From her office in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), Maria Miller is overseeing a massive, radical reform of the state support available for disabled people.
As the true scale of the reform emerges, disability campaigners are reporting high levels of unease and anger about the looming transformation, and protests are erupting across the country, but, Miller, minister for disabled people is remarkably sanguine.
“The current system is not perfect, and I am not willing to accept a system that is so clearly flawed when we are dealing with the most vulnerable people in society,” she says.
From April, incapacity benefit is being replaced with employment support allowance, and all claimants will have to undergo a new assessment to check that they are eligible for it. A preliminary rollout suggests that it is harder to qualify for the new benefit, and that more people are being pushed on to jobseeker’s allowance, a lower benefit. Simultaneously, disability living allowance (DLA) is being wound down, and replaced by a new benefit, the personal independence payment. During this reform, the government will trim a fifth from the cost of the benefit.
Meanwhile, many local authorities are reassessing service users, to see whether their needs are “critical”, “substantial” or “moderate”, as they reallocate reduced services to those in most need. It is a time of profound change, and charities are working overtime to highlight the consequences of the proposals, both to MPs and the general public.
Miller says she believes that the rising unease will settle once the full details of the proposed changes become clear and is convinced that much of the anger has been triggered by a failure to understand the government’s objectives.
“I often hear concerns that are based on a lack of detailed information of what we are talking about in terms of our reforms. People need to get the facts rather than speculation,” she says. “The anxiety can often be based on the fact that we are dealing with very complex benefits. The government is going to reform and simplify the whole system.”
Judging by the powerful messages posted to Miller during an online questions and answer session on the Guardian website last week, most concerns about the reforms appear not to be based on lack of information but on the very precise knowledge of the system that people who rely on benefits have to acquire.
The government message that reform is about modernising the system is not widely accepted. If there is confusion, for many it lies in uncertainty over whether the reforms are about saving money or about improving support for the vulnerable, and the tone of the government’s statements on this fluctuate, depending on the audience.
The reformed system will mean that the government spends 20% less than forecast on DLA by 2015/16, keeping spending at 2009/10 levels of just under £12bn. The chancellor, George Osborne, announced the changes as a money-saving measure in the budget last year. It is this motivation that has so alarmed disability groups, who wonder how many of those people who are receiving the benefit will stop receiving it, once new eligibility tests are introduced.
Miller is keen to emphasise that reform is about improving the way that the benefit is delivered, but is less willing to discuss the cost-saving aspects of the change.
“Disabled people are disproportionately reliant upon benefits and state support and therefore any change that we are talking about will create interest and attract the attention of disabled people and disabled people’s organisation. But the very clear objective of the government is that we are supporting disabled people to live more independent lives,” she says.
DLA was created as a non-means-tested benefit that contributed to the extra costs incurred by disabled people; its replacement, the personal independence payment, will continue to provide cash support to help overcome the barriers that prevent disabled people from participating fully in everyday life, but – consultation documents stress – it will be “delivered in a fairer, more consistent and sustainable manner”.
Miller says that “50% of people receiving DLA have never been required to submit any independent evidence of their need. Significant numbers of people have had no contact with the department since their awards were made almost 20 years ago and we have no way of knowing if their need of support has increased or not”. There will be a new assessment process, designed to determine who really needs the support, and although the details are still be consulted on, preliminary documents suggest that there it will be available to fewer, needier people.
“This is an opportunity to drag that benefit into the 21st century, giving us an opportunity to recognise disabled people’s issues as they are today, rather than as they were 20 years ago, when views on disability were very very different,” she says.
But is it driven by a need to cut costs?
“The DLA reform absolutely is about making sure that the benefit is working properly. At the moment it’s not working properly. My priority is to get the benefit right, to get the assessment right, to make sure it is supporting the disabled people who have the most difficulty living independent lives.”
DWP press releases highlight how new assessment processes are finding more people fit to work – the subtext being that they were wrongly claiming the benefit previously, rather than that the eligibility for the benefit has been tightened.
The minister is anxious to avoid the debate over whether people have been wrongly, fraudulently claiming disability benefits, and touches on the subject only obliquely, commenting: “This is about making sure that the more than £40bn a year the government spends in support of disabled people is used most effectively in the way that disabled people would want us to. Nobody is benefited by having a system that can be brought into disrepute.”
But she does stress that the process of reform is still at preliminary stage, with consultation ending on Friday. She told Guardian readers online last week: “My mother is a disabled person and lives with me and I therefore have some insight into the very real challenges that both disabled people and their carers face on a day-to-day basis.”
Miller says she is meeting all the charity leaders, and learning from constituents with disabilities to understand “the implications of a policy change in practice rather than in theory”.
The most controversial element of the reform of DLA to date, has been the announcement of the abolition of the “mobility component” for those living in residential homes. Disability charities were so surprised at the decision that they have questioned whether ministers fully understood the significance of the change they were making. They are lobbying hard to educate MPs, explaining that, for the disabled people who receive it, the allowance represents the difference between being trapped inside their care home or having a transport subsidy that allows them to travel to see friends and family and participate in society.
Asked whether it was likely that the government will rethink this proposal, Miller says she is still consulting on it, but reiterates the justification that the money is likely to be removed because it overlaps with councils’ responsibilities to fund transport. This answer is unlikely to comfort families with relatives in care homes, who point out that councils are too strapped for cash to provide the funding.
“I can offer absolute reassurance to disabled people living in care homes and their families that this government will not remove their ability to get out and about,” she says. “Care homes have very clear responsibilities about providing free transport for residents. Unfortunately, we have a situation where that day-to-day support is not being offered by care homes free of charge.”
Status Married, with three children.
Education Brynteg comprehensive school, Bridgend; London School of Economics (BSc economics).
Career 2010-present: parliamentary under secretary of state (disabled people), Department for Work and Pensions; 2006-10: shadow minister for family; 2005: elected MP for Basingstoke; 1999-2003: company director, The Rowland Company; 1994-99: company director, Grey Advertising; 1990-94: marketing manager, Texaco; 1985-90: advertising executive, Grey Advertising.
Public life 2005-06: member, trade and industry select committee; 2005-10: vice-chair, all-party advertising group; 2006-10: chair, all-party gas safety group.
Interests Family, spending time with her children, local history.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010