Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “New disability benefit test ‘driven by cuts'” was written by Amelia Gentleman, for guardian.co.uk on Tuesday 12th July 2011 17.54 Europe/London

Proposals for a new medical assessment, designed to work out who is eligible for a reformed disability benefit, are flawed and could lead to vulnerable claimants losing payments, leading disability charities have told the government.

In a private meeting with disability minister Maria Miller, campaigners set out their concerns over the test for the new personal independence payment (PIP), with many organisations anxious that reform is being driven by a pledge to cut 20% from the cost of the benefit.

The new test will be piloted over the summer on around 1,000 volunteers who currently claim disability living allowance (DLA), which will be replaced by PIP when it is introduced in 2013.

Like DLA, the new benefit is designed to help pay some of the extra costs that disabled people face – higher electricity bills or increased transport costs, for example. It is not means-tested will be paid regardless of whether someone is in work or not. Government documents suggest that the new benefit will be targeted on claimants most in need, prompting concern about whether people with less severe disabilities will no longer be eligible.

Scope, the charity that campaigns for people with cerebral palsy, argues that the medical test will reveal little about the extra costs confronting claimants. Richard Hawkes, chief executive of Scope, said: “DLA needs to be reformed – but the highly medical assessment proposed by the government will produce a ‘guesstimate’ that won’t tell you anything about how much more it costs a disabled person to live their lives.”

“PIP is in danger of being a poorly-targeted payment, which will see many disabled people, especially those with less complex impairments but high disability-related costs, losing out on vital financial support,” he said.

The government last year promised to reduce working age expenditure on this benefit by 20% on the forecast expenditure for 2015/16, triggering suspicion among campaigners that the changes are motivated by the need to cut costs rather than to improve the way the benefit is distributed.

“How can you decide that [a reform] is going to save 20% in advance? I would think that this is driven by cost reductions, and that they have come up with a way of assessing people that will result in the cost savings they want to make,” Hawkes said. He was not at the meeting, but the charity was represented by a colleague.

The Disability Alliance has calculated that as many as 600,000 people currently eligible for the lower rate of the benefit (around £19 a week) could find themselves no longer eligible if the new benefit is tilted towards helping those most in need, but the Department for Work and Pensions dismissed this calculation as “entirely speculative”.

“It is too soon to say how many people will be affected by the introduction of PIP, as we are still developing the assessment which will determine entitlement to the benefit,” the DWP said in a statement.

Neil Coyle, the Disability Alliance’s director of policy, said that the government was “ignoring the potential devastating impact on their families”.

“Our concern is that disabled people may experience significant hardship, exclusion and ill-health as a direct result of DLA cuts. But these concerns have gone unanswered in a year of discussion with DWP,” he said.

Tom Pollard, policy officer with the mental health charity, Mind, said there was “clearly a raising of the threshold” in the new test. “They have been talking about focusing the payments on people with the greatest need. We are concerned that a lot of people who receive the low-rate DLA will find that they are not eligible for the new benefit and that will have a significant impact on their wellbeing and their finances.”

A DWP impact assessment published by the government earlier this year stated that it was “likely that some disabled people with lesser barriers to leading independent lives will receive reduced support … in line with the policy aim to focus support on those with greatest barriers to leading full and active lives.”

“There is no evidence that some disabled people no longer need DLA; there should be greater clarity from government on where they believe the current abuse or wastage is within the system or risk cutting support for people in genuine need,” a Mencap document states.

Scope recommends that the government should take other, non-medical, factors into account when it assesses people’s needs, such as claimants’ housing conditions, their ability to use public transport and the availability of family and friends to help them.

Miller said reform was vital because the current system had no inbuilt way to regularly reassess people receiving DLA.

“This means there is no way of knowing for thousands of people on DLA if their condition has improved, or if it is worse and they actually need more support. Little wonder there are £600m of overpayments and £190m of underpayments,” she said.

“That is why we are introducing the personal independence payment to make sure that disabled people who need extra help and support will get it, and ensure they can rely on it for years to come.”

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