Disabled people face higher costs than the general population, and many are not able to work or only work reduced hours, making disability benefits vital. In yesterday’s Budget we were told about some of the biggest changes to the benefits system in a decade.
The Chancellor announced that the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) – the assessment used to determine whether or not a disabled person is “fit for work” or if they can claim Universal Credit disability benefits support – is to be scrapped. This is good news for many who find the process stressful and unnecessary, especially when living with a long-term progressive condition like multiple sclerosis (MS). In too many cases, disabled people have been wrongly assessed and therefore forced to work or subject to multiple assessments despite having a life-long condition.
However, this move will not remove assessments altogether and instead means that arguably the more humiliating and broken assessment, Personal Independence Payment (PIP), will be the only way to get extra financial support for people on Universal Credit. PIP is a benefit for people who need help with daily activities or getting around because of long-term disability. It is a broken system which often denies support to those who need it by putting unnecessary barriers in the way.
For example, the senseless and unfounded 20 metre rule (anyone who can walk one step over 20 metres does not qualify for the higher level of mobility support), is leading to people with the highest need facing the biggest losses. It then puts pressure on other services, like the NHS and social care. People with MS also tell us that the application and assessment process doesn’t reflect the realities of living with MS, including its fluctuating and hidden symptoms. One day they could walk 20 metres, but the next it is near impossible.
Under the Chancellor’s new plans, anyone claiming Universal Credit could have to meet with a work coach – even if they’re a disabled person for whom work is unsuitable.
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.
The Government has pledged more training for work coaches, but there are no details on what this training would be. We’re also not aware of any additional funding to increase the number of work coaches, and know that current caseloads are unmanageable. As such, we’re worried more people could be forced into inappropriate work-related activity or face the threat of losing their financial support. This punitive approach is not only hugely stressful for people, but there’s very little evidence it helps disabled people into appropriate work.
But these proposed changes all need to pass legislation and will not become a reality until at least 2026. So, from now until then, the DWP have an opportunity to take action.
Firstly PIP assessments must change. We hear all too often that PIP assessors don’t properly understand MS, and make inaccurate decisions based on things like how someone looks or acts during their assessment rather than medical evidence. We need a PIP process that people can trust, where decisions are based on evidence not assumptions, and assessments are carried out by people who properly understand the condition in question. And most significantly, we want to see the end of the cruel and arbitrary 20 metre rule, which so often acts as a barrier to financial support.
To ensure people get the right support at the right time, they also need to address the role employer’s play in supporting disabled people in work. Making disabled people subject to unfair work-related requirements isn’t the answer. The barriers are often because employers don’t do enough to support disabled people in work. It should be employers who aren’t doing enough who face sanctions not individuals.
But to truly support disabled people the Government must urgently raise benefits rates to ensure they cover the extra costs of their condition, and support them to live full independent lives.
Anastasia Berry is Policy Co-Chair of the Disability Benefits Consortium and Policy Manager at the MS Society