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Baroness Thomas: 'Disabled people are having their independence snatched away'

February 6, 2016 4:42 PM
By Baroness Thomas in Politics Home

Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Thomas writes that new DWP disability assessments might well deprive people of their independence and increase, not decrease, the unemployment rate for the disabled.

How has this most unfair situation come about? The Government abolished the old Disability Living Allowance for new disabled claimants a few years ago by gradually bringing in Personal Independence Payments and a new assessment process to make the test "fairer". The old test was largely a paper-based system, whereas the test for PIP is carried out by a "healthcare professional", with points being scored according to a formula agreed by Parliament.

A few months after Parliament passed that particular Welfare Reform Act, a statutory instrument was published with the PIP scoring system. The test for 'enhanced rate mobility' which entitles a claimant to a leased Motability car was entirely unexpected, as the DWP had changed the distance at the very last moment. Instead of allowing a claimant to be able to walk 'no more than 50 metres' before being eligible for the 12 points needed for the enhanced rate mobility payment - and thus a Motability car - the new test was 'no more than 20 metres, aided or unaided'. There was an almost immediate outcry from disability organisations and those of us who speak in Parliament on welfare and disability issues, with many of us questioning Ministers in both Houses about the change. They got into an almighty tangle, trying to respond to these questions, all giving different rationales for the change. And then the DWP realised they hadn't consulted on the change which meant they would almost certainly have lost a judicial review in the courts at that point. So they carried out a quick consultation. The result was an overwhelming vote of no confidence in the new PIP test with over a thousand submissions in about three weeks. But judicial review, unfortunately, is only concerned with process, not policy, so the test remained.

The one thing Liberal Democrats were able to do to mitigate the situation was to insist that the guidance to healthcare professionals be made statutory. So a new statutory instrument was introduced saying that the walking test had to be done safely, to a reasonable standard, repeatedly and in an acceptable time period. If these four criteria were not satisfied, then the claimant was entitled to the enhanced rate mobility. Do I think healthcare professionals carry out the law by asking these questions? If the answer is yes, why are there so many successful PIP appeals - 47% or thereabouts?

I have continued to press Ministers about the test because, being a Motability car user myself, I cannot bear to think of disabled people having their independence snatched away, not because they are better, or undeserving of help with the right car but because the test was made much harder. Will taking away a disabled person's own car really help with halving the unemployment rate for disabled people - the Government's laudable aim?

The time has come to change the PIP 'Moving Around' assessment to stop this injustice going any further.

Baroness Thomas of Winchester is a Lib Dem peer