Yesterday the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Amber Rudd, announced that the Department are looking to combine the assessment for Personal Independence Payment (PIP) and the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) that takes place under Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) and Universal Credit into one.
On the face of it, this doesn’t seem like a bad idea. People claiming both benefits have told us that the application processes for both are often long, very stressful and leave them feeling anxious. Combining the two into one assessment would arguably reduce the amount of stress that claimants have to go through, right?
Whilst reducing the amount of stress and anxiety that benefit claim processes cause claimants is welcomed, there are still a number of wider concerns about this announcement.
What are the differences between PIP and the WCA?
A good starting point to understand why this move is cause for such concern is to look at exactly what both benefits are for. PIP is a disability benefit designed to help with the additional costs of living with a disability or long term health condition, and what you earn doesn’t affect how much PIP you might be entitled to. On the other hand, the WCA under ESA and Universal Credit is for a benefit you can claim if you are not deemed fit enough to work because you have a disability or long term health condition, and is meant to replace some of the income you would have earnt in work. PIP and ESA / Universal Credit are therefore fundamentally different benefits, for different purposes.
Why does this make today’s announcement so concerning?
The biggest concern about this announcement is that, in linking the two assessments together, it also appears to link disability and unemployment. The Work Capability Assessment (WCA) tests how fit you are for work, whereas the PIP assessment tests how much your disability affects your ability to care for yourself and get about. PIP is deliberately separate from employment because you can receive PIP whether or not you are working.
In linking the assessment, we risk having a system that presumes you are not entitled to a PIP award if you are deemed fit for work. We know though that many disabled people are able to, and want to work, but are still affected by additional costs of living with a long term disability or health condition. This link risks undermining the independence of PIP from other income related benefits.
What about the practicalities of this?
Aside from this potentially damaging link, there are also many practical concerns that we have in relation to this reform.
Firstly, the medical evidence, such as GP letters and statements from carers, that is collected is slightly different for each benefit, which is a challenge in itself. We know that many people struggle to get the right evidence on time, and this is one of the main reasons that both awards get refused. Taking both assessments together means that claimants who may need to claim both also risk losing both benefits at the same time, meaning a double financial hit at once. This will also have the effect of increasing the stress and anxiety that people claiming both benefits might be subject to because the stakes are suddenly a lot higher.
Secondly, what shape the assessment will take is a cause for concern. We know that the WCA and the PIP assessment test for entirely different things, and how a medical assessor will understand and test for these different aspects in one assessment is also yet to be seen.
This is even more of a concern given that so many cases in PIP and ESA are still going to tribunal. Currently 4% of all PIP cases are being overturned, and we see similar numbers for people who have undertaken the WCA too. This suggests that there are still significant problems with the current assessment processes that need to be fixed.
What does this mean for people with complex disabilities?
Whilst this announcement does show awareness from the Department for Work and Pensions that something needs to be done about the application processes for both these benefits, it is disappointing that they have not looked to improve the assessments first before announcing further structural change. This could risk damaging the support that many people with complex disabilities are reliant on in order to live their lives.
As ever though, the devil is in the detail and it will be vital to ensure that disabled people remain at the heart of this structural reform, and the more streamlined process that the Department are aiming for is achieved. Welfare benefits need to work for people with complex disabilities and we will continue to campaign to ensure that this announcement doesn’t negatively impact the people it is meant to support.
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