Disabled people should not feel as though they are being “put on trial” for claiming state benefits, Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd has said.
In a keynote speech to the disability charity Scope, Ms Rudd said she wanted to “change the landscape” for disabled people in Britain as she set out a series of reforms to the benefit system.
The corporate empire’s benefit testing firm will carry out ‘Work Capability Assessments’ for ESA payments for a further 16 months to July 2021.
The extension – the second since the contract began in 2014 – will allow the firm to rake in millions of pounds more taxpayers’ money from the tests.
But ministers insist it is a temporary measure to ensure “stability” ahead of a huge shake-up of disability benefit tests to help claimants.
Two separate tests will be merged into “one unified, integrated service” from 2021, Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd announced.
The tests are Work Capability Assessment for Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) or Universal Credit – run by a subsidiary firm of Maximus called Centre for Health and Disability Assessments Ltd – and separate assessments for Personal Independence Payments (PIP), run by Capita and an arm of Atos.
Today’s extension comes despite more than two-thirds of appeal tribunals (68%) overturning fit-for-work tests last year.
Yet confirming the contract extension, Ms Rudd argued it would pave the way for “a more joined-up claimant experience” in future.
She added: “This will allow for a safe and stable service now, and as we transition to the new integrated service.”
The announcement came ahead of a wide-ranging speech by Ms Rudd vowing to improve the disability benefit system after years of warnings it is throwing people into destitution.
She admitted disabled people feel “put on trial” by the DWP process and “we need to do more” to “close the gap” between intentions and reality.
She said the enormous rate of appeals ruling against the government – 72% for PIP last summer – is “of particular concern” and the number is “too high”.
And she signalled a major break from the language of the past, when ex-PM David Cameron talked of “the welfare scrounger” in 2010 and ex-Chancellor George Osborne talked of “the closed blinds of their next-door neighbour sleeping off a life on benefits ” in 2012.
She also announced;
-270,000 disabled PIP claimants will no longer be regularly re-assessed;
-PIP and Universal Credit claimants could eventually receive a single assessment to “capture all the information required in one appointment”;
-Ministers are “taking forward” moves to soften the benefit sanctions regime for some claimants;
-Ministers are “exploring” whether to reform the internal appeal system, known as mandatory reconsideration, in a bid to make decisions more accurate;
-A commitment to see 1million more disabled people in work in the decade to 2027 could be made more ambitious;
-Long-planned reforms to Statutory Sick Pay will finally be consulted on “shortly”;
-A new piece of research will be run to “better understand claimants’ experiences of the benefit system”.
“This is only the start. We can, and should, go further,” Ms Rudd said.
But Marsha De Cordova, Shadow Minister for Disabled People, said Ms Rudd’s statement was “vague on detail and raises significant questions” – and demanded an urgent Commons debate.
Maximus’ health assessments arm, Atos’ Independent Assessment Services (IAS) and Capita have been paid hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayer cash for carrying out ESA and PIP assessments.
Yet the majority of full appeals overturn the original decision – including in more than 160,000 tribunals for PIP since it launched in 2013.
Despite the figures, last year the Capita and Atos contracts for PIP tests were extended for the second time to July 2021.
Today Ms Rudd said Maximus’ contract would be extended in a way that “aligned” it to the duration of the PIP contracts.
Maximus’ subsidiary firm Centre for Health and Disability Assessments Ltd previously had its contract – due to expire on 28 February 2018 – extended to 29 February 2020.
She said in a written statement to MPs: “I have established the Health Transformation Programme to undertake the significant task of transitioning the currently separate Work Capability Assessment (WCA) for Employment and Support Allowance and Universal Credit (UC), and the PIP assessment services into one unified, integrated service from 2021.
“To support this, we are developing a single digital platform.
“An integrated approach will allow for a more joined-up claimant experience across these benefits, which takes account of the multiple interactions an individual may have with DWP.
“We hope that developing our own digital platform will also enable a greater range of assessment providers to compete to help us deliver this important service in the future.
“To enable an integrated service, we are extending the contract for the Health and Disability Assessment Service (HDAS), which includes the delivery of the WCA, and aligning it to the duration of the extended PIP contracts.
“This will allow for a safe and stable service now, and as we transition to the new integrated service.”
Charities last night welcomed reforms to the disability benefits system.
But they urged Ms Rudd to go further – and warned combining two very different tests was an uphill challenge.
Genevieve Edwards of the MS Society warned neither of the tests reflect the reality of MS and “bringing them together won’t make things better.”
She added: “It’s like harnessing two donkeys to a farm cart and expecting it to transform into a race chariot.”
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