DWP Ministers once more find themselves making a virtue out of a necessity as they announced on Saturday that the roll out of Personal Independence Payment would be slower than planned. Of course it is better to do things properly even if that means more slowly, but this stands in sharp contrast to the history of this piece of 'welfare reform'.
A short history of PIP
Disability Living Allowance is a non-means tested benefit that helps people with the additional costs that arise from disabilities. Back in December 2010 George Osborne committed to cutting £2 billion from the DLA budget in his first Spending Review, and a consultation document was quickly rushed out, proposing DLA be replaced with an entirely new benefit - Personal Independence Payment, or PIP.
Back then things were so urgent that the period within which people could respond was shorter than the Government's own guidelines, and fell over the Christmas holiday. This could have been an attempt to realise these savings as soon as possible, or to present the new Coalition Government as 'dynamic'. Either way, many of those responding questioned whether it was necessary to introduce a new benefit in the first place.
Initially Ministers intended to start the roll out to new claimants in April 2013, with the migration of all existing DLA claimants to be completed by April 2016. At a Work and Pensions Select Committee meeting with the then Disabilities Minister Esther McVey in 2012, Dame Anne Begg queried the practicality of the timetable, pointing out that this implied carrying out more assessments per month than were happening with the ongoing migration of people from Incapacity Benefit (IB) to Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), which was proving difficult in itself.
Unsurprisingly Esther McVey came to the Commons a few months later in December 2012 to announce that the timetable had been revised. New claims would start as planned in April 2013, but only those DLA claimants whose existing time limited award came to an end or who reported a change in circumstances would be reassessed before spring 2015, with the end date now 2017.
As the details of PIP were emerging the DWP was at pains, given the growing criticism of the assessment used in ESA claims, to argue that the PIP assessments would be very different, and that lessons had been learned. Indeed so anxious was she to stress this that Esther McVey began talking about these assessments as a 'conversation' and said each would take as long as it needed.
Exactly how this could be reconciled with the overall timetable was never made clear, nor how this would work in practice, since it could be highly unsatisfactory if claimants were kept waiting for a long time while earlier assessments overran. And I was sceptical about how it fitted with a contractual arrangement which presumably paid the companies involved for a certain number of assessments per week or even day. The need for the contractors to deliver their obligations and still make a profit made me suspect that Ministers' descriptions of how assessments would take place was something of a fantasy.
What's going on?
So now we are told that assessments are taking longer than expected and the scheme would be phased in more gradually. So maybe I was too cynical? Maybe there really is an attempt to do a more in depth and relaxed assessment?
More prosaically it may simply be that the contractors are not coping. PIP assessments have been divided between Atos and Capita. Atos of course is still the sole contractor for ESA assessments. In July the DWP announced that they were having to retrain many Atos employees, and that additional contractors would be sought from early 2014.
Another sign of the 'strain' has been the increasing number of people being migrated from IB to ESA who are being assessed on paper evidence only. For some this can be a relief, but it has led a number of incorrect results due to the limited nature of the paper evidence requested. One irony is that, to justify changing from DLA to PIP, Ministers lambasted the previous system for doing paper assessments, and not seeing people face to face!
Last week I visited a local project supporting people with mental health problems. They have only had a few people making PIP applications so far, but were already noting that claims were taking time to be processed. One early claim, lodged in early July, had been given a date for a face to face assessment of October 25th. Before the DWP announcement I had been thinking that things were very quiet on the PIP front. Perhaps all was better than feared for claimants, but the silence is probably down to very few claims having been completed.
The impact on people
Throughout this process people with illnesses and disabilities have been worrying about what would happen to them. The change was initially introduced as a cuts measure. All the language about people getting DLA too easily and being abandoned to benefit dependency increased these worries. The insistence that everyone would have to go through a face to face reassessment inevitably increased anxiety.
Now it turns out that people have been worrying too soon. Campaigners and support groups have been accused by Ministers of 'frightening' people. But the mood music of haste and urgency to reduce spending was set at the outset by the Government. Told that too many people were now in receipt of DLA, it is not surprising that people worried that they might be counted among the 'too many'.
Uncertainty remains. Over the coming months many people's existing time limited DLA awards will be coming to an end. Will their awards be extended? If so for how long? Or will they have to go through a DLA reassessment? But that too will be time consuming and carried out by the same people who are struggling to cope with the volume of assessments.
Nor is this irrelevant to the 'taxpayers' Ministers love to counterpose against 'claimants' (ignoring the fact that claimants pay tax too). A slower roll out must mean postponed savings - so how will the shortfall on projected savings be met? More cuts somewhere else, or more borrowing?
What can be done?
There are things which could be done if the Government would stop insisting that all is going to plan. Changes to the testing for ESA would reduce the pressure on assessors as well as resetting the timetable for PIP:
- An urgent review of the frequency of repeat ESA assessments should be undertaken. There are still examples of people being called in annually even when their conditions are clearly unlikely to change. This would free up time for PIP, and reduce stress for claimants.
- The advice to people making initial claims for both PIP and ESA should be improved to ensure that applicants send in as much information as they have to hand.
- Assessors should be required to seek medical information at the outset, again for both benefits. This would reduce the need for face to face assessments without risking poorer decisions. We know this doesn't happen at present, meaning that the first time many people have their additional medical information looked at is their appeal.
- Pending the completion of the testing of the proposed new ESA descriptors for mental health and fluctuating conditions, the further migration of IB claimants in these categories should be paused, as several charities have suggested.
- The rollout of PIP should be reset to to ensure that there is sufficient capacity - even if this means re-tendering or investigating the capacity of the NHS as a contractor. This would also give time for realistic review of why assessments are taking longer than expected. A formal 'reset' would reduce anxiety for claimants who are left not knowing when they will be asked to go through a PIP assessment.