Work and Pensions Secretary Damian Green was dragged into the House of Commons to answer an urgent question on why he is narrowing the assessment criteria for the Personal Independence Payment to avoid paying claimants the amounts demanded by the courts.
His responses – and the debate that followed, revealed the depths of depravity into which the Conservative Party has willingly dived in its quiet war of extermination against anybody who is not able-bodied.
“Recent legal judgments have interpreted the assessment criteria for PIP in ways that are different from what was originally intended by the Coalition Government,” he started, as if that made his intention reasonable.
“We are therefore now making amendments to clarify the criteria used to decide how much benefit claimants receive in order to restore the original aim of the policy previously agreed by Parliament, which followed extensive consultation.” Meaning: “The original aim of the criteria was to deprive vulnerable claimants of the benefit. Because the courts have tried to protect those people, we have to revise those criteria in public – and it is embarrassing, so we are trying to justify it with an excuse.”
For the Labour Party, Stephen Timms pointed out that the “cuts” to PIP were announced without warning in a written statement published last Thursday. Why so little notice, with no opportunity for Parliamentary scrutiny? Was it true that people with schizophrenia, learning disability, autism and dementia will be among those worst affected by the cuts? Did the intention to take away benefit money assigned by the courts to people whose mobility impairments are caused by “psychological distress” not contradict Theresa May’s commitment to treat mental health on a par with physical health?
Mr Green responded, rather predictably, with lies and distortions: “Nobody is losing money compared with what they were originally awarded by the DWP,” he said. But they are losing money that the courts ruled was due to them. The DWP made a “huge effort” to let people know that this was happening – by leaving messages with the Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, Debbie Abrahams and the chairman of the Work and Pensions Committee, Frank Field. That was not what he had been asked, which was why there had been so little notice and no chance for discussion. And Mr Green said PIP is not awarded for conditions but for the difficulties arising from them – an arbitrary criterion meaning different assessors may deny benefit to some claimants, even though others with the same condition are in receipt.
Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Debbie Abrahams stepped in to point out that Mr Green was overturning two tribunal rulings that allow chronic “psychological distress” to be included in the PIP assessment. Why did he not use his legal powers to challenge those rulings in the courts?
She said he was not only undermining the judicial process, but also reducing eligibility for PIP support for more than 164,000 people with debilitating mental health conditions, including those who are unable to leave their own homes. What discussions had Mr Green had with disabled people’s organisations ahead of bringing forward these regulations? What is his assessment of the effects on the health and wellbeing of the people affected by the cuts? Given that disabled people are twice as likely to live in poverty as non-disabled people as a result of the extra costs they face, how many disabled people will be driven into debt or face poverty as a result? What is the cumulative effect of these cuts along with the Employment and Support Allowance work-related activity group cuts that are due to come into effect in April, which will affect 500,000 disabled people? And why is the Government contradicting its earlier argument that “psychological distress” should be included in PIP assessments? Why will the government not honour its commitment to parity of esteem for mental and physical health?
Mr Green’s response defied belief. “We are appealing the judgments, but because of the lack of clarity that would be caused by leaving the current regulations in limbo following the upper tribunal’s decisions, it is better to move quickly.” Meaning: No matter what the result of the appeal, the Tories will have changed the rules to make the court’s decision immaterial. “Over two-thirds of PIP recipients with a mental health condition get the enhanced rate daily living component, compared with just 22 per cent who used to receive the highest rate of DLA care.” But how many actually need the extra cash? And he reiterated his claim that he is not cutting benefit for claimants. He is – it’s still a cut, even if they haven’t received it.
Justin Tomlinson, the Parliamentary under-Secretary for Disabled People who allegedly misled Parliament over the number of mobility cars the government has taken from disabled people, claiming he did not know more than 14,000 had been taken away by February 25, even though the figure had been reported by the BBC on February 3 (Mr Tomlinson was quoted in the piece), spoke next.
He suggested that any increase in support for those with long-term health conditions and disabilities should be done in conjunction with charities and stakeholders, rather than on an ad hoc basis dictated by the courts. These are fine words from a man whose department does not appear to have consulted Motability before changing the criteria under which its cars are awarded to people with disabilities.
There was a chorus of dissent from the Opposition benches. Corrie Wilson pointed out that the changes send a “dangerous message” to the public that people with mental ill-health are “less worthy” of support.
Angela Eagle pointed out that people with long-term disabilities are being caused “massive amounts of distress” at having to wait “a very long time” for PIP assessments. “They feel utter despair at having to have anything to do with it,” she said – an indication that people in mental ill-health are endangered by the system imposed by Mr Green’s government.
Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh asked why people who are unable to leave their homes due to physical disabilities should be entitled to PIP, but not those who cannot leave their homes because of a mental disability. Mr Green responded by referring to the arbitrary conditions of each assessment – “They will both be entitled to PIP at the level that will be assessed”.
Tom Brake pointed out that the Liberal Democrats were trying to force a debate on the changes, with support from the Leader of the Opposition.
Madeleine Moon pointed out the the charity Mind says the changes could prevent people from getting to health or job appointments and from getting out to pay for fuel and heating, take their children to school or see friends and families—things essential for their daily lives and recovery.
Richard Burden said the disability benefits system has never been sufficiently sensitive or flexible, and the court ruling was a step towards making the system better. He said by rushing out new regulations, Mr Green would make people with mental health problems and illnesses more anxious and unfairly treated?
Nick Thomas-Symonds pointed out that many of his constituents had to go through the mandatory reconsideration process, and then to tribunal, to be awarded PIP at the correct level. To his shame, Mr Green defended the government by saying only six per cent of PIP judgements are appealed. This is because too many claimants become destitute before the mandatory reconsideration process concludes, a consequence intended by the Conservative Government when it introduced MR.
Alison Thewliss pointed out that PIP is not better for people with mental health conditions, raising the case of a constituent with bipolar disorder who needs continual supervision. The procedure is not recognised by PIP, so the constituent has lost not only that benefit but also working tax credit – and must now consider quitting work. Mr Green’s changes – and PIP in general – are no help to people in that situation and he had no answer.
Jeff Smith also mentioned an individual case – a man whose long-term mental health issues meant he simply could not get out to work, yet PIP was refused for him. He asked: “How can the Government possibly claim to want parity of esteem for mental health when they are trying to enshrine disparity as a result of this change?” No answer.
The whole discussion was a farce.
Mr Green had no health grounds on which to justify his changes – it was clear that the only reason for introducing them was financial.
Nor could he demonstrate any need for the haste with which they were being introduced or the lack of consultation – in fact, one of his fellow Conservatives undermined him by suggesting that changes to support for those with mental health conditions should be made in consultation with charities and stakeholders.
But the government is still ploughing on with its intention to deprive the mentally-ill of money the courts had determined they needed in order to live.
Let us hope the Liberal Democrats and Labour are successful in killing the changes.
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