A woman who was born disabled fears she could be forced into work by changes to the benefits system announced in last week’s Budget.
As part of a major shake-up to welfare provision, Jeremy Hunt announced that a £350 top-up for people who are unable to work – who are designated LCWRA or limited capability for work and work related activity – will be replaced with the universal credit (UC) health element.
To qualify for the UC health element, claimants must be eligible for another benefit, known as the personal independence payment (PIP), which helps disabled people cover their extra living costs.
There are concerns that disabled people who previously relied on LCWRA will face benefit sanctions if they fail to meet requirements to search for work, or accept job offers, under the new PIP system.
Jess Plant, 34, from was born with hydrocephalus, a neurological condition that causes swelling around the brain, affecting mobility and cognition, making her eligible for LCWRA.
Ms Plant, who lives with her mother in Canvey Island, Essex, told i: “Scrapping the LCWRA category is probably one of the changes I am most concerned by. I’m in the LCWRA currently myself and I have been for a number of years.
“I also receive employment and support allowance (ESA), and being in the LCWRA means I don’t have to look for work or do any activities that may help me become employed in the future.
“The ESA and PIP assessments are done by health professionals, but if these changes come to pass, it will be work coaches – who are non-health professionals – that decide how much work-related activity I and other disabled people are expected to do.
“I am worried that these work coaches won’t have the training to do this, and will be set targets to meet from central government, which then they have to impose on disabled people.
“Some disabled people cannot work and need to be supported.”
A central pillar of the reforms announced last week is the elimination of the work capability assessment (WCA) – the test used to determine whether claimants qualify for LCWRA.
The Government said it wanted to focus on what work disability benefit claimants are able to do, as part of a wider campaign to boost employment across the economy.
The move was largely welcomed by disability campaigners, who say the WCA forces people who are too ill to return to work, and insists on repeated assessments – even of patients with long-term conditions.
Despite sharing these misgivings, Ms Plant said the LCRWRA status granted by the WCA at least gave her “certainty”, while she is yet to see how the PIP system will be implemented in its new form.
She said: “I was pleased and yet nervous that the work capability assessments are being scrapped. I have had to have these for my Employment and Support Allowance claim.
“Even before the assessment, meeting itself you have to fill out a form which itself is very intrusive. The assessments can be very anxiety provoking.
“Also, lots of conditions have better days and worse days, and what you can do 365 days a year is judged over an hour or a two.
“The wait can be quite long…some people disagree with their decision and have to challenge it.”
Experts have warned that the PIP system could overlook claimants who fail to meet rigid definitions of disability, such as those with short-term or invisible conditions.
It assessment focuses on whether an applicant’s condition is associated with higher living costs, rather than how their disability affects their capacity for work.
The Institute of Fiscal Studies, a think tank, has estimated that one million people could be forced into work and some 600,000 could lose an estimated £350 per month in support as a result of the change.
Ms Plant, who is a carer for her mother, said: “I have undergone a PIP assessment and like WCA they tend in my experience to be hit and miss depending upon the assessor, and their background.
“Barriers caused by less visible disabilities or disabilities that fluctuate are more difficult, as you as the person being assessed often have to remember to explicitly point them out, otherwise the assessor will assume you have no issues, which may not be true.
“Also, PIP assessments, like WCA, can feel like the assessor is trying to catch you out.”
Ms Plant said she hopes that the PIP criteria will be “expanded or changed to capture some of the people from the WCA that PIP currently misses out” before it becomes the “passport benefit” for the new UC health element.
The Government has said people will be financially protected during the transition to the new system, but it unclear what protections will be in place for those moving into it after it is implemented in the coming years.
In the White Paper published last week, the DWP acknowledged that some people eligible for disability benefits now would not get a PIP payment, and said: “As we develop our reform proposals, we will consider how disabled people and people with health conditions who need additional financial support may receive it.”
Cancer patients will reportedly be among those given protection from changes.