A radical overhaul of disability benefits could see people with complex or invisible conditions left hundreds of pounds out of pocket, the Government has been warned.
The reforms, announced on Wednesday to coincide with the Budget, were part of plans ministers said would change the focus for disability benefits to avoid people having to prove they are unable to work.
Under the changes, the work capability assessment (WCA) for determining benefit payments will be replaced with the existing personal independence payment (PIP) system – which is used to decide what day-to-day help a disabled person might need.
But experts have warned this is not fit for deciding on employment expectations and could see those who don’t meet rigid disability definitions unfairly penalised.
This could mean someone with a condition such as Multiple Sclerosis – which can vary from person to person – an “invisible” chronic illness, or a complex mental health condition could be forced into work or have their benefits cut.
In its post-Budget analysis the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) said the Government could either have hundreds of thousands of people no longer qualifying for benefits or face having to widen the criteria.
Tom Waters, economist at the IFS, estimated one million people could be forced into work and some 600,000 could lose an estimated £350-per-month in support.
In the short term the Government said people would be financially protected during the transition, but it is not clear what protections will be in place for people moving onto the new system after it is implemented in the coming years.
“Many of them are likely to apply for PIP to keep that current entitlement, but if their condition doesn’t create higher living costs then many of them won’t be eligible,” Mr Waters said.
He added that the Government “has the risk of runaway spending on one hand or having sick low-income people losing out on the other”.
James Taylor, director of strategy at disability charity Scope, said the PIP system is “not built to assess someone’s capability for work, but rather the support they need to live independently, and extra costs associated”.
“Having one assessment trying to do two things might fail at both,” he said. “Serious questions need to be asked about what will happen to the over 600,000 people who take a WCA annually who might find themselves cut out of support they would have received in the past or pushed into unsuitable work.”
Scope also warned against putting the onus on Job Centre work coaches – who may not be properly trained in health conditions – to apply benefit deductions to disabled people who are out of work.
The MS Society said someone living with Multiple Sclerosis – a fluctuating condition which means it created a varying pattern of ill-health, rather than one clearly defined characteristic – could be at risk of sanctions under such circumstances.
Writing in i, policy manager Anastasia Berry welcomed the decision to end the WCA process but said relying instead on the “arguably more humiliating and broken assessment, PIP” meant moving solely to a “broken system which often denies support to those who need it by putting unnecessary barriers in the way”.
She added: “Right now, WCA means few people from our community have to engage with work coaches, but those that do have told us their work coach hasn’t understood their condition, the impact of their symptoms or the barriers and issues they have with employers.
“Without firm details on just how work coaches will work, we’re concerned they won’t have the time or the experience in a variety of health conditions to make informed decisions regarding someone’s capacity for work.”
A Government spokesperson said: “The Health and Disability White Paper commits to removing the financial disincentives that exist within the current system by scrapping the Work Capability Assessment, improving support and the experience for people when applying for and receiving benefits.
“These are the biggest reforms in a decade. That’s why we will take time to carefully consider how best to implement the changes – and give security and certainty to claimants, continuing to engage with disabled people and people with health conditions, and our stakeholders, as our proposals develop, before the reforms are rolled out on a staged basis.
“We will put protections in place to ensure that no one experiences financial loss at the point at which the reform is enacted, while improving our offer of tailored support to help people find and stay in sustainable work.”
What is changing?
Under the changes, the current assessment process to determine whether people qualify for extra health or disability benefits – known as the work capability assessment (WCA) – will no longer be used.
Instead, the personal independence payment (PIP) system – which assesses whether people need extra money to provide support with tasks or mobility – would also be used to determine who is able to work and who can claim out of work benefits.
Scrapping WCAs has long been called for because of the way it puts the onus on people to prove they are too disabled to work. But there are concerns that the PIP assessment process is very rigid and could make it too difficult for people with fluctuating conditions to prove what work they can or cannot do.
As a result, someone who suffers with a health condition which makes it hard for them to work may not necessarily qualify for PIP and could lose out or be forced into employment.
The Government’s plan also involves scrapping a group of universal credit claimants known as Limited Capability for Work and Work Related Activities (LCWRA) which protects some disabled people from benefit sanctions if they are not found to be looking for work.
This, paired with newly-toughened sanctions for those claiming employment benefits, could result in some people having their existing out-of-work payments reduced.
The LCWRA will be replaced with a new financial top up – the UC health element – but, again, this will only apply to those who qualify for PIP and therefore not everyone who is unable to work due to a health condition or disability.
Those undergoing treatment for cancer, or struggling with a complicated pregnancy, will be protected from any sanctions. But the government is under pressure to clarify who else will be prevented from falling through the gaps of the new regime.