When does reform become dangerous? Over three years ago the Conservatives began to roll out personal independence payments (PIP) – in essence, the mandatory, mass re-testing of disabled and chronically ill people – and the answer is getting stark.
A report released today by Muscular Dystrophy UK is the latest piece of evidence to expose an administrative catastrophe: appointments cancelled at the last minute, lost applications, year-long delays. Two in five respondents report being sent to an assessment centre that wasn’t accessible for disabled people. That’s in order to be tested for a disability benefit.
Make it inside the building and the picture is as dire: widespread reports of assessors – employed by private firms hired by the Department for Work and Pensions – who showed no respect for disabled people, while some didn’t even understand the condition they were testing (one man, with muscular dystrophy, pointed out that the word “progressive” means “muscles don’t come back”).
The result of this chaos is anything from rent arrears and credit card debt to mental scars. One woman, with a muscle wasting disease, said that she developed panic attacks after her assessment. She is now under care of a mental health team and doesn’t leave her house.
That the government deliberately built PIP with tightened criteria – and is sitting by as the system descends into disarray – becomes grimmer still when you consider that this is being done to a benefit tied to other essential disability services.
Without PIP a disabled person can’t access anything from carer’s allowance to severe disability premium. If that isn’t enough, anyone who is rejected – or bumped down to the standard rate – is also barred from the Motability scheme for an accessible car or powered wheelchair.
Sarah, a nurse with progressive muscle wasting and weakness, is seven months’ pregnant – and has been forced to hand back her Motability car. The 29-year-old had been receiving the higher rate of disability living allowance (the predecessor to PIP), but after being reassessed she was knocked down to the standard rate – despite her condition deteriorating.
Sarah can’t take her fatigue medicine without affecting her pregnancy, and her disability means she is at risk of falling when she walks, and permanent damage. “That vehicle was a lifeline to me,” she says. “I’ve lost my independence.”
Last week Sarah was due at a tribunal to appeal against the decision, but found it cancelled with just two days’ notice – and no explanation. She’s been in hospital twice this weekend.
Will this be making many headlines? It took the resignation of Iain Duncan Smith and a budget hole of billions to get the mainstream media to shine a light on the disaster of PIP – or many politicians to find a conscience. One cut to the benefit is stopped. A new secretary of state is hired. And the news cycle moves on. The disabled can’t. For many, things are only getting worse.
Between 400 and 500 adapted cars, powered wheelchairs, and scooters are being taken away from disabled people every week. Independence gone – with a maximum of seven weeks to hand your lifeline back. As an insight into the logic, let alone empathy, in this system, that’s notably less time than it takes to go to appeal or even to get the results of mandatory reconsideration – meaning the DWP’s ruling can be overturned, but the disabled person’s car or wheelchair will already have been taken. (At the last count, 60% of appeals against PIP were successful).
Darran uses a wheelchair – and has a degenerative muscle wasting disease – but last year was downgraded on PIP and lost his car. In his own words, it left him “housebound and isolated”, and he scraped together the deposit for another accessible vehicle. The DWP later informed Darran that its decision had been “mistaken”, and his old car would be returned. “My £2,000 deposit is non-refundable,” he says. “I’ve lost that money.”
This is starting to look like a game with people’s lives. Take away benefits and the sick become destitute. Remove a car or wheelchair and disabled people become housebound. It’s happening right now – and what’s worse, most of the public won’t even know it.