee has called on the Government to conduct a further trial of the PIP assessment before the criteria are adopted.
Interestingly, the Committee also called for the Government to produce more information on how the introduction of PIP is likely to affect the different groups of disabled people who currently receive DLA, or who would have been entitled to it, under the existing system.
It said it is still not possible to tell which current recipients of DLA are likely to have their benefit withdrawn altogether or who will be eligible for PIP but at a lower rate.
This last comment is crucial – the uncertainty around the future of the benefit continues to create stress and anxiety for many people with learning disabilities, especially those who receive lower-rate DLA. For example, this payment often helps them to live independently and maintain a job – which would be threatened if the benefit is withdrawn. For them, the fear of poverty is a genuine one.
The Government needs to provide clarity – and quickly – on the eligibility criteria and the assessment process so that people with learning disabilities, and their families and supporters, can begin to plan with certainty. If this new benefit is going ahead – and the Government has given no indication that it might abandon the reforms – then this is fundamental.
As the Select Committee said, any assessment must take social factors into account. While these may be harder to judge and quantify than a person’s medical history, assessments need to include these factors if the benefit is going to – as the Government stated aim suggests – reach those who need it most and help them to live their lives as they wish. Let’s hope the Government listens and takes action to address the concerns raised, and ensures that PIP is not denied to those who need it most.