The Government’s plans to streamline health and disability benefits are lacking crucial details with “fundamental questions” around how people will be protected, a senior MP has warned.
Stephen Timms, chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, told i he was concerned at the lack of clarity around the proposed benefit changes given ministers intend to begin the legislative process within the coming year.
And he said the reforms could see a “fair number of people” missing out on benefits who would otherwise have been eligible, unless the changes were enacted with caution.
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.
Labour MP Mr Timms said he was concerned about how people who are eligible for health-related benefits – but not PIP – will be identified without the usual assessments.
This is the cohort of people that experts and charities fear could miss out on benefits, or even face a reduction in their out-of-work universal credit, because they are not properly identified as living with a health condition.
Mr Timms told i: “They are saying that if you’ve got PIP you will get the health element of Universal Credit, so that’s clear. But there’s another group of people who are not on PIP who always have been entitled to help support. The question is, how are they going to work out who they are?
“That’s the job the WCA has done up until now. The figures implied that the same sort of number of people will carry it in the future. So how are they going to work out who they are? It’s a mystery. I just don’t know what the government is thinking here.”
He went on: “The details just aren’t there. It’s a bit puzzling that they’re going to scrap the WCA but the [forecasting alongside the Budget] indicates that the amount of money being spent on the benefit is going to be unchanged. So there won’t be any more or any fewer people receive the benefit.
“So there’ll have to be some sort of assessment, doing roughly the job that the WCA is doing at the moment, but we have absolutely no idea what that will be.
“I’m puzzled about that because it appears the government intends to legislate next year. If you are planning legislation in 12 months’ time, then pretty soon you have got to have a clear idea of what this thing is going to look like. Why these kind of very fundamental questions don’t appear to have been answered I don’t know.”
i reported concerns that the benefit reforms, coupled with the Government’s plans to ramp up sanctions, could leave some people seeing their income reduced.
Mr Timms said it was “certainly possible” that the Government “could end up denying benefits or additional benefit to a fair number of people who receive it at the moment”.
But he added that he did not believe that was the intention. “The fact that the Budget scorecard shows zero change in benefit spending indicates do expect to carry on paying this health premium to this group of people,” he explained.
He did, however, demand the Government publish research around how effective sanctions – which sees benefit claimants fined for not actively seeking work – actually are.
The Department for Work and Pensions was ordered by the Information Commissioner earlier this week publish the internal research, which was commissioned in 2019 after MPs warned there was no evidence benefit sanctions actually incentivised people into work.
Mr Timms said that if the Government was planning to toughen its benefit sanctions it should publish the information to “illuminate a little bit the thinking” about the proposed changes.
The Government was contacted for comment.